Art by Shira Inbar

The Least Important Election of a Lifetime

The presidential campaigns are a rerun—and audiences are tuned out.

June 10, 2024

Early in the morning at the Trial of the Century™, I was standing in line with a few dozen members of the general public, hoping to snag a seat inside the New York City courtroom where Donald Trump faced the first of his many criminal charges. The line was quiet and orderly. A woman close to the front—she’d been here before, she wanted us to know—walked up and down, counting. We heard there was room for around thirty-five people to get in; she tallied forty-eight. There were two young children, an elderly person with a walker. A man in a cowboy hat and fringed leather jacket was holding a yellow legal pad filled with notes. Beside me, a father and son—a sophomore at Stuyvesant High—took some time off from spring break to witness a former president being tried for a crime. “It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime things,” the son said. Besides, he added, “we already live near here.” Farther back was a man who had come to town to see Billy Joel in concert the night before. “I’m a little hungover,” he confided. “Honestly, I thought there’d be more people here.”

It was strangely quiet. The park next to us, where the week prior a man lit himself on fire in front of dozens of onlookers—he was protesting something completely unrelated to the trial—was virtually empty. Half an hour earlier, I’d watched as three Secret Service agents roused a man who was sleeping on the ground—checking, I suppose, to make sure he wasn’t hiding weapons or explosives under his blanket. He was now slumped on a nearby bench, looking irritated for having been woken up.

Where the heck was everyone? Six months into 2024, it’s become clear that this will not be an enthusiastic political season—for voters or for the media. Television audiences were steeply down for the primaries, part of what Semafor has called the “collapsing US political-media-industrial complex.” President Joe Biden faced no meaningful party opposition; so far this year, he has barely campaigned. Trump has made more of a showing but never bothered to participate in a debate with his Republican challengers. Many voters, sensing an inevitable repeat of the cast, themes, and arguments of 2020, have bailed. In April, NBC reported that just 64 percent of registered voters polled said they had a high level of interest in the race, down from 77 percent in 2020. General engagement in the election has hit its lowest point in nearly two decades.

Trump’s first criminal trial—and his eventual conviction on all thirty-four counts—had its moments, including on the day Stormy Daniels, the former porn star, took the stand. But overall, ratings this year have underperformed what news executives are accustomed to in the lead-up to an election. “The overarching emotion among voters is apathy and even burnout,” said Brian Stelter, the journalist and close observer of the American political and media landscape, who occasionally reported for CNN from outside the courthouse. “We can see and measure that sense of exhaustion indirectly through all sorts of yardsticks: traffic to news sites, TV ratings, all these data points that suggest the American electorate is fed up and mostly tuned out.”

Six in ten American adults say they are worn out by coverage of the campaign and candidates.

As time goes on, voters don’t just pay less attention, they see less meaning in major political events. A poll in April found that only 5 percent of Americans consider the siege of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, to be the most memorable part of Trump’s presidency. (Four percent said it was the pandemic; nearly a quarter of hands raised for the “economy,” whatever that means.) When it comes to the cases against Trump—beyond New York, he faces criminal charges in Georgia state court and in US District Court in DC and Florida—polling by the New York Times shows that as the proceedings drag on, voters become less likely to think that Trump did anything so wrong in the first place. “People are—forget fatigued, they’ve got their own opinions about it all already,” Steve Krakauer, a longtime TV producer and journalist who now runs Megyn Kelly’s digital show, told me. “This is a rerun of 2020, so even if you had enormously popular candidates that happened to be running against each other again,” he added, “it’s never as fun as the first time.”

Across the spectrum, news outlets are feeling the pain, even on specialized shows such as Krakauer’s, with built-in audiences of partisan political junkies. Conservative news websites have seen their audiences plummet; political fractures and dimming philanthropic enthusiasm have challenged sites on the left. “Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, is sitting in a courtroom facing felony charges, every day, and everyone’s like…‘Eh,’” Jon Favreau, the former speechwriter for Barack Obama, remarked on his podcast, Pod Save America. “There is something weird going on,” his cohost Dan Pfeiffer replied.

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“The segments we do on Trump or the election tend to underperform the average segment,” Ryan Grim, The Intercept’s DC bureau chief and cohost of Counter Points, a digital news show, told me. “I think there’s a collective kind of denial going on, like, There’s no way that we have to confront this election again. You can’t possibly be serious.” Grim compared the attitude of his audience to the 2022 Bo Burnham song “Joe Biden,” which includes the incredulous lyric “They’re really gonna make me vote for Joe Biden?” “It’s perfect,” Grim said. “There’s zero enthusiasm.”

Back at the line to get into the Trump trial, a court officer arrived, holding small green slips of paper. He handed them to everyone who made the cut, and stopped about a dozen people short of us at the end. “That’s it for now,” he said, and offered an apologetic smile. From behind, I heard the man from out of town sigh, accepting his fate. “Honestly,” he said, “I really just came to see Billy Joel.”

The question facing the political press today is whether the public’s apathy is a problem of circumstance—a uniquely disliked set of candidates, a rare presidential rerun—or if something more fundamental, and therefore worrisome, is going on. Surveys show that Americans aren’t just checking out from the election—they’re tuning out all news. In 2016, Pew found that 51 percent of American adults followed the news all or most of the time. By 2022, that was down to 38 percent. The same year, the Knight Foundation reported that Americans’ attention to national news was the lowest it had been since 2018.

The term for people who shun current events is “news avoiders,” and their ranks are swelling. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which has tracked people who say they avoid the news, puts the turning point at the arrival of COVID. In 2017, 29 percent of respondents told Reuters that they often or sometimes avoided the news; by last year, it was up to 36 percent. A new Pew report found that about six in ten American adults say they are worn out by coverage of the campaign and candidates. Another Pew study found that some 70 percent of people who avoid the news say that the news just generally wears them down.

Benjamin Toff—a former journalist, now a professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota—has been talking to the news-fatigued for years. In December, he published Avoiding the News with Ruth Palmer and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, which looks closely at people who avoid the news entirely—as much as 10 percent of the public, by one estimate. If that seems a small segment of society, it’s about the same as the portion of people who say they follow the news avidly—perhaps even more. “The percentage of people who pay for a digital subscription to The Atlantic or The New Yorker or the New York Times is smaller than the percentage of consistent news avoiders,” Toff told me. “If the belief is that news is being made for everyone, that’s a distorted notion, because it’s really largely being consumed by a small segment—and a smaller and smaller segment, as we’ve seen—of the public.” The book examines some of the reasons why people avoid the news—they struggle to determine which sources to trust, the information they find doesn’t provide direct answers to their questions, they have trouble evaluating coverage. “They see it as a source of conflict and tension,” Toff told me. “And they see it as irrelevant—a distraction from the things they really care about.” At some point, they check out.

“The Hidden Tribes of America,” a yearlong study by More in Common, a public interest group focused on uniting the country, calls these people “the exhausted majority.” Those in the exhausted majority hold political views and economic identities that cut across the spectrum—but all are turned off by the daily drumbeat of political affairs. According to the research, this cohort accounts for roughly two-thirds of the American population. “The exhausted majority is flexible, forgotten, and frustrated,” Daniel Yudkin, a social psychologist who helps lead research at More in Common, told me. “They are more likely to want to find common ground, more likely to want to move past divisions.”

“There’s an encroaching edge of exhaustion that’s creeping outward and pulling more and more people into this center group of the jaded.”

Yudkin’s research focuses on moral philosophy—how people navigate thorny questions of right and wrong in their everyday lives. (One of his ongoing projects is a four-year study of Reddit’s “Am I the Asshole?” board.) He doesn’t see the exhausted majority as people who don’t care—quite the opposite. They often care a lot about the things that speak to them directly, it’s just that news coverage and political discourse don’t reliably do so. “Things seem to be moving so fast in the political sphere, but for the exhausted majority, it all just feels like people fighting each other—we’re still not making progress on the issues we care about, we still don’t have a politician who is speaking to what we think is important,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily tuned out. There’s just other issues and topics and questions that people are dealing with.”

Toff notes that many people who say they avoid the news actually interact with a lot of it indirectly, through Instagram influencers or family members. On social media, however, algorithms pull you sharply in one direction or another—the filter bubble effect—and deliver you to intense, sometimes horrifying extremes. What you experience online inevitably bleeds into how you perceive mainstream coverage—and other people. A study out of Northwestern University showed that most Americans see themselves as fairly moderate but imagine those on the “other side” to be significantly more extreme and fervent—one of the many things that turns them off following the news. “Surely one might (understandably) think that the main reason people avoid the news must be the news itself, so the solution must be to fix the news,” Toff and his coathors write in Avoiding the News. “Unfortunately, it’s not.”

Yudkin and More in Common haven’t done a “Hidden Tribes” survey of American political engagement in several years, but they hope to give the subject another look in 2025. By then, he expects the ranks of the weary to have grown. “In my head I’m sort of imagining a creeping border of the exhausted majority,” he said. “There’s an encroaching edge of exhaustion that’s creeping outward and pulling more and more people into this center group of the jaded.”

Yudkin recently moved from Brooklyn to New Orleans, where his new neighbors include many of the same people he’s been researching. He doesn’t see them surging back to political news anytime soon. “Some of the things that get people to pay attention to the media are the apocalyptic proclamations about the end of democracy,” Yudkin said. “And it’s possible the exhausted majority is becoming less susceptible to these kinds of inflammatory headlines. Like, Eh, this is the tenth time I’ve been told this is unprecedented. This idea of something being unprecedented, especially for the exhausted majority, is falling on deaf ears. They’re over it.”

The notion that national politics, and the news around it, are disconnected from the needs and experiences of Americans is not so novel. In 1988, when Joan Didion surveyed the landscape of a particularly tedious presidential election season, she pronounced that politics had lost its way in minutiae and closely held plotlines that only the most avid disciple could follow. “What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country,” she wrote. “The figures are well known, and suggest a national indifference usually construed, by those inside the process, as ignorance, or ‘apathy,’ in any case a defect not in themselves but in the clay they have been given to mold.” Today, amid a perilous decline in subscribers and patrons, that apathy is, if not harder to disdain, at least more difficult to ignore.

Samantha Ragland, the vice president of journalism programs at the American Press Institute, has devoted her professional life to addressing the problem. “People don’t want to be hopeless, they don’t want to be anxiety-ridden,” told me. She’s now at work developing strategies to help outlets reach news avoiders. “There’s a lot of things happening in life, and we are very much still in a post-pandemic mindset,” she said. “So horse race coverage, just tracking drama in headlines, all that is really going to support people steering away from news.” Lately, she’s turned her attention away somewhat from social media, and focused more on building personal connections. “We used to talk about audience engagement, and now we talk about community engagement,” she said. “Audience engagement is about the distribution of resources and assets and reporting you have so that as many people as possible can consume your content. Community engagement is about participating in your community as a member of the community. It’s about looking beyond the numbers to see the faces of your readers.” She talks about reporters getting out “in front of their byline” and making themselves known to readers directly. “You don’t know how to fill someone’s needs until you know the someone.” 

Amy O’Leary has spent much of the past decade thinking about these ideas, too. In a past life, she was an editor at the Times; today, she’s a media consultant living in New Hampshire, where her neighbors and friends in town include people who think the moon landing was faked and hoist upside-down American flags over their woodsheds. (“The conversations we have are very different than the ones I had in Brooklyn,” she said.) O’Leary spends a lot of time wrestling with the question of what journalism is, or should be. “How do I want to have impact in the world? Because I really don’t think most of the tools I have are doing it.” She’s drawn to the Brave Little State podcast, from Vermont’s public radio station, which solicits story ideas from members of the community and invites listeners to join in the reporting process. She also admires an Internews project called El Migrante, which interviewed migrants at the southern border and asked them what they wanted to read or hear about their own experiences. “When you think about journalism as a service,” she said, “what you’re really asking is ‘What is the point of the news? What is its purpose in society?’ And we have to ask that question in a way that’s a little deeper than previous generations have had to ask it. The increasing distrust of news, the emotional experience of the news, the profound feeling of disempowerment that people have—when you look at all those things, the way we’ve been traditionally delivering the news is not meeting those needs.”

To that end, last year, the Times updated bylines to provide more detail, including biographical information about reporters. “The new form allows us to more fully describe the scope of our news gathering,” an announcement read, “emphasizing our role as expert eyewitnesses and thus boosting our credibility.” Some publications have experimented creatively with presentation, translating stories into guides and physical pamphlets that boil down reporting to its most user-friendly essence. Toff and his coauthors provide more suggestions in their book, all aimed at making journalism more inviting and accessible. Crucially, Toff said, journalists need to acknowledge the social context in which people consume news: A voracious news consumer, even when the reporting is grim, may have people in their circle “who can help them make sense of the news, to work through it together,” he said; the act of discussing press coverage, debating its merits, is bonding. But those who avoid news “don’t derive any social value from consuming the news,” he continued. He and his colleagues are invested in finding opportunities for them to do so.

Local outlets may be in the best position to convene audiences for journalism that haven’t yet found their place. A Pew survey released last month shows that nearly all Americans consider local news to be important to their lives—and, notably, they don’t see it as being politically skewed or overly negative. Toff was recently in Odessa, Texas, at a listening session put on by the Texas Tribune, where he was pleasantly surprised to see how people with wildly different viewpoints interacted with one another, at some safe remove from the vitriol of national affairs. “People are able to talk civilly to each other in person, even when they disagree, in a way that we assume is impossible,” he said. Recently, Will Lewis, the publisher of the Washington Post, gave a presentation to staff on the paper’s dire financial state (“To speak candidly: we are in a hole, and we have been for some time,” he said); vowing to repair the situation, he announced a product intended to reach new audiences in the DC metro area, including guides and “exclusive experiences.”

These endeavors may be painfully earnest; they might not make a difference. “The problems are pretty deep,” as O’Leary told me, “and I think that most current daily newsrooms are not really reckoning with that.” Still, it’s nice to imagine a version of “news” that doesn’t immediately conjure up feelings of distress or alienation, a version that feels intimately relevant to the lives of the people who need it, that might even be fun to read. “News can really help communities reconnect—and we are really in a social-isolation crisis post-COVID,” Ragland said. “One of the core things that held my generation together is that we wanted to be part of something bigger, and I think we are seeing that collectively now in that communities want to engage in news, but also to engage in the solutions that the news can catalyze.”

In the meantime, we’re stuck with the set pieces that stand in for news during the modern election cycle. A little while after giving up on getting inside the court, I ambled over to Collect Pond Park, which had been designated the legally approved zone for public gatherings and protests. Everything about the setup felt rehearsed: a pen for the pro-Trump folk, another for the protesters, all in easy eyeshot of the pens for the TV correspondents and their crews, clustered on the sidewalk like so many bird droppings.

There were just a few people milling around in the park, half of them journalists. A reporter from the Times was talking to a Trump backer named Dion Cini, a provocative frequent flier, who was busy unfurling a massive banner that read “Trump or Death.” As he muttered a well-practiced list of talking points (“I don’t mean my death, by the way—I always have to explain this”), he suddenly seemed to realize it was nearing the top of the hour, when the TV correspondents would be delivering their live shots. He whipped around to face the row of cameras. “Get your morning shots!” he yelled, leaning over the railing and pointing at his giant flag. “Get your morning hits in! Get your B-roll!” He knew what they wanted, and he was going to give it to them. The producers turned around and pulled out their phones to capture the moment.

Josh Hersh is an editor at CJR. He was previously a correspondent and senior producer at Vice News.