Art by Dadu Shin
Editor's Note

Repeating Ourselves

The déjà vu and indifference of Election 2024.

June 10, 2024

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: In April,​​ the Donald Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee announced the “most extensive and monumental election integrity program in the nation’s history.” The plan involved more than a hundred thousand attorneys and volunteers posted in competitive states, plus an “Election Integrity Hotline” ready to take your call. About a week later, Christina Bobb—the RNC senior counsel for election integrity, and a former host on the pro-Trump One America News Network—was supposed to appear at an online recruitment session for poll-watchers. But she didn’t show. It was reported that she’d just been indicted in Arizona for, among other things, fraud related to the election.

It’s one of those stories—almost hard to believe, if it weren’t so familiar—that has come to characterize political coverage in the Trump years. Statements that are true—“Election integrity is the foundation of our democracy,” Michael Whatley, the chair of the RNC, said—get refracted through the looking glass. And plotlines repeat: the RNC ran a similar, albeit smaller, election integrity program in 2022. Trump has been grousing about fraud since he ran for president the first time, warning of “rigged” elections; without evidence, he claimed that he lost the popular vote in 2016 because as many as five million “illegal” immigrants voted against him. Before and after Election Day 2020 he cast aspersions on mail-in voting, people voting in the wrong state, “dead people” voting, double-counted votes, “suspicious” votes, and votes that “dropped mysteriously.” In Georgia, the secretary of state, a Republican, affirmed that Trump had lost and that there was no systemic fraud. “Sad but true,” he told George Stephanopoulos on ABC. “I wish he would have won.”

Trump continues to deny the 2020 results, and to reprise doubts in advance of November. “They are allowing these people to come in—people that don’t speak our language—they are signing them up to vote,” he said in January at a rally in Iowa. His recent criminal conviction in the Stormy Daniels hush-money case was, he said, another “rigged” disgrace. Repetition is just fine from the Trump campaign’s point of view; as Olivia Nuzzi wrote recently in New York magazine: “If it feels like 2016 again, great.” Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist, told Politico, “What most campaigns have to do is create their own news, and get people to care about their campaign when it’s not in the news. Trump is going to benefit from wall-to-wall coverage on all the cable networks and live tweets from the courtroom about what’s going on during the trial.” (Politico found that the collected legal cases against Trump have proved to be “the most effective tool” he has in fundraising; the campaign claims that a Republican donation processing platform crashed after the verdict was announced.)

The political press has not reaped so many benefits. Where there was a captive audience before, we’re now in reruns. As Josh Hersh reports in this election-focused issue, network ratings “have underperformed what news executives are accustomed to.” Brian Stelter, the journalist and media critic, tells Hersh, “The overarching emotion among voters is apathy and even burnout.” In a column, Susie Banikarim writes, “Trump is besieged by so many scandals—and they surface so often—that reporting on it seems like white noise.” Democrats are retreading familiar ground, too. Elsewhere in the issue, Linda Kinstler meets a group of young, very online politicos aiming to generate buzz for Joe Biden and “make the term ‘neoliberalism,’ against all odds, cool.” It’s hard to believe how much we’re doing all over again. 

The trouble is, as we sip on our muddled cocktails of repetition and apathy, we lose track of real threats to the integrity of our elections. In an essay, Anika Collier Navaroli describes what happens when content moderation is left in the hands of tech companies at times of political crisis; it’s a subject she knows firsthand, having worked at Twitter in January 2021, drafting policy live during the insurrection—and scrambling to prevent another. Yona TR Golding reports on how Elon Musk and right-wing officials have taken a shovel to online trust-and-safety teams—and our collective ability to ward off interference from malevolent forces at home and abroad.

What’s left is a haze of “content”: gossip, rant, clip, meme. Renée DiResta, of the Stanford Internet Observatory, tells Mathew Ingram about how AI can propel misinformation when chatbots become “reply guys,” giving the impression that a fringe political opinion is common. Feven Merid examines our waxing and waning interest in lie-busting fact-check initiatives, which can sometimes undermine their own cause; Whitney Phillips, a professor at the University of Oregon, tells Merid, “Many conservative people and pro-Trump people believe that ‘disinformation’ is code for conservative censorship.” We asked experts across media and academia how best to approach this do-over election. Kate Starbird, a scholar at the University of Washington, advised that, instead of labeling information as “true” or “false,” journalists should think in terms of rumor. “Many rumors turn out to be false, but some turn out to be true—and actually, I would say, many turn out to be somewhere in between,” she argues. Besides, “rumors, even when they turn out to be false, can be a signal, especially for public communicators and election officials, for what people are worried about.”

Newsrooms find themselves repeatedly stuck between a viral falsehood and a hard place. In local journalism, Kevin Lind writes, “editors of purple-state outlets must weigh being direct against serving readers what they wish to read.” Trip Jennings—the executive director of New Mexico In Depth, an investigative outlet—tells Lind that reporters “have to understand epistemology” in order to grasp the contradictory political realities of our time. 

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None of this is to say that everything is the same this time around; there have been changes in how we cover and consume news. Maddy Crowell profiles an array of digital ventures that sprang up after the 2020 election, many of them backed by major Democratic donors who felt burned by the mainstream press—in part, she writes, “because of a sense that the media was being strung along by the right-wing ecosystem.” These aren’t direct responses to MAGA misinformation-mongers, per se—they don’t publish lies—but they are aggressively partisan, and they maintain friendly relationships with the administration. As Tara McGowan—a former Democratic Party fundraiser, now the proprietor of Courier Newsroom—puts it, “We’re not fighting fire with fire, we’re fighting fire with water.” Out has come a firehose of “pro-democracy” content that washes out some of journalism’s most closely held precepts. 

For a data piece, Aisvarya Chandrasekar and Dhrumil Mehta scoured the transcripts of cable networks, which led to a striking conclusion: “that covering Trump with fascism in mind has become increasingly common—that networks are now, as never before, focused on this angle of the Trump story.” That comes years after he started calling journalists “enemies of the people.” Banikarim directed a documentary by that name, in which NBC’s Katy Tur quoted George Orwell: “To see what is in front of your nose needs a constant struggle.” 

There are some who can see clearly. One is Lorena López, the proprietor of La Prensa de Iowa—an improbably profitable Spanish-language newspaper serving thousands of hispanohablantes in the western part of the state, amid farms, meatpacking plants, and factory exhaust. “Misinformation is a form of pollution,” Jack Herrera writes in a profile of López, and “it’s often thicker and more potent in immigrant communities.” The spread of fake news among Latinos, who make up the largest minority group of voters in the United States, is a recurring story line for election monitors. At sixty, López considers herself old-school—and yet, because of how deeply embedded she is in her community, including in private WhatsApp groups, her work has been able to “disrupt the flow of online gossip, panic, and misinformation as only traditional newsgathering can.” (López has been so successful that, when western Iowa’s longtime local paper shuttered, she hired two of its reporters and started an English-language outlet to accompany her own.)

In reruns, you know what the ending will be. That isn’t quite true of this campaign season: Trump, due for sentencing in July, is America’s first president-felon—a plot twist. Still, coverage of the verdict has been mostly anticlimactic; polling indicates that many voters don’t care. There are more uncertainties, not least because two horrific wars rage abroad; that some 6 percent of voters support Robert F. Kennedy Jr. seems at least partly a symptom of status-quo fatigue. We’ll continue to cover the election at CJR—in newsletters, features, and more—in the coming months. Trump, for one, has spoken of America’s 2024 election as “the final battle.” Last fall, in the Washington Post, Philip Bump described a conservative Baptist preacher giving the invocation at a Trump rally: “Truth is suppressed,” the man said, addressing Almighty God and a crowd in MAGA swag. “Lies, corruption, and propaganda are driving civilization to ruins.” It’s another of those stories—true, but gnarled, like the ribbons of tape in an old VHS no one wants to watch again.

Betsy Morais is the managing editor of CJR.