The Media Today

Earning our attention

June 12, 2023
Photo by Gage Skidmore

On Thursday night, Donald Trump once again flooded the news cycle when he announced on his Truth Social platform that he had been indicted in the federal probe into his mishandling of classified documents after leaving office. He faces seven charges—including false statements, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and violations of the Espionage Act—and is scheduled to surrender to the authorities tomorrow. As the news broke, it quickly became all anyone could talk about, but one voice, at least, urged restraint in the absence of the full story being known: “We don’t get our news from Trump’s Truth Social account. Let’s see what the facts are when any possible indictment is released. As I have said before, no one is above the law, no matter how much they wish they were. We will have more to say when the facts are revealed.”

This sage advice came not from a member of the news media (well, not really; more on that in a moment), but one of Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination: Chris Christie, who jumped into the race with an event in New Hampshire last week. Christie once endorsed and advised Trump, but has more recently turned on the former president, and is now billing himself as the only candidate prepared to confront Trump head-on. If Trump is the favorite to win the nomination, however, Christie is something like the opposite; recent polls have him at the bottom of the primary barrel among GOP voters. Reporting from his launch, the New York Times posed the “existential question” for his campaign: “Who will he appeal to?”

One potential answer to that question—albeit not in any electoral sense—is the national news media: indeed, the same Times story noted that Christie’s “campaign will depend heavily on media coverage and a nimbleness to travel to places where that is likeliest,” while a Christie adviser acknowledged to Axios that he is planning “a non-traditional campaign that is highly focused on earned media.” Christie plans to “earn” media—a political term for coverage that a candidate attracts for doing (ostensibly) newsworthy things, as opposed to paid advertisements—by, well, confronting Trump head-on, scratching political reporters’ perpetual itch for conflict and colorful quotes. If headlines in major outlets are any guide, this strategy already appears to be bearing fruit: “Christie goes after Trump in presidential campaign launch, calling him a ‘self-serving mirror hog’”; “Trump Responds to Chris Christie Attacks With … Fat Jokes”; “Chris Christie rips ‘juvenile,’ ‘baby’ Trump after former president targets him with fat jokes: ‘Like a child.’” 

Christie perhaps has a better understanding than most of how to grab mainstream-media attention: he courted it for years—for better and, eventually, worse—as governor of New Jersey and a perennial pre-Trump GOP presidential hope; more recently, he’s doled out conflict and colorful quotes aplenty as a paid contributor at ABC News (hence my “not really” above). This year alone, Christie has popped up at least thirteen times on the “Powerhouse Roundtable” on the network’s Sunday show, This Week, including several appearances since he started openly flirting with a presidential bid, a story that the roundtable also discussed in his absence. (Now that Christie is officially running, ABC has suspended its ties with him; if this seems to you like an arbitrary moment to do so, you wouldn’t be the only one.) Asked once if he, like Trump, considers the mainstream press to be the “enemy of the people,” Christie replied that he holds reporters in higher esteem than academic pundits. “At least you guys get in the arena and mix it up,” he said. And Christie loves to mix it up. 

Christie was not the only long-shot presidential candidate “earning” media attention last week, at least until Trump’s indictment sucked the oxygen out of the room. Mike Pence (who can probably be considered a long shot even if he is the former vice president) launched his campaign, too, and also took digs at Trump and his culpability for January 6. (The Wi-Fi password for reporters at Pence’s launch event was “KeptHisOath!”) On Wednesday, Doug Burgum, the little-known governor of North Dakota, got into the race and managed to get CNN to air a good chunk of his launch event live, even though it was the political equivalent of a bad wedding speech. And last week’s primary action wasn’t confined to the Republican side of the aisle: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the conspiracy-peddling Kennedy scion running against President Biden as a Democrat, did a live Twitter event with Elon Musk and started to attract increased mainstream media coverage, too—a result, The Hill noted, of his “relatively decent poll numbers, as well as his media-ready image as an heir to the famous political dynasty.” (Some polls show as many as one in five Democrats backing Kennedy, though there’s ample reason to be skeptical that this is all authentic support.) “After years on the fringes,” Politico wrote, Kennedy “is suddenly knocking on the door of mainstream relevance—and all it took was mounting a longshot presidential campaign.”

According to the same Politico story, Biden-world is vexed about Kennedy’s challenge; the president’s reelection team has reportedly decided not to engage for now, but is hoping that the press will do the work of informing voters about Kennedy’s conspiratorial views. “Even the slightest press scrutiny is his biggest problem,” a staffer from Biden’s 2020 campaign said. “When Democrats see a candidate is anti-vaccination, anti–assault weapons ban, and a quasi 2020 election denier, their first thought is that this person must be a MAGA Republican.” A former White House official called Kennedy’s bid a “distraction,” adding that “some could say just ignore it, which is how I would feel about it. At the same time, you’ve got to make sure that somebody is paying attention to it and pushing back.”

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Many journalists might agree that it is their job to push back—not to help Biden, but because Kennedy’s extreme views merit scrutiny. True enough. But there’s cause to be careful here. Scrutiny of conspiratorial views—however well-intentioned—can serve to inadvertently amplify them; Kennedy will always have a platform independently of the mainstream press (see, for example, the Musk event), but our coverage should at least be measured and proportionate, and not elevate Kennedy into a bigger character than he otherwise might be by hyping his centrality to an election in which he remains a marginal figure. And proportionality is a good broader principle here, even when approaching candidates who don’t spew conspiracies. Anyone running for president deserves scrutiny of their record; indeed, some of the early coverage of Christie and Pence has interrogated their past enabling of Trump, even as they now try to disown him. But candidates, and particularly long-shot ones, often run for attention and relevance, even if it isn’t always on glowing terms. And giving it to them can redound to their advantage. 

It’s not the media’s job to decide who runs for president, of course, and at least to some extent, we need to cover the field fairly. But it strikes me that there are some caveats to these obligations. Without wishing to sound like a broken record, we really don’t have to be giving the primaries, as a whole, as much coverage as we are so far out from the first votes being cast. Even if you think that we do, we could find more substantive grounds for apportioning our attention than early polling—a deeply flawed metric, not to mention a shallow one—or who gives us the juiciest quotes; we don’t need to rely on a narrator as unreliable as Chris Christie to get to the truth about Donald Trump. We could also interrogate who gets to run for president in the first place: those who already have high media profiles (Christie) or lots of money (Burgum) essentially get to leverage those resources into more attention. At minimum, we should acknowledge that we are actors here, and not just passive chroniclers. We might not like it, but how we decide to parcel out our attention can end up shaping how the election plays out. We should ask, in other words: What does it mean for candidates to “earn” our coverage? What should it take?

This brings us back to Trump, who has “earned” more media coverage than perhaps any other politician in American history. Very often, it’s been warranted; his federal indictment is clearly an example of that. Even if coverage of his legal woes is urgently necessary, though, Trump has already managed to spin some of it to his advantage, and, in its blaring wall-to-wall sensationalism, it has sometimes been excessive and gotten ahead of the facts, as Chris Christie might put it. Proportionality, ultimately, shouldn’t just apply to our coverage of long shots, but to front-runners, too. Trump—or any other candidate, for that matter—is never the only story in the room.

In April, before officially jumping into the Republican primary, Christie sat for a breakfast interview with Mark Leibovich, of The Atlantic, and, per Leibovich, got frustrated with what he saw as the repetitiveness of the questions. “You guys drive me crazy. All you want to do is talk about Trump,” he said. “I’m sorry, I don’t think he’s the only topic to talk about in politics.” Given the performatively anti-Trump orientation of Christie’s campaign, this statement seems, at minimum, lacking in self-awareness—just as his tweet urging facts-first caution around Trump’s indictment was hypocritical and self-serving; the indictment, after all, drowned out his own burgeoning media momentum. On both occasions, though, he had a point.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.