The Media Today

Blowing hot and cold in Iowa

January 16, 2024
A Trump campaign staff member puts in lawn signs outside a surrogate campaign event for former president and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in Ankeny, Iowa on January 15, 2024. Photo by Julia Nikhinson/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

It’s January of a presidential election year, and that typically means that the people of Iowa can’t move for journalists. Semafor’s Dave Weigel estimated that the number of reporters to supporters at an event for the Republican candidate Ron DeSantis was “about 28 each,” according to Weigel’s boss Ben Smith; Smith himself reported from an event at which ​​Bob Vander Plaats, an influential evangelical leader and DeSantis backer, looked out at a room stuffed with media and declared, “The media doesn’t select our caucus winner. You select our caucus winner!” Journalists looking to speak to ordinary Iowans inadvertently approached each other. In all, more than a thousand reporters applied for credentials to access the caucus-day media center, according to the Des Moines Register. Seemingly, every one of them had to first agree to report on the bitingly cold weather. (Sample pre-caucus headlines included “Deep Freeze”; “In Iowa, a campaign season frozen in place”; “Here Comes Trump, the Abominable Snowman”; and, erm, see above.)

Still, this media invasion apparently paled in comparison to that of previous years—an equivalent Des Moines Register story from 2020 pegged the number of credentialed reporters that year north of two thousand six hundred. And—if the steady drip of pre-caucus press-watching articles was any guide—many of those who were present weren’t excited to be there. Michael M. Grynbaum, of the New York Times, reported that “the usual media circus” surrounding the caucuses felt smaller this year, both “literally and spiritually”: Weigel described the scene as “cold and miserable”; a different star political reporter indicted “this desultory excuse of a presidential primary” and went home early; various network hotshots skipped Iowa altogether (perhaps not wanting to become coldshots). As the cold nixed a slate of campaign events, reporters lounged around, went to the gym, hit the bar early. Others tried to make the best of things. The media crowd was “diminished by the bleak news business, the bleak weather, and the bleak primary season,” Smith wrote in a dispatch for Semafor. “Still, things felt almost normal.… Reporters milled around the lobby and basement bar, filing, drinking, buttonholing accommodating campaign officials. Like any other campaign year, really, only a little lower stress, a little nicer, because everyone seems to assume Donald Trump will walk to victory.”

Observers mooted various reasons for the diminished media turnout: the weather, of course; cost-cutting at major news organizations; the fact that there were no Democratic caucuses to speak of this year after national party officials robbed Iowa of its first-in-the-nation status. The main reason, though, did indeed seem to be the assumption that Trump would walk to victory on the Republican side—a metaphorical freezing of the race that news outlets also seemed contractually obligated to point out, to go with the frozen ground. This isn’t to say that some reporters and pundits didn’t have a crack at conjuring some late drama: Would the weather affect turnout? If so, would that benefit Trump, with his more enthusiastic base but less pressing need for votes, or DeSantis or Nikki Haley? If so, which of those two candidates would benefit most? Like much of the other coverage, though, it all felt more than a little half-hearted.

Indeed, the vibe of everyone just wanting to go home wasn’t helped when Iowans finally showed up to caucus last night only for various major news organizations to call the contest for Trump just half an hour after it began, and before many attendees had even cast a vote. (Cameron Joseph, who writes our new Friday newsletter, The Scrum, said he’d never seen a caucus called “anywhere near this fast.”) The calls, of course, were driven not by vibes but by data—with caucuses, as opposed to primaries, the cutoff time for participation is considered to be the moment doors close, and early returns and other data sources quickly showed Trump’s lead to be insurmountable. Still, the swiftness of the calls quickly attracted critics, and not just those you might expect. The DeSantis campaign accused the media of “election interference,” and of being “in the tank for Trump.” Various liberal pundits weren’t happy, either, suggesting that the early calls could further dent already fragile public trust in the press and in elections. “The early call rubs a lot of voters the wrong way,” the journalist Mosheh Oinounou told Grynbaum, of the Times. “Just because you can call it that early, should you?”

Perhaps ironically (then again, perhaps not), if this benefited anyone, it was the man who has done more than anyone else to dent public trust in the press and in elections. The calls came so early that no Trump supporters were yet present at his victory party to cheer them. Eventually, the room filled and Trump took to the stage for a victory speech, smiling down beatifically and calling on Americans of all stripes to “come together” as various reporters and pundits noted his changed tone, graciousness, and (at least temporary) message discipline. Trump also claimed that the 2020 election was stolen from him, invited onto the stage a man dressed as a border wall, and slammed a supposed immigrant “invasion.” It was around this time that CNN cut away from the speech. MSNBC didn’t carry it at all, citing a broader tendency among major networks not to take Trump live anymore for fear of offering him free airtime for his lies.

The debate as to whether media decision desks’ calls for Trump came too early was, in a sense, a wonky microcosm of a broader, earlier debate: as to whether the mainstream press had prematurely written off the entire Republican primary as a nonevent, given Trump’s consistently huge lead in the polls and the other big story lines—his indictments, his threats to democracy, and so on—swirling around him. Before Christmas, Semafor’s Smith took the political media to task for focusing on Trump’s threats to democracy (with a big D) at the expense of the primary horse race—a well-intentioned response to critics who view horse race coverage as trivial, but one that also, as Smith saw it, amounted to complicity in Trump’s own projections of his inevitable victory amid various possible signs of his weakness, including momentum for Haley. Critics of horse race journalism have a point, Smith wrote, and coverage of big-D democracy is valuable—and yet “the drama [of] personality and competition has always been part of the pageant of democracy.” Sometimes, he concluded, “democracy requires writing about politics.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Despite being a frequent critic of horse race journalism and (broadly speaking) a fan of bigger-picture coverage of America’s democratic health, I sympathize with aspects of Smith’s argument. I have argued repeatedly that covering the health of democracy requires deep coverage not only of threats to it, but of the stuff of democracy; by that, I have mostly meant deeper coverage of policy, but elections, clearly, are the stuff of democracy, too. I also agree with Smith’s contention that our election coverage can itself shape the contours of a given race; if we portray it as being all over but the shouting, then donors, endorsers, and voters may behave as if it is. And, famously, polls can be unreliable, and journalists and pundits often make for poor prognosticators. (Look no further than the last primary cycle, on the Democratic side.)

Fundamentally, though, I remain unconvinced by Smith’s premise—in recent months, I’ve seen a lot of coverage of the horse race, in Iowa and elsewhere, much of which, to my eye, has projected competitiveness sometimes to the point of contriving it (especially where Haley has been concerned) or at the very least lavished attention on relatively minor candidates. (Over the summer, Vivek Ramaswamy bathed in prestige profiles and daily TV hits, as I noted at the time; last night, he scored 8 percent in Iowa and promptly dropped out of the race and endorsed Trump.) Smith is right to say that coverage of big-D democratic questions has been on the rise, but as I wrote last month, it has not, to my mind, yet drowned out the horse race. And—if Smith is also right to say that the story of big-D democracy is inseparable from that of the horse race—the two must consistently inform each other, rather than running on separate tracks. 

I’ve often argued that too much horse race coverage of Trump, the election candidate, feels divorced from coverage of Trump, the election denier. The frosty malaise evident in some, if by no means all, pre-Iowa coverage reinforced that impression—it only made sense in a context that calculates newsworthiness as a function of expected competitiveness and conventional electoral drama. In reality, the caucuses channeled important and interesting stories even absent this type of drama—about Trump’s stranglehold on the Republican Party compared with 2016, the penetration of election denialism among the Republican base, and more—and, to be fair, numerous outlets did cover them. Indeed, when two-thirds of caucusgoers (if a CNN caucus entrance poll is to be believed) continue to claim that Trump actually won against Joe Biden in 2020, it simply doesn’t make sense to revert to traditional horse race frames. It makes more sense to cover Trump not as one contender among many in a wide-open primary, but as an incumbent—at least, an imagined one. This is not a normal election. It’s not even almost normal.

Even if you disagree, there’s another, far more normal, problem with Iowa horse race journalism: the perennial, quadrennial question of Iowa itself, and whether it deserves such outsize national-media attention. This attention, of course, is a function of the state’s privileged position in the nominating calendar and the perceived narrative momentum that victory there confers on a candidate (even if this momentum is a creation of the press as much as anything else). In many other respects—Iowa’s acute lack of diversity, the relatively small number of people who caucus there, the eternal possibility of an unexpected last-minute game changer (last time: glitchy software; this time: the weather)—the monthslong media focus on the state looks deeply irrational. Perhaps, slowly, this is fading: the Democrats have taken Iowa off the table as a media object (at least for now); Trump and the cold diminished interest (at least this year). But a thousand reporters is still a lot of reporters. Just because you can go to Iowa, should you?

Other notable stories:

  • The New Yorker’s Clare Malone spoke with CNN’s Clarissa Ward, who became the first Western journalist to enter Gaza without an Israeli military escort—and attendant conditions of censorship—during the current Israel-Hamas war, and who has “faced accusations of pro-Israel bias even as she strives to highlight Arab suffering.” Elsewhere, MSNBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin interviewed Wael al-Dahdouh, Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau chief, who has seen at least five of his immediate family killed in recent Israeli air strikes; al-Dahdouh called on Biden to listen to both sides of what is happening on the ground. And, after HuffPost’s Akbar Shahid Ahmed reported on alarm among some officials at a proposal for the reconstruction of Gaza, a Biden administration spokesperson accused him of inventing quotes. Ahmed denied this, and other reporters rushed to his defense. 
  • Last week, the German media behemoth Axel Springer raised eyebrows—including among its own staff—when it pledged to review reporting by Business Insider, which it owns, detailing allegations of plagiarism on the part of Neri Oxman, the wife of Bill Ackman, a businessman who campaigned to oust Claudine Gay as the president of Harvard over her handling of campus anti-Semitism claims and subsequent allegations of plagiarism against her. Bosses at Axel Springer were reportedly concerned that its story, while accurate, could be perceived as anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist (Oxman is from Israel), but over the weekend, Barbara Peng, Business Insider’s CEO, concluded that the reporting had been truthful and fair, and Axel Springer said that it stood by the site.
  • Yesterday, David D. Smith, a Maryland businessman, announced the surprise acquisition of the Baltimore Sun and sister titles including the Capital Gazette from Alden Global Capital, the financial firm, notorious for cost-cutting at its media properties, that took over the papers when it purchased Tribune Publishing three years ago. Smith is the executive chairman of Sinclair, a broadcasting chain whose stations were heavily criticized in 2018 for airing a coordinated editorial decrying supposed media bias, though Sinclair said that it has had no role in the Sun purchase. Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator who hosts a show on Sinclair stations, is part of the Sun deal; his share is undisclosed.
  • In 2021, Trump sued the New York Times, three of its reporters, and his niece Mary Trump over a story in the Times scrutinizing his tax affairs. Trump claimed that the reporters badgered Mary for confidential tax documents even though they knew that she was legally forbidden from disclosing them—but last year, a judge dismissed the Times and its reporters from the case, and last week ordered Trump to pay the paper’s lawyers nearly four hundred thousand dollars in fees, citing the “complexity” of the legal issues thrown up by the case. (Trump’s claim against Mary is still pending.)
  • And Dean Phillips, the Democratic congressman who is challenging Biden for the party’s presidential nomination, slammed mainstream networks for ignoring his campaign in recent weeks, telling Politico’s Michael Schaffer that MSNBC, in particular, has blackballed him due to pressure from Biden’s campaign. (MSNBC declined to comment; a Biden spokesperson replied simply “LOL.”) While Phillips’s complaint is time-honored for a politician, Schaffer writes, it does point to flaws in the cable-news ecosystem.

ICYMI: Tina Nguyen’s Unique Perspective on the American Right

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify the reporter-to-supporter ratio at an event for Ron DeSantis, as reported by Dave Weigel.

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.