The Media Today

2024 coverage is shaping up to be the same as always

March 6, 2023
Former President Donald Trump walks onstage during an event Friday, July 8, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Last week, the political press turned to a familiar yearly ritual: covering the Conservative Political Action Conference, or cpac. This year’s edition took place under multiple clouds—Matt Schlapp, the event’s top organizer, is facing an allegation of groping (which he denies); more broadly, a media narrative has formed that the event has degenerated from a serious Republican talking shop into a Trumpified circus that, as New York put it, lacks “both conservatives and action”—but it also took place just as the 2024 presidential race seems to be heating up, and so the event seemed to drive even more headlines than usual. Some of these reflected actual news: Trump pledged to still run for president if he gets criminally indicted, a declaration that was new, if not surprising; a speaker from the right-wing Daily Wire called for “transgenderism” to be “eradicated from public life entirely,” a declaration that was neither new nor surprising, but was shocking. Other headlines handicapped the 2024 horse race (“Eyeing DeSantis, Trump Readies for a Long Primary Battle”), revived Trump-showbiz clichés (cpac is still the Trump show”), or both (“Trump pitches a sequel, but shies away from attacking rivals”). On Saturday, Trump took the stage and delivered an apocalyptic message in the conversational tone of an uncle who won’t shut up at a family gathering. “I am your warrior. I am your justice,” he said. “And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

cpac and Trump were among the topics of conversation on Meet the Press yesterday, with Chuck Todd, the host, musing that Trump appears to be trying to occupy an “outsider lane” in the Republican primary for 2024. Todd put that observation to a Republican politician who seems to be eyeing the insider—or, as the Times put it recently, “normal”—lane for 2024: Chris Sununu, the Trump-skeptical governor of New Hampshire. This was not the first time that Sununu had been on one of the agenda-setting Sunday shows this year; he’s appeared so often that we might have to start calling them “Sununuday shows.” Last week, Michael Schaffer, of Politico, noted Sununu’s heightened recent presence in DC media in a column declaring him the runaway winner (at least so far) of the “Permanent-Washington Primary,” which Schaffer described as “the battle for the hearts and minds and television bookings and annual dinner invites of the Beltway-media-industrial complex.” For all “the self-reflection brought on by the fury of the Trump years,” Schaffer wrote, “Sununu helps show that the things that push the buttons of permanent Washington have remained pretty constant: bipartisanship, fiscal flintiness, cultural toleration, respect for institutions and above all the willingness to take sides against your own team.” (Schaffer included the Beltway press in his analysis.)

Sununu’s media moment has perhaps been a disappointing development for another self-styled Republican moderate who may himself have harbored hopes of running in the insider lane: Larry Hogan, the former governor of Maryland. Hogan, too, has long been a Sunday-show fixture. Yesterday, he appeared on one again (Face the Nation, on CBS)—but he did so in order to rule himself out of the 2024 running. Hogan also splashed his non-news in a Times op-ed and a similarly worded statement that he posted to Twitter. “The stakes are too high for me to risk being part of another multicar pileup that could potentially help Mr. Trump recapture the nomination,” Hogan wrote, selflessly. On Meet the Press, Todd wondered aloud whether the announcement was really about Sununu getting a “jump start” on him.

The 2024 election is not a new media story line, of course—it’s been unspooling since at least the 2020 election, and maybe even before. But it’s felt, over the past week or so, like we’re nearing the tipping point into full-blown election mania, if we haven’t reached it already. On the Democratic side, Jill Biden, the first lady, went to Africa to highlight food insecurity, among other important matters, but instead drove the US news cycle into a frenzy after effectively confirming that her husband intends to seek reelection; meanwhile, Marianne Williamson, a (very) long-shot contender for the Democratic nomination in 2020, announced that she will run again and herself scored a Sunday-show sit-down, on ABC (where she was asked, among other things, about media portrayals of her as an “anti-science, anti-vax…crystal lady”). On the Republican side, we’ve had not only the aforementioned chatter about cpac and “lanes,” but a ramped-up media focus on Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who has been hawking a book. Over the weekend, Bloomberg reported that Trump has been workshopping “the Perfect DeSantis Diss” (among the options: “Ron DisHonest,” “Ron DeEstablishment,” “Tiny D”), playing into a longer-term media obsession over Trump’s nicknames (which, as I’ve written before, has often played into Trump’s hands). At least two major outlets aggregated the Bloomberg story into stories of their own.

If all this feels familiar, it should. Every presidential election has its breakout stories, of course, including about the press (Hillary’s emails, Hunter’s laptop, and so on). This one will surely be no different; indeed, the growing scandal around Fox News’s 2020 cravenness may already be shaping up to slot into the latter category. But the basic rhythms of election coverage rarely seem to change. The (still very) early coverage of the 2024 race has, so far, often been a testament to that truth. Horse-race, horse-rinse, horse-repeat.

Last year—with the January 6 committee dominating the headlines and various election deniers running for prominent state or national posts in the midterms—major news organizations seemed to reorient their election coverage, at least to some extent, around the much bigger story of threats to the basic fabric of elections themselves (as I noted in January). In some quarters, that coverage has continued into this year—but across the toplines of the news cycle, it seems to have quieted somewhat. Over the weekend, The Guardian, for one, bucked that trend by putting ongoing threats to democracy right at the top of its story about Trump’s cpac speech, a framing that won praise from Jay Rosen, a media critic and journalism professor at NYU. Sharing the story, Rosen spelled out a shorthand principle for how he thinks all newsrooms should organize their coverage heading into 2024: “Not the odds, but the stakes.”

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This is good advice, and how we might apply it in practice demands some reflection. Much of the recent chatter about GOP “lanes” has been very odds-y (it’s hard to think of a more on-the-nose horse-race metaphor), though such talk isn’t inherently divorced from the stakes of the election; the lanes, after all, are partially taking shape around policy questions, from abortion to Ukraine. Trump trying to take the “outsider lane,” as Todd put it, might seem ludicrous for a literal former president of the United States, but it’s worth journalists’ interrogating what such a concept might mean; some coverage of cpac—and particularly its antidemocratic and anti-trans overtones—did so sharply. Even stories like Hogan ruling himself out for 2024 aren’t entirely divorced from real-world effects: how the field takes shape determines who wins; who wins determines what policy ideas get taken to the country and, perhaps, into government.

There are high stakes on the Democratic side, too—not least the small matter of the rest of Biden’s current presidency. His policies demand urgent and ongoing media engagement and scrutiny, and yet, if Jill Biden’s derailed Africa trip is any guide, it’s not hard to foresee much of the remainder of his time in office getting sucked into the insatiable maw of campaign coverage if/when he officially declares as a candidate again. Already, important decisions are often getting filtered through a 2024 prism, as was the case last week, when Biden said that he would decline to veto a rare congressional move to overturn a local crime law in DC. Again, to the extent that political dynamics shape policy, they merit news coverage. But they aren’t the be-all and end-all. Yesterday, Todd said that it looked as if Biden had made “the right call” on the DC crime law because leading members of his party have so largely backed off from criticizing his decision publicly. This, to put it mildly, is a highly selective indicator of what makes something “right.”

In the fall of 2021, with 2024 chatter already starting to ramp up in the political press, I wrote that it was way too early to start covering that election. It’s now eighteen months less early, and there are important election stories that we should be starting to cover—in ways consistent with centering the stakes. If candidates are declaring already, their track records demand scrutiny. We’ve seen no little coverage on such terms, not least when it comes to what DeSantis is doing as governor of Florida. (CJR wrote last week, for example, about proposed anti-press legislation in the state, and what it would mean for that to go national.) But this sort of coverage hasn’t always been in evidence. In his four Sunday-show hits this year, Sununu has repeatedly been asked to play 2024 pundit (Can Trump win again? Will Biden run again?) in addition to facing questions about his own intentions, which he has played off with a winking ambiguity. He has also faced questions about his stances on hot-button political issues, from police reform to the Chinese spy balloon. As far as I can see, though, he has not faced a single question seriously probing his record as governor of New Hampshire, a job he has now held for six years.

And, even though the election race is now taking concrete shape, Election Day itself is still a long way away; Biden has barely completed half of his term, and we shouldn’t drown the rest of it in a sea of horse-race handicapping. I wrote in 2021 that “the biggest problem with horse-race election coverage, arguably, isn’t that it exists at all, but that it overrides so much else of substance in major outlets’ attention spans.” That remains true today.

The heightened election coverage of recent weeks hasn’t only served to overshadow a conversation about food security abroad, but one at home, as well: last week, a covid-linked expansion of food-stamp benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or snap, expired, affecting tens of millions of families and leading at least one expert to warn of an impending “huge hunger cliff.” The end of the expanded benefit did attract prominent coverage, not least a deeply reported story on the front page of the Washington Post. But it didn’t attract much coverage on cable news. Yesterday—across the Sunday shows on NBC, CNN, ABC, and CBS—snap wasn’t mentioned at all. A different acronym got twenty-three mentions: cpac.

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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.