early and often

Why Republicans Stopped Talking to the Press

“I just don’t see the point,” said an adviser to a GOP presidential aspirant.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

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When Fox News host Tucker Carlson appeared last week at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa — an annual cattle call for Republican would-be presidential contenders — he insisted that he was a not a candidate, but he had advice for what GOP voters should look for in one: “You need to be really wary of candidates who care what the New York Times thinks,” he said. Singling out former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who, after the murder of George Floyd, tweeted that his death was “personal and painful,” Carlson accused the likely presidential candidate of pandering to the wrong audience.

“You’re trying to please the people whose opinions you actually care about — at the New York Times,” he said, mocking Haley.

This view — that approval from the mainstream press isn’t just unnecessary but actually suspect — is one that has come to dominate GOP politics in the Trump era. And while railing against the so-called liberal media has long been a part of the Republican playbook, more than a dozen GOP campaign operatives, senior Hill aides, and political reporters from major news outlets say the past few years have brought something new: actively courting the media’s scorn while avoiding anything that may be viewed as consorting with the enemy.

At this point in the political cycle six years ago, Rand Paul was on the cover of Time magazine. “The Most Interesting Man in Politics,” the headline said of the junior senator from Kentucky and 2016 presidential aspirant. He was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine too, billed as a “Major Threat” (with a design riffing off the visual language of the punk band Minor Threat).

In both instances, Paul spent lots of time with the reporters, posing for pictures, and his views were given at least a fair, if not flattering, airing. And if Paul was a sympathetic figure for the media in his pre-2016 days — a civil libertarian who opposed military escalation abroad and seemed to hate the Republican Establishment as much as Democrats did — he wasn’t alone in receiving and participating in coverage from the elite media. Ted Cruz was profiled in The New Yorker, pictured in his cowboy boots before a painting of Ronald Reagan. He was portrayed as an archconservative, but a swashbuckling one, with his father and various employers, friends, and former college professors speaking to his intelligence. Marco Rubio was also in the magazine and was compared to a Republican Kennedy.

It wasn’t just Paul, Cruz, and Rubio. Take a look at any of the prestige- and Establishment-media outlets from around this time (including this one), and all of their pages were graced with the Jeb Bushes, Chris Christies, John Kasichs, and other contenders who were making up an already overstuffed presidential-primary field.

We are at the same point now in the 2024 election cycle, and again two fistfuls of Republicans are making noises about running for president. But that kind of long look at the life and career of the contenders has been all but absent so far this election cycle. Save for a recent Time profile of Glenn Youngkin, still considered a long shot for a 2024 run, the closest we’ve seen to what used to be a staple of political journalism is a long New Yorker profile of Florida governor Ron DeSantis — one in which the subject didn’t participate, a previously almost unheard-of press strategy for a presidential aspirant. And it is not just the prepresidential campaign profile that is suffering from a lack of Republican engagement. Increasingly, even simple news stories from national newspapers and wire services will feature a direct quote from a Democrat but just a tweet or a line from a speech by a Republican, typically a sign the latter declined to respond to the reporter.

“I just don’t even see what the point is anymore,” said an adviser to one likely GOP presidential aspirant, who requested anonymity to discuss press strategy. “We know reporters always disagreed with the Republican Party, but it used to be you thought you could get a fair shake. Now every reporter, and every outlet, is just chasing resistance rage-clicks.”

A competing theory of the case is that there is really not much Republicans can say. The past six years have seen them rally behind a person almost all of them once denounced as dangerously unfit for public office — even as their most dire 2015-era warnings proved true. Any decent profile writer would have to ask, until some kind of satisfactory answer was achieved, what they saw during the Trump administration that made them change their stance. In the case of Cruz, what explains the flip from describing Trump as an immoral bully to writing a glowing profile of him for the Time “100” issue? I changed my mind because I wanted to win reelection and become a powerful politician is typically not a satisfactory answer.

“Fundamentally, they don’t want to have to defend Donald Trump and his falsehoods about the election,” said Jeremy Peters, a reporter with the Times who has written about the right for years and whose recent book, Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted, documents the conservative movement’s evolution over the past decade. “There are a lot of Republicans who will privately tell you they are Trump skeptical, but they have to defend his election lies on the record, and it makes them uncomfortable.”

And so Republicans find places where they don’t have to face any questions like that. Compared with even a few years ago, there now is a robust universe of outlets that cater to conservatives. It is not just Fox News, where DeSantis appears often. (The network, his New Yorker profile revealed, has been closely coordinating with the governor’s staff over its coverage.) Talk radio remains a potent force on the right wing, especially locally. Most top ’24 contenders are media-makers in their own right, hosting their own podcasts or, at minimum, building out robust social-media feeds. The rise of podcasting has been a huge development. One aide to a potential ’24 contender told me they are far more interested in getting on Steve Bannon’s podcast than sitting down for an interview with a mainstream publication. When he was president, Trump helped elevate outlets once considered fringe even by conservatives — such as Gateway Pundit, LifeZette, and Breitbart — by inviting them into the White House briefing room, where his first press secretary, Sean Spicer, broke long-established protocol and allowed them to ask questions before outlets like the Associated Press and Reuters.

But more important, Trump helped accelerate a long-term trend of educational polarization, as voters with college and postgraduate degrees have moved into the Democratic Party while non-college-educated voters migrated to the GOP. A college degree may have revealed nothing of your political ideology a generation ago, but today’s college graduates, especially from the kind of elite institutions that end up working in media, are overwhelmingly left of center. So even if the media doesn’t skew left by the standards of its demographic cohort, its demographic cohort is the most liberal slice of the electorate. Republican operatives said there would likely be a newsroom revolt if a GOP candidate received the kind of treatment the party’s presidential contenders had gotten in the pre-Trump era, much as the New York Times faced an uproar over its editorial board’s decision to publish a controversial op-ed by Tom Cotton. Multiple reporters from national outlets told me there is an internal debate in their newsrooms about interviewing or “platforming” Trump at all these days, even as he prepares for an all-but-certain presidential run.

If GOP political operatives used to suspect reporters were liberal, and would scour their clips for evidence of where their biases lay, now they say they have proof. The rise of Twitter has given them, in the words of one, “a direct view into the id of every political reporter in America.” The social-media platform rewards dunks, jokes, and takes. The current economy of political journalism is such that reporters need to not just do their jobs but build up their follower counts, and Twitter, too, skews to the left. That Trump seemed like a demagogue and a rare kind of threat to a democratic republic (and, let’s face it, has been just that) meant reporters could toss aside their studied neutrality of 2015. Doing so not only felt like fighting a righteous cause but was rewarded by likes and retweets.

As Twitter skews left, so, increasingly, does the readership of elite and Establishment publications, which have followed the same kind of trends of educational polarization. “After Trump won, the New York Times was getting hundreds of thousands of new subscribers every quarter,” said one GOP operative. “Who do you think was buying those subscriptions? Trump voters?” In other words: do those readers even want a fair look into DeSantis’s life story and policy ideas?

But DeSantis — or Rick Scott or Tim Scott or Nikki Haley or take your pick — doesn’t really want a fair story, either. If Republicans sat down with reporters despite anticipating a tough article before, they at least figured it would be better for them than if they ignored the journalist entirely. Now, though, nearly every Republican I talked to said a full-throttle cannon-blasted takedown isn’t just expected but preferred. “It used to be that you didn’t want to give the media a chance to attack you, but now you see people doing things that are deliberately transgressive just in order to create negative attention — which then allows you to go back to your people and say, ‘Look how the liberal media is attacking me,’” said Liam Donovan, who used to work for the Senate GOP. “A hit piece is worth a heck of a lot more than a positive puff piece.” Last year, 60 Minutes aired a story suggesting Florida’s botched COVID-vaccine rollout was related to DeSantis’s partnership with a supermarket chain that donated to his campaign; DeStantis didn’t speak with the show, and when some of the program’s claims were refuted later, the governor appeared delighted, going on Fox and hosting press conferences in which he skewered the network as “smear merchants” pushing a “fake narrative” along with the rest of the media. “You can’t trust them,” he said. “They will lie … And then they just move on to the next target and think they’re going to get away with it.”

In fact, sitting down with the mainstream press has come to be seen by Republican primary voters as consorting with the enemy, and approval by the enemy is the political kiss of death, as Haley found out during Carlson’s Iowa speech. Dave Carney, a longtime GOP strategist, said that, according to his team’s research, getting endorsed by a newspaper editorial board, even a local one, hurts Republicans in primaries rather than helps them.
“No one gives a fuck what the New York Times writes,” he said. “In fact, it would be good if you criticize us so that we can say that even the liberal New York Times hates us.”

The general complaint is not new. Republicans have railed against the liberal media dating back to the days of Richard Nixon. “Never forget, the press is the enemy,” Nixon told Henry Kissinger. “Write that on the blackboard 100 times.” George H.W. Bush used to tell campaign rallies about his favorite bumper sticker: “Annoy the Media: Reelect Bush.” For many younger conservatives, it was a formative moment when, in a 2012 GOP primary debate, Newt Gingrich unloaded on CNN’s John King for asking about the claim made days before by Gingrich’s second wife that he had wanted an open marriage before their eventual divorce. Gingrich called the debate moderator “despicable,” only to see his poll numbers shoot up.

But Republican hopefuls still sought approval from the elite media back then. Sitting down for interviews was a way to boost name ID and attract the attention of potential donors; it was also a way to show the electorate you were a serious person with ideas that needed to be taken seriously.

“I used to have a saying when I worked presidential campaigns that ‘media bias is a fact, but it is not a message,’” said Kevin Madden, a senior adviser for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “The threshold voters have for a presidential candidate is high on everything from their vision to their ideas to their ability to articulate those ideas, and you have to reach a national audience to build a broad electoral coalition. If you spend all your time bitching about the media, you can’t get any of that done.”

Today, reporters can still grab many Republican officeholders in the hallways of Congress, but the extent of the engagement can depend on the Republican. One adviser to Marco Rubio told me a reporter had recently said to him that Rubio’s accessibility to the press in Washington would stand him in good stead should he eventually seek the presidency again. “Are you kidding me?” the adviser responded. “The minute he announces, you guys put your blue jerseys on again, and that’s the end of that.”

No one I spoke to for this article thought the current situation was likely to change. The era of the political profile — for Republicans, at least — might be over. Oddly enough, the one person who may still be exempt from the dynamic is the one who started it all. Although the elite media scorned Trump in 2016, he still sat for profiles for politics-adjacent outlets such as Rolling Stone and BuzzFeed, and these days, he has welcomed every journalist writing a book about the Trump era to Mar-a-Lago. He was also the most recent GOP nominee, and he is likely to be the next one.

It is worth noting that we did reach out to Haley’s spokesperson to see if she wanted to respond to Carlson. We did not receive a reply.

Why Republicans Stopped Talking to the Press