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The Nowhere Election

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: PowerfulJRE/YouTube

In a recent interview with Canadian right-wing influencer Jordan Peterson, Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. made an electoral meta-prediction. “This year will be the political campaign that’s decided by podcasts,” he said. Podcasts, he said, allow candidates to “end-run the corporate media monolith.”

Is 2024 the podcast election? If we indulge the broader spirit of RFK Jr.’s just-asking-questions campaign for president, we can construct a logical contraption that makes the claim sound plausible enough. Podcasts are more popular than ever, with approximately half of Americans surveyed by Pew reporting that they’ve listened to at least one in the past year. In addition to his turn on Jordan Peterson’s show, RFK Jr. — a longtime podcaster himself – recently appeared on podcasts with Joe Rogan, Russell Brand, Bill Maher, James O’Keefe, Megyn Kelly, and tech investors David Sacks, Jason Calacanis, and Chamath Palihapitiya; he joined a Twitter space conversation with Elon Musk, and discussion with long-form interviewer Lex Fridman is imminent. Presumably, he believes on some level that he might win — or, more plausibly, play some sort of spoiler role — in which case, yes: In the way that Facebook may have mattered to the 2016 election, podcasts will have had something to do with it.

That’s the generous case. Pew also reports that, as of 2022, just 4 percent of American adults consider podcasts their “most preferred” source of digital news, compared to 17, 18, and 25 percent for social media, search, and news publishers, respectively. While Joe Rogan, who has declined to interview Donald Trump and is unlikely to receive much interest from Joe Biden, is probably one of the most influential interviewers in the world in 2023, his permanent posture is that of an outsider and his relative clout as much a testament to the fragmentation and collapse of previous modes of consumption as to his individual popularity.

RFK Jr. does incidentally raise an interesting question, however: Where, if not in America’s podcast apps, will the 2024 election be “decided,” in media terms?

Consider one possibility: nowhere. As the election looms, the media — old but also new, niche but especially mainstream — is falling to pieces. It seems not only possible but likely that this will be the first modern election in the United States without a minimum viable media: a placeless race, in which voters and candidates can and will, despite or maybe because of a glut of fragmented content, ignore the news.

This is, at root, a business story. American news is a smoldering wasteland, its increasingly skeptical audiences dispersed and disgruntled, its businesses, and entire business models, under extreme duress. Cable news is in trouble, the twin threats of streaming and social-media video having sapped it of relevance, audience, and revenue; both Fox and CNN are in crisis, for different but related reasons. Print media is simply disappearing in much of the country, and where it still exists, it is in barely controlled decline. Digital news is suffering a brutal downturn of its own, with layoffs cutting deep into newsrooms of all sizes and many just shutting down entirely. Publications savvy or lucky enough to have built subscription businesses — most notable among them the New York Times — have effectively traded broad influence and participation in the public discourse for survival behind ever taller paywalls, where smaller numbers of devoted subscribers consume news that they effectively cannot share. News organizations still vying for pure scale must contend with a Facebook that has thoroughly deprioritized news in its feeds, a chaotic Twitter owned by an ideologue, and a Google that’s threatening to replace its top results with content generated by AI.

Like podcasters, there are countless YouTubers, TikTokers, and Instagram influencers finding audiences by talking about current events, many of whom are engaging in real newsgathering and analysis. Also like podcasters, their status as “most preferred” sources of news is still marginal, their considerable collective audience is split millions of ways, and their reach among some of America’s most frequent voters is limited. The platforms on which this new guard is working — owned by firms that have profited from the decline of old-media business models — are facing their own struggles with growth.

Across the loose agglomeration of election-relevant attention-harvesting operations that we generally refer to as “the news media,” we mostly find stories of decline, survival, and modest success at the margins. “News,” as a type of content people consciously consume, is at best in flux and at worst suffering secular decline. “The level of news consumption in 2021 took a nosedive following historic highs in 2020. Despite a slew of major stories, readers have retrenched further in 2022,” wrote Axios last year, citing data from firms that track app usage, web traffic, TV viewing, and social media. In Pew’s 2022 news-consumption survey, every category — print publications, radio, television, and digital devices — saw a decline over the past two years in users who report that they “often” turn to it for news. The “monolith,” to borrow RFK Jr. formulation, is falling apart on its own, no end run necessary.

It’s difficult to predict how this will shake out in the medium or long term. Whether this is a news nadir, the beginning of something worse, or the darkness before the dawn of a new era is an interesting question that is also basically irrelevant for the 2024 election, when America will cast its votes for the next president, not to mention for hundreds of lawmakers and thousands of state and local officials.

The prospect of a Nowhere Election presents obvious challenges for any candidate: Without a clear sense of where audiences are gathered or whom they trust, it’s hard to know how to allocate resources or how to reach people. Social-media companies once gave candidates their own tools for end-running the “monolith.” By 2020, they had come to represent the corporate media, accused simultaneously, and often fairly, of both profiting from the promotion of misinformation and censoring too much content. In 2024, mainstream social media will have been reduced, in electoral terms, to being just another place to buy ads or for partisans to double down (not entirely unlike late-stage cable news). Campaigns will become even more like spam operations than they already are, dumping vast quantities of content, and money, into a discursive void. In the traditional media, fewer reporters will be working on fewer stories for smaller audiences, and candidates will have no obligation, or motivation, to respond to or even acknowledge those stories.

The three most visible candidates at the moment — President Biden, former president Trump, and Florida governor Ron DeSantis — will collide with this reality in different ways. Biden, who has kept the media at arm’s length, and whose team proudly ignored the tides of social media in 2020, will rely on the visibility of his office. Ron DeSantis is currently treating all but the friendliest partisan media as a foil, including big-tech platforms, effectively marking the value of engaging with the media in any sort of earnest way down to zero. Trump will reengage his former adversaries and partners in spectacle — i.e., a diminished mainstream media and the newly news-averse social media platforms that only recently reinstated his accounts — and attempt a rerun.

For voters, a Nowhere Election will be experienced as an exhortation to think for themselves in an environment where attempting to do so means constantly being sold to, pandered to, misled, or scammed — a bustling public sphere (hurray!) filling with thick and acrid smoke (oh, no).

In the long term, again, maybe this collapse is the precursor to something new and interesting or at least commercially viable and newslike: A chance to build a new media from scratch after years of flailing and unworthy stewardship by institutions that deserve some of what’s happening to them. (And, maybe, at least a little bit, it’s also the triumph of a decades-long political campaign to make the public sphere uninhabitable.) In the nearer term, though, before any such rebuilding would be possible — and this is another way in which RFK Jr.’s intuitions are incidentally correct — the failed media environment of the 2024 election will present new opportunities for hustlers, scammers, and conspiracists, some of whom, sure, have podcasts.

That the 2024 election will be an informational nightmare isn’t exactly a bold prediction, but nobody seems quite sure what to do about it or even how to talk about it. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt predicts chaos as well but lays the problem at the feet of AI. “The 2024 elections are going to be a mess because social media is not protecting us from false generated AI,” he told CNBC. “Every side, every grassroots group and every politician will use generative AI to do harm to their opponents,” he told a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival. His panel mate Daniel Huttenlocher of MIT was apocalyptic. “AI is now this huge amplifier for how you should not trust anything in print,” he said. “And by the way, you shouldn’t trust any images and you shouldn’t trust any videos, and you shouldn’t trust any audio either.”

This might be narrowly true, and I don’t want to underrate the threat of bad-faith automated campaign (and campaign adjacent) content produced at scale, but the defining trait of the media environment into which it’s being pumped will be the collapse of institutions and distribution systems, a process that the arrival of automated content may hasten but that predates it by decades. (In the sudden freakout about AI and politics, it’s hard not to hear echoes of recent panics about polarization, disinformation, and the “post-truth” era — related symptoms of institutional and civic degradation that are tempting to confuse for their causes.) Readers’ assessment of a text is informed by where they encounter it, who wrote it, and their understanding of why they’re seeing it. We already know that people can make things up. We’re just losing some of the tools we had to figure out when they’re not. 

Lying and fabrication aren’t new, in other words — discovering, assessing, and contextualizing information from unreliable sources for mass consumption is, ideally, the whole idea of a healthy news media, whether or not that’s what we have now or ever did. In a sufficiently degraded environment, AI-generated content may also go unchallenged, but it, like everything else, will have trouble breaking through to people who aren’t already looking for it. It’ll be every voter, and bot, for themselves.

The 2024 Election Will Be an Informational Nightmare