While he was campaigning for president at a 2000 Labor Day parade in Naperville, Illinois, a hot microphone caught Texas Gov. George W. Bush calling New York Times reporter Adam Clymer a “major league a—hole.” The Republican nominee’s running mate, Dick Cheney, chimed in: “Big time.”
Bush later expressed “regret” that his dig at Clymer, meant only for Cheney, became public. The future 43rd president’s communications director on the 2000 campaign, Karen Hughes, explained he was frustrated with the Times scribe’s “very unfair” reporting. It was a typical complaint, not without merit, from Republicans at the time: So-called mainstream media outlets covered the GOP unfairly. How quaint.
Nearly a quarter-century later, in the early days of the 2024 contest, relations between the media and the GOP—and the party’s committed voting base—have deteriorated such that the nominee for president not only seems destined to experience a similar moment on the trail, he or she is likely to manufacture them for public consumption. Unlike 2016, when the party’s White House hopefuls generally played ball with the media, a significant number of candidates could attempt to freeze out mainstream journalists.
“I increasingly hear from my clients that they have no desire to speak to the New York Times, the Washington Post or CNN,” said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist in Washington and co-author of The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics. “Their argument is: Our voters don’t care what they write, so why should we care what they write?”
“You’re going to see more candidates who are less focused on building relationships with local reporters in early caucus and primary states,” explained Kevin Madden, a communications adviser on multiple GOP presidential campaigns and senior partner at the government relations firm Penta. “Instead they’ll focus on developing their own platforms using social media and engaging with conservative media outlets.”
Democrats have their own grievances with mainstream reporters, especially since the rise of former President Donald Trump. But the GOP and media outlets that say they strive for objective journalism—especially nationally recognizable outlets—have had a tense relationship for decades. Years ago, the objection was mainly that reporters were biased in favor of the Democrats, generally unintentionally, because of similar backgrounds, shared values, or both.
Today, it’s common for Republican politicians, strategists, and conservative media figures to declare the mainstream media an arm of the Democratic Party’s messaging operation and charge reporters with being willing foot soldiers in efforts to undermine the GOP. Republicans say they see proof everyday on social media platforms like Twitter, where reporters once limited to the stories they published, and occasional television appearances, are profligate with snarky, liberal opinions masquerading as neutral news analysis.
Sen. Ted Cruz, runner-up for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, blames Trump. Or rather, Cruz blames what he argues is the mainstream media’s obsession with defeating the former president and any Republican who supports him for its descent from “fair and balanced” journalism that dealt in “facts,” to “editorializing and propagandizing.”
“Donald Trump broke the corporate media; they hate him so much that the distinction between news and editorial disappeared,” Cruz, who is seeking a third Senate term next year, told The Dispatch. “They no longer aspire to be journalists. They are not just Democrat propagandists, they are the left wing of the Democrat Party.”
Even as conservative media expanded in the 1990s and the 21st century—growing from talk radio and a few prestigious political journals to include top-rated Fox News and myriad print and digital outlets—Republicans continued to cooperate with local and national mainstream reporters. That was true in 2016 and since, as the party’s candidates for president, and those running down-ballot, sat for interviews and participated in stories about their campaign strategies and policy agendas.
The 2024 presidential contest could see a departure from that—at least in the primaries. But the trend could continue into the general, especially as many young GOP communications aides staffing campaigns who came of age in the past decade remain unaccustomed to working with mainstream journalists.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is often dismissive of the press—more so than other Republicans. DeSantis attributes his stiffarming to reporters he claims consistently peddle misinformation about his legislative agenda because of their own opposing agendas. In comments Friday during a swing through Iowa, DeSantis indicated that this media strategy will likely carry over to his expected White House bid.
The GOP has “to stop worrying about being called names by the media and the left. Just do what’s right, speak the truth, and you can cut through the BS,” the governor said, detailing his approach to the “legacy media” in response to a question from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. “Speak the truth, do your thing but do not give them the satisfaction that they are some type of neutral gatekeepers, because they are not.”
That remark about the “legacy media” no longer functioning as gatekeepers is crucial.
Republican suspicion of mainstream reporters goes back decades. President Richard Nixon was famously hostile to the press. And, when President George H.W. Bush sought reelection 1992, one of his bumper stickers read: “Annoy The Media; Re-elect Bush.” But the party tolerated the media because it was a conduit for reaching voters. The incentive structure is now different. Demonizing the media helps win the support of grassroots conservatives even more than it used to, and there are plenty of alternatives to mainstream outlets—alternatives GOP voters actually trust.
Indeed, even Republican strategists who otherwise encourage engagement with mainstream press say they see diminishing returns for their clients’ appearances on CNN and MSNBC versus eight years ago, the last time the race for the GOP nomination was an open contest. If the interview goes well, few grassroots Republicans see it. If it goes poorly, everyone sees it. Ditto sitting for interviews or responding to questions from the iconic, national print mastheads.
Unless, that is, the goal is to reach an elite audience—such as wealthy Republican donors.
“It used to be, you’d engage with the mainstream media because that’s what you’re supposed to do,” said Todd Harris, a Republican consultant in Washington. “But now, there’s a risk-reward element. If you’re going to do it, there better be a payoff.”
Trump is a special case. The former president, who often refers to the media as “the enemy of the people” has done more to stoke Republican voters’ opposition to reporters, including conservative media figures he deems unfriendly, than any current GOP politician. Simultaneously, Trump might be more accessible and talkative to the media than perhaps any other prominent Republican.
GOP presidential contenders not named Trump or DeSantis, however, seem headed toward less interaction with reporters over the next 20 months. That would be a mistake, experienced Republican operatives warn.
In a primary in which Trump could have 25 percent to 35 percent of the GOP base locked up, depending on the state, and with DeSantis beginning dominant among grassroots conservatives, it’s automatically a losing proposition to fight for the same electorate they command on Fox News, or perhaps Newsmax, Breitbart, the Daily Wire or The Federalist. Candidates looking to carve a competitive lane and make themselves a factor in the race have to venture outside of conservative media to attract a winning coalition.
It might sound counterintuitive. But the Republican nominee usually wins the primary by appealing to a broad spectrum of GOP voters who, pragmatically, prioritize electability over ideology. That was the case when Trump snagged the party’s crown in 2016.
“If you’re trying to persuade a Trump audience of ‘not Trump,’ it doesn’t seem like you’re going to have a ton of success,” said Josh Holmes, Republican strategist and co-host of “Ruthless,” a podcast that features media commentary and interviews with GOP newsmakers. “But if you open the aperture and start moving beyond his chosen outlets, you’re going to reach more voters, different people—perhaps people who didn’t participate in the process the last two years.”