Big-name politicians—such as former President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden, and their rivals—are jockeying for positions amid a media landscape that looks a lot like the Wild West lately.
High-profile shakeups have recently hit two major networks, Fox News and CNN, leaving candidates and viewers guessing the political direction each might take next.
After firing conservative megastar host Tucker Carlson two months ago, Fox has seen its primetime audience shrink by one-third, Deadline.com reported on June 27.
Trump, once aligned closely with Fox, criticized the network as being “very prejudiced” against him in a June 26 interview with Newsmax.
Meanwhile, in recent months, Fox’s left-leaning counterpart, CNN, fired longtime on-air personalities Don Lemon and Brian Stelter. Then, the network and Trump stunned observers by temporarily declaring a truce in their longstanding war over mutual accusations of spreading false information.
A May 10 town hall forum with Trump, his first appearance on CNN since his successful presidential run in 2015-16, drew more than 3 million viewers. The New Hampshire forum was the first major televised event of the 2024 presidential campaign, Trump’s third run for the presidency.
For Trump, it meant free publicity. For CNN, it was TV-ratings gold. But the event proved to be kryptonite for the network’s CEO, Chris Licht. CNN fired him shortly thereafter. He had been in charge only a year and had tried to steer the network toward more neutral news reporting.
These surprising shifts at Fox and CNN come while virtually all TV stations as legacy media outlets continue scrambling to snare attention from distracted and disengaged Americans.
‘Narrowcasting’ Supplants Broadcasting
At the same time, the number of alternative information sources has mushroomed. There are now more than 3 million active podcasts, for example.
Steve Bannon, a longtime Trump ally and host of the popular “War Room” podcast since 2019, predicts that only podcasts that provide “direct value” and “don’t waste people’s time” will survive, he says. Podcasters must provide rich content “every minute of every day, and that makes it insanely competitive,” he told The Epoch Times.
As the American electorate pays less attention to traditional news outlets, politicians have been forced to shift from broadcasting to “narrowcasting,” says Sean Evans, a political science professor at Union University in Tennessee.
“Everyone’s trying to find a niche market,” he told The Epoch Times. And politicians are experimenting with how to get the most benefit from their efforts.
Political Junkies Rare
Decades ago, when Evans was growing up, he could choose to watch shows on one of three TV networks: ABC, NBC, or CBS.
“Now, we have hundreds of choices; not just on TV channels but streaming, video games, radio, podcasts, and everything else,” he said. “So, the problem every [political] campaign continues to face is: ‘How do I reach voters?’”
Although “the most politically interested are the ones who are paying attention to politics,” political junkies make up a small percentage of the electorate, Evans said.
Only about 15 percent of Americans pay close attention to politics, researchers at Stony Brook University reported three years ago. However, the share of hyper-attuned Americans increases when major events happen, The Knight Foundation has noted.
In March 2020, 56 percent of Americans closely monitored national news as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the foundation reported last year.
About 52 percent paid “a great deal of attention to national news” in November 2020, according to Knight, as Trump battled unsuccessfully to remain president.
Trump, who has never conceded to Biden, so far is the clear frontrunner to become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee; likewise, Biden is seeking reelection and is the presumed nominee for the Democrats.
Both are entangled in major controversies: Trump’s criminal indictments and Biden’s alleged influence-peddling scandals. As a result, the two leading candidates’ challengers face an even harder time getting voters to notice them, political commentator Dick Morris pointed out last week.
Under normal circumstances, political news tends to be a tough sell at this time of year, says Susan MacManus, political science professor emerita at the University of South Florida.
Summer activities and vacations are filling people’s calendars. “This is the hardest time in politics to get someone’s attention,” she told The Epoch Times, “because people just have so much else going on.”
In addition, MacManus senses “a weariness” in much of the U.S. electorate.
“A lot of the average voters are not tuned into this ‘media morass,’” she said. “They just don’t want to hear a thing about any of it.”
The hurdles that candidates face now are even higher than they were in 2020, MacManus said.
“The proliferation of media has made it much more difficult to reach very small slices of the electorate,” she said. “It requires a great deal of money to be spent and time spent on micro-targeting; you cannot reach the same people with the same message or means of communication anymore.”
Another complication: while older voters may use platforms such as Facebook, younger ones are more likely to be found on platforms such as Snapchat or Instagram. So, to be effective, campaigns must calibrate their messages to connect with those different audiences on the various platforms, MacManus said.
Thus, she said, their communication needs to become more sophisticated.
“You’ve got to split your appeal into various little slices,” she said. Those can include messages tailored to certain demographics, ideologies, gender, family situation, economic situation, or political affiliation, for example.
Trying to figure out how to best target those slivers of the audience is constantly shifting, MacManus said.
“The biggest emphasis right now has to be on people who can understand this microtargeting and the communication of a decent message to the right people,” she said. “There’s just really a lot of stress on campaigns right now to figure out who’s watching, listening, and reading.”
Hyper-Specialized Channels Coming
Bannon said a void has been created in conservative media in particular. Fox News “collapsed” after it fired Carlson and Newsmax is “not going all-in” for the Trump “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) movement, he said.
Fox and Newsmax have shied away from exploring controversies over the COVID-19 vaccines and allegations over “the stealing of the 2020 election, which are both issues that are central to the MAGA movement,” Bannon said.
The vacuum has “allowed a basic explosion of alternative media,” he said, “and you’re seeing these new sites and new groups set up every day.”
“You’re going to start seeing tons of alternative media, I think, come up from the right, the MAGA right. There’s a huge appetite for it,” he said. “And I just think it’s going to expand. I think it’s going to give people tons of alternatives.”
He foresees an increasing array of hyper-specialized media sources catering to “the MAGA right.” They each may focus on a single topic or a cluster of related ones, Bannon said, such as economics and finance, national security, and foreign affairs, “woke” corporate culture, and the “invasion of the southern border.”
“You’ll see more specialties than just ‘generalists,’ and I think you’ll see a lot less whining,” Bannon said. “Conservative ink is way too whiny about about the mainstream media not covering things properly. I think people understand the media is a big part—if not the single biggest part—of the problem, and I think you’ll see alternative media that really deals in issues, facts, investigative reporting.”
Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable
One thing is sure as the landscape evolves, MacManus said: “Anymore, the same old, same old doesn’t work; you’ve got to go to some of the unconventional media that you’re less familiar with.”
When candidates take a somewhat unexpected approach, “that, in and of itself, generates coverage,” MacManus said.
Clearly, the candidates have been experimenting—Trump, by making temporary amends with his sworn enemy, CNN; and his GOP challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, by using Twitter as a campaign launchpad.
While some people equated Trump’s CNN appearance with his walking into a lion’s den, Evans, the Tennessee professor, saw it as an intelligent move.
“No matter what happened,” Trump supporters were “going to see him as being in the right,” Evans said, and Trump’s critics were going to remain critical of him, as they bashed the network for giving him a platform from which he could spew “lies.”
“So, he got two weeks’ worth of free media coverage like that,” Evans said. “Everyone was talking about Trump, and that’s what Trump wants.”
While the town hall story was dominating news cycles, Trump enjoyed “a better chance of reaching more people, or of more people actually hearing about him” rather than about his competitors, Evans said.
The less people hear about Trump’s opponents, “the more likely he is to win,” he said, “because people are more likely to vote for someone they recognize than for someone they don’t recognize.”
Minds Made Up
Still, there could be drawbacks to extra publicity. The more a candidate says publicly, the greater the chance that he or she will slip up. Yet, for someone like Trump, who has been in the spotlight constantly since he announced his first presidential run in 2015, that may not matter much, Evans said.
“We’re here seven years later, and who hasn’t made up their mind about Trump? … I don’t think there are many people who are going to change their mind about Trump,” Evans said. “And Trump has said all sorts of stupid things which would hurt other candidates, but for various different reasons, it doesn’t affect him.”
However, a message conveying negative information could prove more damaging to a lesser-known candidate, he said, “because you haven’t heard something positive about him first.”
That’s why Trump has repeatedly aimed at DeSantis. “He’s trying to define DeSantis in a negative way, before DeSantis can define himself,” Evans said.
Playing Nice Doesn’t Work
In response to some people expressing dismay over Trump’s “attacks” on DeSantis, Evans said he doubts there’s a way to succeed in politics with a solely “positive” message.
And, he said, “I would say there’s a difference between a negative ad and an attack ad.”
A negative ad is “a distortion of someone’s character, background, or something like that,” Evans said, while an attack ad is “something that is based on fact, an attempt to draw distinctions between you and somebody else.”
Attack ads or attack messages via social media or news releases are the most effective ones that exist, Evans said. People are more likely to remember such messages, which also give voters information that can help them decide which candidate to choose.
After months of anticipating that he would indeed seek the presidency, DeSantis used Twitter to announce he was officially entering the fray a month ago.
Using that medium attracted a lot of buzz for DeSantis; according to his campaign, the launch drew 30 million views in 15 hours.
For another reason, Evans said, Twitter was an interesting DeSantis launch choice. It may have implied to Trump, “Look, I’m on the web platform that launched you, and you’re not on this platform,” he said.
However, people have been speculating that Trump might return to Twitter, where he became infamous for his “mean tweets.” But Trump has been absent from the platform since Jan. 6, 2021. That’s when Twitter officials banned him, alleging that his message on that date fomented a violent uprising among some election-outcome protesters at the U.S. Capitol.
However late last year, the internal “Twitter Files” released by new Twitter owner Elon Musk, revealed that the social network broke its own policy to justify banishing Trump. Since then, Trump has relied on a platform he founded, Truth Social, to spread his messages to about 5.5 million followers.
Musk has invited Trump to return to Twitter; the former president has so far declined. Some people speculate that Trump may soon find it irresistible to tap into the nearly 88 million followers who await on his dormant Twitter account.
DeSantis has about 2 million followers on his Twitter account, but various additional Twitter accounts support his presidential run. DeSantis War Room has about 112,000 followers, for example.
The Florida governor’s campaign launch proved to be glitchy. He tweeted a video and spoke during a “Twitter Spaces” chatroom-type conversation. But the site crashed because so many people were trying to access it. DeSantis’ campaign later touted, “Our Campaign Launch Broke the Internet!”
Setting the ‘Narrative’
Even though DeSantis’ campaign rollout was not ideal, people have moved on to talking about other aspects of the presidential campaign. “What’s important is not individual things,” Evans said. Instead, “the overall narrative” about a candidate is what usually sticks with voters.
Campaigns tend to sell—and media outlets often buy—a “storyline” about each political hopeful, Evans said. Examples could be “Joe Biden is too old” or “Donald Trump is authoritarian,” he said. Whatever the theme is, candidates’ campaigns try to “get the press to carry that out, so people hear it over and over again,” Evans said.
At the same time, media outlets “want a race.” They “have an incentive to make it competitive on some level,” he said, because no one wants to follow the coverage of a political campaign that is a blowout. That’s why media outlets may be tempted to boost lower-ranking candidates.
Thus, if a media outlet appears to be leaning toward DeSantis, for example, that might not mean that the organization genuinely favors him. “Does this mean that they’re ‘pro-DeSantis?’” Evans asked rhetorically. “Or does it mean they’re ‘pro’ views and clicks?”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.