Vivek Ramaswamy, ChatGPT, and the media hype machine – Columbia Journalism Review

The media’s coverage of Vivek Ramaswamy’s presidential campaign has been characterized by an overzealous sense of hype and speculation. Rather than objectively examining his policies, qualifications, and potential impact, many outlets have sensationalized his candidacy, portraying it as a revolutionary force without substantial evidence to support such claims. This overhyping not only distorts the public’s understanding of his candidacy but also undermines the credibility of the media by prioritizing sensationalism over substantive reporting. Responsible journalism should critically analyze candidates’ platforms and track records, holding them accountable for their promises and actions rather than prematurely elevating them to a status they may not yet warrant. The media’s tendency to overinflate the significance of Ramaswamy’s campaign risks detracting from the genuine policy debates that should be the focus of a presidential race.
Okay, so I didn’t write the above—I had ChatGPT do it, in response to the prompt “Write a paragraph of media criticism about coverage overhyping Vivek Ramaswamy’s presidential campaign,” and inspired by a zinger that Chris Christie, Ramaswamy’s rival for the Republican nomination, launched in his direction during last week’s primary debate on Fox News. (“I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT,” Christie said, in response to Ramaswamy’s polished talking points.) But my AI-generated media criticism is as good a summation as any of my—and many others’—feelings about coverage of Ramaswamy, which, following the debate, seemed to reach maximum hype. Reporting for The Free Press, Olivia Reingold noted that journalists mobbed Ramaswamy in the post-debate “spin room.” (When a staffer for a rival candidate offered an interview to CNN, its reporter replied, “Sorry, they really want Vivek.”) “So begins a now familiar sequence of events,” The New Yorker’s Jay Caspian Kang wrote: “Ramaswamy’s gleeful trolling got the most attention, which will, in turn, drive more press coverage, which then will lead to better name recognition and a boost in the polls.”
This sequence of events didn’t begin with the debate: Ramaswamy has been a character, if not the main character, in national political media for a while, despite being a political outsider. (He is typically described in media shorthand as a “biotech entrepreneur.”) Last year, he was a regular guest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show and was profiled by The New Yorker, which dubbed him “the C.E.O of anti-woke, inc.” (“By mocking corporate virtue-signalling on climate change and racial justice,” the subheading read, Ramaswamy “is becoming a right-wing star.”) According to ABC, before he jumped into the presidential race, Ramaswamy was in talks to front a new project at the right-wing Daily Wire; since his campaign launch, he has been hypervisible across the media landscape. Politico’s Adam Wren noted recently that Ramaswamy has appeared on upward of a hundred and fifty podcasts since February and at one point did thirty interviews in a day. (When Wren spent time with Ramaswamy at the latter’s two-million-dollar Ohio estate, he had a “light day” consisting of just five hours of interviews; during one of them, Ramaswamy asked Wren to quiet a housekeeper who was making noise.) “All politicians seek out the glare of cameras and banks of microphones,” Wren wrote, but no one this cycle “has been as eager about getting in front of the media as Ramaswamy.”
Even last week, it wasn’t the debate that unleashed Ramaswamy’s first squall of national headlines. Last Monday, The Atlantic published a profile by John Hendrickson, who asked Ramaswamy about January 6 and was treated to a conspiratorial-sounding disquisition on 9/11. (“I think it is legitimate to say how many police, how many federal agents, were on the planes that hit the Twin Towers,” Ramaswamy said. “I have no reason to think it was anything other than zero. But if we’re doing a comprehensive assessment of what happened on 9/11, we have a 9/11 commission, absolutely that should be an answer the public knows the answer to.”) Later, on CNN, Kaitlan Collins asked Ramaswamy to clarify his remarks; Ramaswamy claimed that The Atlantic had misquoted him. “This is just lifting the curtain on how media works,” he said. In response, The Atlantic published audio showing that, in fact, Ramaswamy had not been misquoted. (Ramaswamy’s campaign now insists that he was quoted out of context.)
If his critics viewed this episode as telling of Ramaswamy’s integrity, it was telling, too, of other facets of his public persona. First, it pointed to a media strategy built on using the mainstream media as a platform while simultaneously bashing it; others have danced this two-step (look no further than Donald Trump), but it’s hard to think of a candidate—at least one starting from such a relative lack of mainstream renown—who has leaned as hard into mainstream interviews and respected their polished, debate-meet codes while also regurgitating talking points more often heard in right-wing media silos. (As I wrote recently, Ron DeSantis has started down this road, but far less convincingly.) Second, the episode was a testament to Ramaswamy’s flip-flopping. For me, the most notable part of his Atlantic exchange wasn’t his initial invocation of 9/11, but that he quickly seemed to backtrack, calling any comparison with January 6 “ridiculous.”
Both of these facets were in evidence again yesterday as Ramaswamy became the main character on NBC’s and CNN’s Sunday shows, where he was challenged over his recent rhetoric and its apparent inconsistencies with what he’s said in the past. Asked by CNN’s Dana Bash about an attack in Jacksonville on Saturday in which a white gunman shot and killed three Black people, Ramaswamy, in part, blamed the media and the “establishment” for throwing “kerosene” on racism in America. (One of Ramaswamy’s oft-quoted campaign “truths” is that “reverse racism is racism.”) Bash then asked Ramaswamy whether he stood by his remarks likening Ayanna Pressley, a Black Democratic congresswoman, to the “grand wizards of the KKK.” Ramaswamy said, “I stand by what I said to provoke an open and honest discussion in this country.” With the word provoke, Ramaswamy seemed to say the quiet part out loud.
If you squint, it’s possible to see Ramaswamy as a prominent spokesperson for ideological trends that demand scrutiny and elucidation; at least some of his views—on gutting the federal bureaucracy, for instance, and on Ukraine—would seem to situate him within the much-discussed, but somewhat nebulous, universe of the “New Right.” But in other ways, his politics and pronouncements seem all over the map—and, as Wren put it, “his attention-grabbing takes might come more from a desire to be contrarian rather than from deeply held beliefs.” (Sometimes, they betray a poor grasp of basic civics.) Ultimately, my ChatGPT media criticism has it right: too much coverage of Ramaswamy has sensationalized him as a character rather than interrogating his views, trading in the shallow language of debate zingers, winners, and losers; of optics and of polling. As the (very real) media critic Margaret Sullivan wrote in The Guardian following the debate, the Ramaswamy hype is proof, if any were needed, that the press will “always fall for the attention-seeking, the policy-unencumbered, the candidate quickest with a demeaning insult. That’s a ‘winner,’ apparently.”
Yesterday, Bill Grueskin, my occasional collaborator in this newsletter, mused that “the media’s ‘squirrel!’ attention span” appears to have shifted to Ramaswamy from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the conspiracy-touting Democratic candidate who himself devoured podcast airtime and profile space in prestige magazines earlier in the summer. Grueskin’s observation rings true. But I think the two candidates’ media moments have reflected slightly different dynamics. As has also been true for Ramaswamy, the Kennedy hype stemmed in part from horserace considerations like his (supposed) success in the polls—but it also stemmed from his irresistible backstory and his (questionable, in my view) status as an avatar of zeitgeisty anxieties around disinformation. To my mind, Ramaswamy is a more classic media character: the shiny object. While they are polar opposites politically, his media rise puts me in mind of Pete Buttigieg, who, as I wrote ahead of the 2020 Democratic primaries, hyperactively doled out media access and made himself flavor of the month, without offering much substance. Indeed, Ramaswamy told Wren recently that Buttigieg’s long-shot 2020 bid “convinced me that I could” run for president this time around. 
In the end, Buttigieg parlayed his early exposure into a more durable media moment; he is now President Biden’s secretary of transportation and considered a leading future presidential candidate. It would be churlish to attribute his rise entirely to media attention, but we undeniably gave him a big push. As I wrote recently, those with the resources to run for president effectively have the ability to hack our attention economy—and, while they merit media scrutiny, we should be self-conscious of our complicity in their ambitions. While the ostensible predicate for the hype around Ramaswamy—that he could become president—still seems far-fetched, it’s not hard to imagine him parlaying his newfound celebrity into some other, very real form of power, be that in a Republican cabinet or at the Daily Wire, or some other perch within conservative media. 
If ChatGPT is at the heart of many contemporary concerns about the state of our information ecosystem, Ramaswamy is a reminder that some of its problems are less newfangled. The journalist David Roberts perhaps put it best when he wrote over the weekend that Ramaswamy is “a powerful reminder that our attention economy is deeply broken. It rewards exactly what he’s doing; it selects for people like him.” 

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