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The Scourge of Trumpism in Conservative Journalism

Right-wing media outlets are pushing their employees to defend the president, and it's eroding the pursuit of truth.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In the summer of 2016, Ben Shapiro and Elisha Krauss, then working as hosts of the radio show The Morning Answer, found themselves increasingly at odds with their employer, Salem Media Group, a conservative company that syndicates talk-radio shows and runs right-leaning websites. As Trump skeptics, Shapiro and Krauss found themselves feuding with their own listeners as well as their bosses as it became clear Trump would be the Republican nominee.

Shapiro turned to Salem senior vice president Phil Boyce for advice on how to navigate the minefield of being a Trump critic with an audience that was falling in line with Trump. “For YOU I suggest that you become a trial lawyer,” Boyce emailed Shapiro in a June exchange reported on by CNN. “You suspect your client is guilty, but you are paid to get him off. The jurors will ultimately decide his fate.”

While Shapiro continued to be Never Trumper, other employees who opposed Trump shifted ground, seemingly under pressure from Salem. After Salem CEO Edward Atsinger berated radio host Hugh Hewitt for insufficient loyalty to Trump, Hewitt wrote a Washington Post op-ed supporting Trump’s candidacy. “Wow he took a lot from my email to him and turned it into an article,” Atsinger marveled to a fellow Salem executive.

As Krauss told CNN, “They wanted someone to toe the line of ‘He is the greatest, he is the best.” Salem had, she felt, an “all or nothing” attitude which led them not to present a diversity of conservative opinion but rather work towards “puppeteering those opinions.” In January of 2017, after Trump’s election, Salem fired Krauss. This move now looks like a precursor to the mass firing of Never Trump conservatives at the Salem website RedState this April.

Salem denies that these firings were ideologically motivated, claiming they were merely a business decision. But if a company like Salem serves a conservative audience which is now overwhelmingly pro-Trump, then its business strategy necessarily has ideological implications.

While Trump remains a divisive figure among conservative intellectuals, the space for debating his merits is dwindling in the right-of-center media. Both the dictates of the market and the demands of employers like Salem are pushing conservative pundits and journalists to act, as Boyce put it, as trial lawyers who defend their client regardless of their private scruples. What happened at Salem is a microcosm for a larger shift in the conservative media.

This push for ideological conformity is problematic enough for organizations like Salem Media, but is even more troubling at outlets that historically have a reputation for separating reported journalism from opinion. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page is staunchly conservative and often echoes the ideas of owner Rupert Murdoch, but its reporters have long had a reputation for being non-partisan. This, too, is changing in the Trump era. As The Guardian reported in September, Journal editor-in-chief Gerry Baker repeatedly clashed with journalists who “find themselves either directly stymied by Gerry’s interference or shave the edges off their stories in advance to try to please him (and, by extension, Murdoch).”

A parallel situation is occurring in Canada with the Toronto Sun, owned by Post Media, which also owns a majority of Canadian newspapers. While the Sun’s editorial page has always been conservative, the paper is also known for non-partisan reporting. That reputation is in tatters after the release of a memo uncovered by the media watchdog Canadaland wherein management outlined explicit talking points to use in covering the upcoming Ontario provincial election, with a view toward promoting the Trump-like populist Doug Ford—brother of the late, scandalous Toronto Mayor Rob Ford—and tearing down the governing Liberal government. The memo encouraged Sun writers to call attention to how the Liberal Party “practices race, gender and sexual politics for ideological and political gain.” While Sun editors deny setting an ideological agenda for their reporters, the think tank PressProgress documented that the newspaper’s press coverage has hewed to the positions recommended in the memo.

Perhaps the best short distillation of the new conservative media landscape is a viral video by Deadspin in March that showed local news anchors for Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest owner of TV stations in America, robotically reading from the same script, which read, “[W]e’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media. More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories… stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first. Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’… This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.”

In the age of Trump, the conservative media is increasingly abandoning even the pretense of journalism, including long-held traditions of separating editorial and reported content. Trump is partially responsible for the shift, but in complex ways. His repeated tirades against “fake news” have the effect of undermining the ideal of journalism: to uncover and disseminate the truth.

The overwhelming majority of the coverage Trump receives in the mainstream media—91 percent of network news coverage, according to one study—is negative. This is to be expected, given the many scandals engulfing the Trump administration and the president’s relentless violation of political norms. But it has the side effect of creating an audience for more positive coverage among conservatives. Pursuing this niche market increasingly is a defining feature of the conservative media.

Ben Howe, one of the RedState writers fired by Salem Media, lamented in The Daily Beast last week that “there is almost no original reporting” in the conservative media. Alex Pareene of Splinter offered a theory as to why: “A hostility to original reporting isn’t necessarily inherent to the Right—it’s just inherent to the Right we are currently stuck with. It is difficult, for example, to go out and report on the doings of the Trump administration and not come away with stories about how it is a den of incompetents and grifters, led by an unstable crook, without some very creative interpretations of whatever facts you uncover.”

Pareene’s analysis calls to mind the original injunction given to Ben Shapiro in 2016. Given who Trump is, the American right doesn’t need good reporters (who would only risk uncovering more scandals about Trump) nor do they even need effective ideological thinkers (who would only remark on Trump’s deviation from conservative orthodoxy). What the American right needs is good trial lawyers, mercenaries for hire who will defend the president no matter who they might privately think.

The imperative of conservative journalists to support Trump is strong, driven by their audience’s demand, by their longstanding alliance with the Republican Party, and often, as in the case of Sinclair and Salem, by the dictates of employers. This is why the flickering of Never Trump sentiment found among smaller intellectual outlets like National Review and The Weekly Standard remains important, despite not speaking to any real mass constituency. This minority faction persists as an admonitory ghost, reminding Republicans of all the principles they’ve abandoned under Trump.