Why you should care
Because they’re shaping the narrative of the young administration.
When Donald Trump hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House this month, the two leaders took a couple of questions from the press, as is customary. What wasn’t business as usual were the outlets Trump called on. The big networks, papers and wire services got the shaft, while conservative outlets got the microphone. Katie Pavlich, editor of Townhall.com, asked about Israel policy — the subject of the news conference. But she didn’t ask what her mainstream media brethren wanted to know: why Trump had fired his national security adviser.
Pavlich, who said she got no heads up that she’d be called on, was taken aback that her question was so relentlessly criticized. “It’s gonna be a little weird in the briefing room,” she recounted at a panel discussion at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington this week. “It’s like a shark tank. But I can handle it.” And yet, Pavlich was a “Never Trumper” who is part of a conservative media firmament that is now recalibrating its ways to cover the new White House. Townhall political editor Guy Benson moderated the CPAC panel on “How Not To Be a Hack During the Trump Administration.” The trick, he says, is finding a middle ground. ”How do we avoid being too deeply ensconced in the Trump bubble … without joining the hysteria of the left? How are we operating among them in a fair-minded way?”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
The former reality-television star understands the media like few presidents before him. While he has attacked the Fourth Estate with unusual venom, Trump has his favorites. Fox News lost its biggest prime-time Trump skeptic, Megyn Kelly, and replaced her with Trump-friendly Tucker Carlson. And the president is a viewer, as he showed by indirectly and clumsily citing a Carlson segment about Sweden during a recent speech. (Fox News declined to comment for this story.)
Outsider outlets such as LifeZette, which was founded two years ago by conservative talk-radio host and pundit Laura Ingraham, and the Christian Broadcasting Network have gained new prominence in the White House briefing room. Chief among pro-Trump outlets is Breitbart News — its former executive chairman Steve Bannon is now a top Trump adviser. When Bannon made a rare public appearance at CPAC, he continually referred to the media as “the opposition party” and predicted mainstream coverage of the administration “is going to get worse every day.” In a CPAC speech Friday, Trump went on an extended jag against “fake” media, including the “Clinton News Network.” Hours later, CNN and The New York Times were excluded from a briefing with Press Secretary Sean Spicer that included Breitbart and the conservative Washington Times.
With public trust declining in mainstream outlets, new companies see opportunity. Students in Houston who campaigned for Trump launched a website called The Millennial Post in January. “We like to say we’re building a bridge from an untrusted industry to a misinformed generation,” says Alicia Starko, 25, of Houston. “Some of my friends in college, they won’t even turn on the news … because they don’t know what’s true, what’s not true,” says Josh Gremillion, a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Houston who dreams of his startup eclipsing Fox one day.
“A lot of these outlets complained for the last eight years about the media going soft on Obama,” says one editor at a conservative publication. “They need to practice what they preach.”
Washington has an established ecosystem of conservative media that had an uneasy relationship with Trump during the campaign. National Review magazine, founded by conservative icon William F. Buckley in 1955, devoted an entire issue to denouncing Trump during the GOP primary. On Thursday, the site’s lead story was by a writer who was, at one point, recruited to run for president as a conservative Independent. The piece was titled “Despite the Hysteria, Trump Is Trending Less Authoritarian Than Obama.”
The headline encapsulates what unites the conservative media: Its mission to counter the liberal national press. Those instincts could be channeled into muscular journalism. “A lot of these outlets complained for the last eight years about the media going soft on Obama,” says one editor at a conservative publication who was not authorized to speak publicly. “They need to practice what they preach.”
Ultimately, the media business must serve up what the market wants — and Trump has a high approval rating among Republicans, who make up the bulk of conservative news consumers. Aside from journalistic mission and a desire for “intellectual honesty,” Benson tells OZY he knows that “if you are relentlessly negative about him, you are really alienating the audience.” So far, that has not been a problem. “It is a mixed bag, and he’s doing a lot of stuff that I like.”
*Nick Fouriezos contributed reporting.