Sean Hannity, sitting comfortably in his air-conditioned New York studios on a hot August afternoon, was on a fiery rant.
“Honestly, I am tempted to just say I don’t support any of you people ever,” he barked.
The Fox News host and conservative personality was fed up with Republican leaders in Washington — and he wasn’t hiding it from the millions of listeners tuned into his radio program.
“If in 96 days Trump loses this election, I am pointing the finger directly at people like [House Speaker] Paul Ryan and [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and John McCain and John Kasich and Ted Cruz, if he won’t endorse — and Jeb Bush and everybody else that made promises they’re not keeping,” Hannity exclaimed, later threatening to endorse Ryan’s far-right primary challenger.
The bombastic diatribe against the so-called GOP establishment was nothing new from Hannity. For years, he had cast himself as an outside crusader defending conservative values and principles from a liberal president and, even worse, cowardly Republicans who would allegedly bow to that president’s demands.
But in 2016, the criticism from Hannity and a vocal faction of the conservative news media reached a fever pitch. The occasional needling of Republicans morphed into full-blown, searing criticism. Even figures like Ryan and Cruz, considered by most to have iron-clad conservative credentials, were no longer safe.
In fact, throughout the election season, it has appeared that Republicans have fielded more attacks from their supposed friends on the right than their political opponents on the left. It’s an incidental twist, considering how Republicans helped foster the growth of the conservative news media in order to avoid the skewering of mainstream journalists.
Instead, it has appeared their plan of using friendly pundits to tap directly into the vein of red-blooded Americans sympathetic to their political views has backfired. That has boosted the candidacy of Donald Trump, who last week named Steve Bannon, the former chair of the Trump-friendly Breitbart News, as his campaign’s CEO.
“The analogy that I think of is somebody who has a baby alligator in their bathtub and they keep feeding it and taking care of it,” said Charlie Sykes, a popular conservative talk-show host in Wisconsin. “And it’s really cute when it’s a baby alligator. Until it becomes a grown-up alligator and comes out and starts biting you.”
“There’s a certain sense that these guys were empowered, but they were empowered when these guys thought they were on the same side. There was a time when Breitbart was edgy, but on the mainstream of conservative,” he said, referring to the website founded by the late Andrew Breitbart. “And people actually thought we were all pulling in roughly the same direction.”
“I think that, in retrospect, they really did empower the instruments of their own destruction,” Sykes confessed of the GOP.
The roots of the conservative news media industrial complex came in the 1990s with the rise of three key forces: Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Matt Drudge. All broke ground and revolutionised their respective platforms: Fox News on television, Limbaugh on radio, and Drudge on the web.
In the years that would follow, many emulated their successes. What Limbaugh did with talk radio paved the way for hosts like Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, and more. And what Drudge did with the internet helped spawn a slew of conservative websites. Breitbart, TheBlaze, The Daily Caller, Hot Air, and Townhall came online throughout the years to serve a right-leaning audience with an insatiable appetite for news told through a conservative lens.
But back in the 1990s, the conservative press was not very hostile to politicians on the right. In its formative era, the conservative media movement mostly played friendly with Republicans. It instead spent its energy zeroing in on President Bill Clinton. Perhaps the peak came with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, during which the conservative media relentlessly hammered the president.
For the most part, Republicans and the conservative media existed symbiotically. Republicans used their newfound apparatus as a vehicle to drive home their message to supporters. Simultaneously, the conservative news media sought to lock in its audience by characterising the mainstream press as an industry comprised of dishonest liberals — something with which the GOP was more than happy to go along.
“What it became essentially was they were preaching this is the only place you can get news. This is the only place you can trust. All other media outlets are lying to you. So you need to come to us,” said Ted Newton, president of Gravity Strategic Communications and former communications adviser to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“And so in an attempt to capture an audience, they almost made them slaves to those news outlets. So there is a whole group of people who will only watch Fox. Who will only read Breitbart. And they are living in a bubble,” he added.
Toward the end of President George W. Bush’s second term, the symbiotic relationship showed signs of souring. Establishment figures inside the GOP supported immigration reform and a bailout at the height of the 2008 recession. Conservative talkers didn’t.
As the years progressed, it became increasingly clear the entertainment wing of the party had seized control. Republicans tried to play friendly with them, giving credence to the industry by lavishing praise, submitting editorials, and granting access, but more and more they were whipped by media figures on the right for supposedly not being conservative enough.
Fast forward to the beginning of the 2016 election cycle. To avoid being called a RINO (Republican in name only), a Republican would have to take a hardline conservative position on nearly every issue. If say, he or she were to hold conservative positions on 90% of the issues, the conservative press would focus on the 10% where there was disagreement.
It appeared that, for conservative media, only one candidate could be conservative enough to support for president: Cruz.
The Texas senator had carefully struck a balance between the various facets of the GOP, positioning himself as traditionally conservative on most issues, but one with a libertarian streak. That made him wildly popular with the conservative press leading up to 2016, and it appeared he had checked all the necessary boxes to easily win approval from its members.
But something went awry. The most aggressive right-wing members of the conservative press, the members who constantly lambasted certain Republicans for not toeing the hard-right line on every issue, got behind perhaps the most unlikely candidate of all: Donald Trump.
“America is a great place to make a living off an identity crisis. I mean, these guys just sold out to the highest bidder,” said Rick Tyler, the former communications director for Cruz’s presidential campaign. “If you’re a conservative, you couldn’t have possibly gotten on board with Trump. It’s not reconcilable.”
Trump, of course, was not a man known for his conservative credentials. On a host of issues normally instrumental to winning over the support of the conservative media, he had famously taken liberal positions. Even while running in the primaries, he split with the party on key issues.
Trump fired up crowds with anti-free trade rhetoric, said it was a disastrous mistake to go into Iraq, and got behind so-called touchback amnesty — all things that would normally send the conservative press into a frenzy.
But the loudest voices on the right got behind him. Drudge, Breitbart, Hannity, and best-selling conservative author Ann Coulter all supported his candidacy. Even more surprising, however, was that these very same voices were somehow able to turn the most beloved conservatives into pariahs.
Sen. Marco Rubio was pummelled for supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Cruz had conspiracy theories about his father and personal life circulated. And Ryan, considered to be the most conservative House speaker in a generation, was characterised as an open-borders, spineless Republican leader.
“We have reached the bizarro world point where, for all intents and purposes, conservatives are RINOs,” said John Ziegler, a nationally syndicated conservative talk show host who called the late Breitbart a friend. “There is no place now for real conservatives. We’ve also reached the point, I say, we’ve left the gravitational pull of the rational Earth, where we are now in a situation where facts don’t matter, truth doesn’t matter, logic doesn’t matter.”
Newton echoed that sentiment.
“You look at someone who a few cycles might have been derided as a right-wing lunatic, now they aren’t conservative enough,” he said. “People who were darlings of the conservative movement are now RINOs. I consider myself a fairly conservative person on most issues and you wouldn’t believe the kind of hate that is being spewed at me on Twitter. The pendulum has definitely swung.”
How to make sense of this? Perhaps it was Trump’s combative style that attracted a chunk of the conservative press.
Ryan Williams, former deputy national press secretary for Romney’s presidential campaign and senior vice president of communications at FP1 Strategies, said he believed some conservative pundits were “just drawn to Trump’s style more than policies.”
“I think that some of them just like Trump and were willing to cut him some slack on his shifting of positions because he’s a fighter and they like that,” Williams said. “He is running a bare-knuckles kind of campaign. They were willing to give him leeway.”
Leon Wolf, managing editor at RedState, made a similar argument in more colourful terms. Homing in on Drudge and Breitbart, Wolf said some are “naturally attracted to obnoxious people who are largely ignorant of actual policy.”
Ratings may have also played a role, according to conservative talkers who refused to jump aboard the Trump train.
Beck, one of the highest-rated conservative radio hosts in the country and founder of TheBlaze, said he’s sure “there are those who believe” what they say, but pointed to numbers when asked why so many of his colleagues — many whom he calls friends — have embraced Trump.
“I believe there are people doing this for ratings or hits,” he told Business Insider.
Trump has undoubtedly been a ratings booster for the media throughout the 2016 cycle. His outlandish style, mixed with his unpredictable personality, makes campaign events, interviews, and debates must-watch television.
And the former reality-TV star realised the power of this, using his ability to generate eyeballs to reward and punish members of the media, depending on their coverage.
For example, Trump famously boycotted Fox News for weeks, claiming the network’s coverage was unfair. Eventually, however, he returned to the cable news channel and started granting regular interviews to its more favourable hosts. That appeared to pay off for the personalities who scored him as a routine guest.
“[T]his has been a record ratings year for my show,” Hannity said in an email to Business Insider.
Hannity, in particular, has faced criticism from some colleagues in the conservative-media sphere who allege he has been too cosy with Trump. Ziegler, the conservative radio host, said there’s “there’s no question” a “monetary element” drove coverage overall.
“Hannity is desperate for every ratings crumb on the Fox News Channel. … It’s all about ratings,” he said. “Hannity is not particularly talented, he’s not a smart guy — he used to just be a Republican talking points talk-show host who happened to be in the right place at the right time. So he’s very vulnerable at any time. He’s not entertaining, so he constantly has to make sure his ratings are at the top of the Fox News prime-time schedule. So when he started doing Trump material and his ratings go up, he benefited.”
Those who comprise the Trump-boosting wing of conservative media boldly defend their coverage and say their critics have them all wrong.
Hannity fired back at Ziegler for suggesting his support of Trump was a ploy to score higher ratings.
“I do not know him or care about him, clearly he is desperate for attention, as he seems incapable of keeping a job in this industry,” Hannity said in a statement. “He obviously knows nothing about me.”
The Fox News host added: “I simply love my country, far more than ‘ratings,’ and I clearly prefer Donald Trump’s positions on the issues over Hillary Clinton’s positions.”
Hannity told Business Insider that his brazen criticism of the House speaker was warranted, arguing that “unfortunately” Ryan, “like some other national Republicans,” chose to “be more harsh in his criticism of Donald Trump than he has ever been toward either President Obama or former Secretary Hillary Clinton.”
He pointed to five specific “failures” of GOP leadership, including its inability to “repeal any aspect of Obamacare or defund it” and the “record [national] debt that they failed to stop or take a tough stand on.”
Moreover, Hannity said that Trump’s proposals look “like an agenda that any conservative would support.” He listed 10 specific points, including the real-estate mogul’s promise to appoint conservative justices, secure the US-Mexico border, and fix the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Others supportive of Trump and critical of the broader GOP mirrored Hannity’s arguments.
Matthew Boyle, the Washington political editor for Breitbart News, said his news organisation’s goal was to “hold the global permanent political class in contempt.”
“We are doing what journalists throughout said mainstream media are supposed to do: challenge the conventional wisdom, hold politicians’ feet to the fire, ask tough questions, report facts that are in many cases inconvenient truths for career politicians, and give a voice to the millions of people worldwide who have had theirs taken away from them by world elites who consider the ordinary person beneath them,” Boyle said, pointing to Breitbart’s record July traffic as evidence Americans “hunger for something different.”
And Coulter pushed back against the vilification of Trump-boosters in the conservative press, characterising many of those lobbing bombs as irrelevant players in the movement.
The bestselling author also argued that “there’s an awful lot” of conservative media, but that she could only “count on one hand the number of conservative talk-radio hosts who support Donald Trump, or certainly who did from the beginning.”
“I guess there’s one website, if we are not including the Drudge Report … but there aren’t many of them!” she said.
The hole in Coulter’s argument is that while there are other outlets which belong to the conservative media apparatus, they lack the influence of the hard right. The National Review or Weekly Standard might earn the eyeballs of elites in Washington, but those in the heartland seem to prefer the style of the more aggressive pro-Trump outlets.
That has left conservatives who oppose Trump in a tricky position when trying to get their message to supporters. No longer can Ryan or Cruz turn to Hannity for a softball interview. They can’t work with Breitbart or rely on Drudge to help with their legislative agenda.
These Republicans have effectively been exiled from the conservative news media, leaving them with a problem.
“They don’t have any place to go. How else do you get your message out? You can’t do it in the mainstream. This is the way you reach conservatives,” Ziegler said. “We have taught conservatives for many years to trust nothing other than what they hear in conservative media. Yet the conservative media has now proven to be untrustworthy.”
“You have to go to the old mainstream media and at the end of the day, you will be the only reasonable, rational conservative standing,” Sykes suggested. “That would be the best case scenario.”
A senior communications aide who has worked for top Republicans on Capitol Hill lamented about the problem he regularly faces, arguing “most” of the reporters who comprise the mainstream press “are biased.” The aide said that instead it is best to work with “alternative and smaller media on the right.”
One of those outlets could be Beck’s TheBlaze (full disclosure: this author worked there for nearly three years). The conservative news website has a large readership, being visited by more than six million readers in July, according to Quantcast.
“When it comes to TheBlaze, we are not feeding red meat. We are, there are people who are on the air who are pro-Trump and anti-Trump. There are writers who are pro and against. So, we are not just feeding red meat,” Beck said. “We are trying to toe the line, at least that’s my understanding from TheBlaze. We are not picking a candidate where everyone else in the mainstream media, they are picking a candidate. Look at Breitbart and Drudge. They are picking a candidate.”
Some conservatives did try to fight back against Trump, pleading with their audiences to see what they contended to be the rational point of view, but their arguments fell on deaf ears.
One of the chief problems, Sykes said, was that it had become impossible to prove to listeners that Trump was telling falsehoods because over the past several decades the conservative news media had “basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers.”
“There’s nobody,” he lamented. “Let’s say that Donald Trump basically makes whatever you want to say, whatever claim he wants to make. And everybody knows it’s a falsehood. The big question of my audience, it is impossible for me to say that, ‘By the way, you know it’s false.’ And they will say, ‘Why? I saw it on Allen B. West.’ Or they will say, ‘I saw it on a Facebook page.’ And I’ll say, ‘The New York Times did a fact check.’ And they will say, ‘Oh, that’s The New York Times. That’s bulls—.’ There’s nobody — you can’t go to anybody and say, ‘Look, here are the facts.'”
“And I have to say that’s one of the disorienting realities of this political year. You can be in this alternative media reality and there’s no way to break through it,” Sykes continued. “And I swim up stream because if I don’t say these things from some of these websites, then suddenly I have sold out. Then they will ask what’s wrong with me for not repeating these stories that I know not to be true.”
Ziegler said he faced much of the same problem.
“If you are a conservative talk show host, which I am, if you don’t accept that it’s likely Hillary Clinton has taken part in multiple murders, or that Barack Obama is a Muslim extremist sympathizer who was probably born outside this country — if you don’t accept those two things it’s almost as if you’re a sellout. You’re a RINO. You’re somehow part of the liberal elite. It’s nuts. It’s making my own show very difficult to do. It’s almost where to the point where we are not able to function.”
He continued: “It’s almost like it’s a disease, and it’s taken over people. I don’t remember this being the case four years ago. But something has happened. Something snapped. But now all of a sudden, if a story comes out, and it’s not on Breitbart or endorsed by Drudge, it can’t be true. Especially if it’s about Donald Trump. Which is flat out ludicrous.”
Asked why none of his criticism of Trump seemed to put a chink in the real-estate mogul’s armour, Beck paused for a brief moment: “I think that people are very lost and they don’t know what to do at this point.”
Those who have been ostracized by the outsized influence of the hard-right in conservative media believe — or at least hope — Armageddon is on the horizon.
“When this is all over, we have to go back. There’s got to be a reckoning on all this,” Sykes said. “We’ve created this monster.”
“And look, I’m a conservative talk show host. All conservative hosts have basically established their brand as being contrasted to the mainstream media. So we have spent 20 years demonizing the liberal mainstream media. And by the way, a lot of it has been justifiable. There is real bias,” he continued.
“But, at a certain point you wake up and you realise you have destroyed the credibility of any credible outlet out there,” Sykes concluded. “And I am feeling, to a certain extent, that we are reaping the whirlwind at that. And I have to look in the mirror and ask myself, ‘To what extent did I contribute?'”
Beck expressed hope that conservatives would wake up and eventually reward those who did not falter on their convictions.
“I do believe in the long run, only those who stayed true to their principles are going to be the ones that remain standing. How long that takes?” he asked. “I don’t know.”
Ziegler said he wanted to see the entire system torpedoed and rebuilt.
“I think the conservative media is the worst thing that has ever happened to the Republican Party on a national level,” he opined.
“Take a look at — now this is not Rush’s fault. But if you look at the presidential elections before Rush Limbaugh became nationally syndicated, I believe Republicans won five out of six,” he said. “After Rush Limbaugh became truly nationally syndicated … if you start in 1996 and what I anticipate will happen in 2016, Republicans will have lost five of the seven presidential elections, once he became syndicated.”
Ziegler said that if there is no price to pay for Trump’s most enthusiastic backers in the conservative press, then “it’s over.”
“The conservative establishment that needs to be gotten rid of is the conservative media establishment. Sean Hannity needs to go. Bill O’Reilly needs to go. Sadly, Rush Limbaugh needs to go,” he said.
The talk show host concluded: “Here’s what I’ll be very disappointed in. If Trump does lose, as I am very confident that he will, and let’s say it’s not super close, if he loses by a significant margin and Sean Hannity and people like him have not experienced some significant career pain, if not destruction because of their role, then it’s over. It is over. Because if there is no price to pay for conservative media elements having sold out to Donald Trump, then guess what? It’s going to happen again and again and again. … If that doesn’t happen, then I think we’re done. It’s over.”
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