Like the Republican Party, the conservative media has now bifurcated. On one side stand blogs, radio hosts and pundits (representing a range of ideological perspectives from the libertarian Reason to old-guard conservatives such as National Review) along with feisty reporters (e.g. Washington Free Beacon) who are candid about their ideological perspective and have been candid about who Donald Trump is and what he is attempting to do (i.e. use the GOP as a vehicle for his Peronist vision). On the other is the hodgepodge of Trump apologists, including Breitbart, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and anti-immigration-obsessed talk radio hosts. Fortunately, the latter are under siege and risk losing a good share of their audience.
And then came Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields’s alleged assault by Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. BuzzFeed reports that Fields and her colleague Ben Shapiro join Breitbart spokesman Kurt Bardella (who accused his former employer of lying about the incident) in resigning:
“Today I informed the management at Breitbart News of my immediate resignation,” Fields said in a statement sent to BuzzFeed News. “I do not believe Breitbart News has adequately stood by me during the events of the past week and because of that I believe it is now best for us to part ways.”
In his own statement, Shapiro said the episode was emblematic of how he believes the site’s management had sold out the legacy of its founder and namesake, the late Andrew Breitbart.
“Andrew’s life mission has been betrayed,” Shapiro wrote. “Indeed, Breitbart News, under the chairmanship of Steve Bannon, has put a stake through the heart of Andrew’s legacy. In my opinion, Steve Bannon is a bully, and has sold out Andrew’s mission in order to back another bully, Donald Trump; he has shaped the company into Trump’s personal Pravda, to the extent that he abandoned and undercut his own reporter, Breitbart News’ Michelle Fields, in order to protect Trump’s bully campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who allegedly assaulted Michelle.”
Fields and Shapiro will receive well-deserved praise, one expects, from both the mainstream media and conservative media that have decried Breitbart’s conduct in the incident. The revolt at Breitbart, however, is no longer just about Trump or Breitbart. It is indicative of a broader trend and conflict within conservative media that developed during the Obama presidency and has exploded during the Trump candidacy. The battle lines are drawn.
On one hand, there have been the cadre of talk radio hosts, micro-blogs and Fox nighttime hosts who have spun the narrative of the great Republican “sellout” since President Obama took office. They have been telling audiences that the Republican “establishment” has given Obama whatever it wanted and ignored the base — this, despite multiple efforts to undo Obamacare, successful resistance to the repeal of all but a sliver of the George W. Bush tax cuts, reduction in discretionary spending, defeat of immigration reform in the House, etc. This contingent cheered the shutdown in 2013 — and blamed its failure on, you guessed it, “the establishment.”
Just as illegal immigration from Mexico has declined dramatically, these voices have been beating not simply the anti-immigration reform drum, but also decrying all immigration (often relying on propaganda from flaky zero-population-growth groups). They have become apologists and propagandists for a strain of loud, angry conservatism; ideological purity used to be their highest aim, but now they are happy to throw away conservative ideals to back Trump, who embraces no ideology other than the promotion of Trump.
In short, this segment of the conservative media requires maintenance of a phony narrative built on betrayal and anger — just like the Trump phenomenon.
On the other side of the conservative media divide is an array of reporters, commentators and a few lonely voices in the talk show world (Michael Medved, for example) who attempt to cover and explain the conservative movement. They are willing to speak hard truths to their audiences (e.g. supply-side economics has no sell). Newer outlets such as Washington Free Beacon, Resurgent and the Federalist; established publications such as National Review, Commentary and the Weekly Standard; the Wall Street Journal editorial page; straight reporters/interviewers on Fox News, including Megyn Kelly, Chris Wallace and Bret Baier; and newer media stars such as S.E. Cupp, Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson have tracked the ebb and flow in the conservative movement, the electoral fate of the GOP and tried to report diligently on and explain the Trump phenomenon.
The difference between the two media groups is in some ways as stark as the difference between the mainstream media and this second group of conservative journalists (who matured and expanded as an alternative to the liberal, biased mainstream media). The Trump acolytes have a niche audience but have done themselves great harm in becoming participants in the Trump movement. They have also exacerbated the divide within the conservative movement.
John Podhoretz, one of the founders of the Weekly Standard and the editor of Commentary magazine, brings the perspective of decades in conservative media. “Supporting Trump is an emotional decision for most, and that’s their right. Supporting Trump because it’s good for business is understandable as well—but only as long as it’s acknowledged as such,” he tells me via email. “It’s the pretense that the support is based on principle and not on emotion or commerce that is repellent and that has caused such a huge rift on the Right.” He continues, “I have no problem with Fox or Breitbart or whoever deciding they want to play footsie with Trump because it’s what their readers and viewers want. But pretending they are doing so for any reason other than lucre is noxious. And for them to say those of us who are standing on principle are doing so because we are slaves to the ‘Establishment’ is just a display of bad conscience.”
As the original antidote to what was perceived as a monochromatic mainstream media wildly oblivious to its own biases, the point of many in conservative journalism was to create a lively form of journalism that filled in the gaps that the mainstream media left, what the editor of Washington Free Beacon in its mission statement inaugurating the outlet in 2012 dubbed “combat journalism.” As Matthew Continetti put it, this was supposed to be “an alternative to the hackneyed spin, routine misstatements, paranoid hyperbole, and insipid folderol of Democratic officials and the liberal gasbags on MSNBC and talk radio.” It was not to come up with its own hackneyed spin, routine misstatements, paranoid hyperbole, insipid folderol and gasbags.
In short, the gaping division in conservative media, matching the divide in Republican ranks, is between the unblinking, unthinking propagandists and the combat journalists (both reporters and pundits). In helping to expose Breitbart, Fields and Shapiro have highlighted this divide. Like dissidents in the Cold War who held up signs reading “2+2=4” to insist that there was objective truth beyond regime propaganda, these two have blown away any pretense that Breitbart — and its comrades on that side of the media divide — are independently minded and intellectually honest. That’s why this is a big deal on the right.