Correction: Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the website the Blaze did not exist during the 2012 election. In fact, it launched in 2011.
These should be high times for conservative news outlets, what with like-minded officials and operatives in control of virtually every important office in Washington.
And yet the news about conservative news organs lately has been a parade of dysfunction, a messy portrait in pixels. Specifically:
●The Independent Journal Review (IJR), a politics-and-policy news site geared toward conservative millennials, retracted a story last week that suggested, without evidence, that former president Barack Obama had pressured a federal judge in Hawaii to rule against President Trump’s latest travel ban. The site acknowledged that the innuendo-laden story was wrong and suspended three staff members — chief content officer Benny Johnson, writer Kyle Becker and editor Becca Lower.
●Rising conservative star Tomi Lahren was suspended this week from the Blaze, her online home, after she told ABC’s “The View” that she supports abortion rights, an apparently heretical statement in the judgment of Blaze founder Glenn Beck.
●Fox News Channel pulled analyst Andrew Napolitano off the air indefinitely this week after he repeatedly said Obama had recruited British spies to bug Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign. British officials had protested Napolitano’s statements, calling them “ridiculous.”
The spate of seemingly unrelated events occurred as the conservative media have come into a new era of prominence in Washington, boosted by Trump’s election and increased access to decision-makers. The IJR, for example, was the only news outlet to secure a long interview with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — and it got the lone seat on his media plane during his Asian diplomatic trip last week.
That may help explain some of the recent run of bad news: Increased prominence means increased scrutiny. Small outrages, often ignored in the age of Obama, loom larger with Trump in charge.
“There is sense that [Fox News], Breitbart and other such media outlets played key roles in putting Trump in the White House,” said Jeffrey McCall, a communication professor at DePauw University in Indiana. “Thus, these outlets now matter in ways that wouldn’t have mattered had the Democrats kept the White House and more seats in Congress.”
IJR and the Blaze were just getting started during the 2012 campaign, and Breitbart was more of a niche site, but today they are players. Napolitano’s unproven comments might have gone unnoticed four years ago, McCall says (in fact, Napolitano has previously advanced conspiratorial “truther” ideas about the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, without much fallout). But no longer.
“Left-leaning observers and even moderates must now recognize the power of the conservative media in ways that were once overlooked,” he said.
The right-leaning media have become so diversified that their factions now engage in the kind of internecine warfare that exposes the likes of Yiannopoulos and Lahren, notes Will Sommer, a Washington journalist who tracks conservative media in his newsletter, Right Richter.
“There are prominent people on the right opposed to Trump who are looking for a chance to excommunicate anyone allied with him from the right,” Sommer says.
Hence, the downfall of Yiannopoulos, a professional provocateur who made his name challenging left-leaning orthodoxies and testing the limits of acceptable speech. The star writer for the Trump-loving Breitbart site was brought low by a conservative, anti-Trump faction called the Reagan Battalion that culled Yiannopoulos’s voluminous YouTube clips and found a series of indefensible commentaries.
Sommer points out that Lahren, a 24-year-old commentator with a huge social-media following, also was taken out by a Never Trumper: her boss, Beck.
Fox let Napolitano make his claims about Obama’s alleged recruitment of British agents at least three times last week before anchors Shepard Smith and Bret Baier knocked down the story Friday.
The delayed pushback by Fox may have had a larger dimension. Fox’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, is seeking to acquire a majority interest in the Sky TV satellite service in Britain — a transaction that requires British government approval. Such approval conceivably could have been jeopardized if Fox hadn’t distanced itself from Napolitano’s reporting, the liberal watchdog group Media Matters suggested. (Fox’s parent company has denied any connection between the Sky deal and Fox News’ retreat on Napolitano’s claims.)
Sommer says the source of IJR’s trouble — hyping an erroneous Obama story — was its desire to maximize its audience amid intense competition for conservative readers. Knowing that its readers gravitate toward negative news about Obama (and positive press about Trump), it pushed too far, ending up with “what’s essentially an Infowars story, because that’s their competition and that’s what works,” he said.
IJR spokesman Matt Manda doesn’t go that far, but he acknowledged in a statement that “last week we got it wrong, and as a result of last week’s failure, three employees were suspended. IJR deserves the criticism because we want to be taken seriously, but we’re also proud to be transparent and open about the mistakes we made.”
On that point, perhaps, conservatives can agree.
“Conservative journalism always has operated under scrutiny from critics eager to discredit opposing views,” said Matthew Continetti, the editor of the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news and commentary site. “That has made it all the more important that such journalism lives up to and indeed exceeds standards for factuality and editorial protocol. Failure to do so not only makes for bad journalism. It undermines conservatism itself.”