Wanted: Columnists to say nice things about Donald Trump. Must be able to make cogent arguments in favor of the president-elect’s policies, appointees and statements. Experience preferred but not required.
It’s not an actual want ad, but it might as well be one. As they discovered during the long campaign season, the nation’s newspapers and major digital news sites — the dreaded mainstream media — are facing a shortage of people able, or more likely willing, to write opinion columns supportive of the president-elect.
Major newspapers, from The Washington Post to the New York Times, have struggled to find and publish pro-Trump columns for months. So have regional ones, such as the Des Moines Register and the Arizona Republic, which has a long history of supporting Republican candidates.
The newspapers have plenty of conservative writers, but that’s where the problem begins. Trump, who has defied traditional left-right categories, has offered something for both liberals and conservatives to dislike. The latter never believed that Trump was a true conservative; the former were revolted by his rhetoric from the start.
Hence, he has had few friends on the nation’s op-ed pages.
A case in point: The New York Times’ regular center-right columnists, Ross Douthat and David Brooks, never got behind Trump. And despite recruiting prominent conservative figures such as Glenn Beck and Erick Erickson to write guest columns, the result was largely the same. Erickson called Trump “indefensible.” The best Beck could do was to say, “Mr. Trump is not Hitler.”
It was much the same with The Post’s regular lineup of conservative voices — George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Kathleen Parker, Jennifer Rubin and Michael Gerson; none offered much support for Trump. Regular Post contributors such as Marc A. Thiessen and Ed Rogers tended to knock Hillary Clinton more than they praised Trump.
“We struggled to find voices that could advocate for Donald Trump’s ideas,” said James Bennet, the Times’ editorial-page editor. “It was really unusual. It didn’t help that the conservative intelligentsia lined up against him.” But Bennet says Trump’s campaign contributed to the imbalance: “He didn’t have the people around him who were prepared to put together his arguments” for publication.
Lynn Hicks, the Des Moines Register’s opinion editor, found a parallel at his newspaper, the largest in the swing state that wound up going for Trump. “Given that almost all of our Republican leadership in Iowa supported Trump, I kept waiting for [supportive op-ed] pieces to arrive,” Hicks said. “I’m still waiting.”
The Arizona Republic’s syndicated and staff opinion writers were all “stridently anti-Trump,” said Phil Boas, director of the paper’s editorial department. “In a normal presidential election, we would have seen a strong mix of pro-con views for Republican and Democrat candidates,” he said, “but the Republican civil war turned a lot of traditional voices on the right into opponents of the GOP nominee. . . . A number of pro-Trump readers accused us of betraying our state and its conservative ideals.”
USA Today may have been the only large newspaper to buck the general trend. It published Trump-supportive columns from law professor and Instapundit founder Glenn Reynolds and regular contributor James Robbins. It also went right to the source: It persuaded Trump; his running mate, Mike Pence; and Trump surrogate Rudolph W. Giuliani to write guest columns. As the new administration takes shape, editorial page editor Bill Sternberg said the paper is looking for more contributions from those “who agree with Trump on specific issues.”
The general lack of Trump-supporting columns, however, puts newspaper editorial editors in an uncomfortable position. Most newspapers try to create a rough balance between left and right opinions on their op-ed pages, which feature staff and guest columnists. The idea has been to reflect a range of viewpoints, even if the newspaper’s “official” position, as expressed in unsigned editorials, tends to go in one direction.
Trump’s relationship with the news media, of course, has been unusually rocky. During the campaign, he demonized journalists, calling them “dishonest,” “disgusting” and “the lowest form of life.” Newspapers returned the favor by endorsing Clinton nearly across the board. The Arizona Republic abandoned 126 years of endorsing Republicans to side with her.
The cold shoulder from mainstream editorial pages and columnists may have given superficial validation to Trump’s characterization of the news media as his enemy and a tool of the establishment. It may also have sharpened the prominence of a partisan alternative press, such as Breitbart.com, that regularly champions him.
An even more daring theory: The lack of advocates for Trump in the mainstream media helped create a breach that has been filled by scurrilous “fake” news stories. As it happens, conservatives seem to be the most receptive to fake news stories, especially those that attack liberals and Democrats.
Several newspapers tried to bridge the Trump void on their op-ed pages by recruiting supporters for one-off columns. The Boston Globe, for one, persuaded a local businessman and Trump delegate named Lou Murray to write occasional columns; it also got infrequent contributions from John Bolton, whom Trump is considering for secretary of state, and Mike Stopa, a Harvard physicist and Trump supporter, said Ellen Clegg, the Globe’s editorial page editor.
Newspaper editors say they’re on the lookout for more such writers. “What happened this year is that many of the people who we count on for conservative commentary — many of whom have generally supported Republican candidates in the past — simply didn’t support Trump,” said Nicholas Goldberg, editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times. “I certainly believe our op-ed editor ought to be aggressively seeking smart, articulate people who have positive things to say about Trump, who are sympathetic to his point of view, or who are able to explain, support and justify him to our readers.”
The Washington Post’s editorial-page editor, Fred Hiatt, said the paper is as committed “as ever” to offering readers “a range of smart, independent thinking, and we are always thinking about whether there are new voices we should be adding” as Trump takes office.
Said the Times’ Bennet: “We owe it to our readers to help them hear the voices that were supportive of Trump. . . . I’m proud of the work we did, but we could have done better.”