Months before Donald Trump blew up American politics with his surprise win in November, he did the same thing to the conservative media. Through much of the campaign, two very different media moguls with colliding visions for the Republican Party vied for Trump’s soul: Roger Ailes, the longtime president and CEO of Fox News, and Steve Bannon, the executive chairman of the populist online tabloid Breitbart. Both were angling to be the media Svengali whispering in Trump’s ear.
At one point, it seemed they might have been allies: Bannon worked to insinuate himself at Fox, and Ailes’ network aired some of his populist documentaries. Then came the first Republican primary debate in August 2015, when Megyn Kelly, Fox’s feisty prime-time anchor, hammered the candidate from all sides. It was at that moment that Bannon says his relationship with Ailes began to sour. “The big rift between Breitbart and Fox was all over Megyn Kelly. She was all over Trump nonstop,” Bannon said in an interview. He says he warned Ailes that Kelly would betray him. “I told him then, I said, ‘She’s the devil, and she will turn on you.’”
By the summer of 2016, Ailes’ life lay in ruins: A blockbuster sexual-harassment lawsuit from former Fox host Gretchen Carlson forced his resignation from the network he had founded 20 years earlier. Since then, his legacy has been systematically dismantled, as several of the stars Ailes brought to the network have departed or been shown the door: Greta Van Susteren, then Kelly and, on Wednesday evening, Bill O’Reilly, whose dismissal under a cloud of sexual harassment allegations, some dating back decades, mirrored that of Ailes months earlier.
Trump, who once seemed to augur a renaissance for conservative media, has instead triggered a civil war in its top ranks. Ailes stepped down July 21. That night, Trump officially accepted the Republican presidential nomination in Cleveland. Three weeks later, he tapped Bannon to be the CEO of his campaign. That short period did more to alter the trajectory of the Republican Party than any event since the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, handing the GOP to a populist television star whose style was a rebuke to the intellectual roots of the American conservative movement. The shock played out most immediately in right-wing media, where Trump’s ascension marginalized the elite intellectual outlets that did so much to shape the modern Republican Party. It also settled the tug of war between Ailes and Bannon over who would hold the most sway over the least ideological president in history: Ultimately, Trump rejected the corporatist conservatism that had come to define Fox, draping himself instead in Breitbart’s nationalist populism throughout the campaign.
This account, the result of conversations with nearly two dozen sources inside various news organizations, reveals how Trump’s nomination and subsequent election scrambled the pecking order across the conservative media landscape in ways its leaders are still grappling with. His rise has fractured the once-powerful editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and elevated Breitbart—which enjoys a direct line to the White House, with Bannon perched in the West Wing, and is now struggling with how to wield its newfound power. Meanwhile, Fox News, the network with which Trump feuded bitterly during the campaign, has developed the closest relationship with the new administration of any television network. The result of this overall shift is, in essence, a new branch of the Fourth Estate in which the elites have lost their power, and some of the most central outlets are more closely intertwined with the executive branch than ever before.
For the 89 percent of Republican voters who cast ballots for Trump, their backing represented a departure from many of the principles that have animated the American conservative movement for six decades. Today, those voters remain broadly supportive of the president personally, and as a result, insiders say, the conservative media have been increasingly pulled by a tractor beam that demands positive coverage of the president regardless of how far he wanders from the ideas they once enforced. Producers and editors have been faced with a choice: Provide that coverage or lose your audience.
“I don’t think there are a lot of people who are doing really well on the back of opposing Trump,” says Ben Shapiro, the former Breitbart editor who resigned over disagreements about the editorial direction of the site. The editor of another prominent conservative website told me: “It’s about audience, not about owners.” Several other right-wing journalists echoed those remarks, saying that for the first time ever, traditionally conservative journalists find themselves out of sync with their audience. They’ve found that standing athwart the Trump presidency, yelling stop, to paraphrase William F. Buckley Jr., is a lonely place to be.
Although many expected Breitbart to remain as fervently supportive of the president as it had been of his candidacy, the site—which has at times pounded the president from the right, and at others singled out West Wing aides for criticism or praise—is being tested by its newfound proximity to power and its transformation from a political attack machine into a vehicle for a governing ideology. In many ways, its coverage has come to mirror Bannon’s own personal and ideological feuds inside the White House, as he has struggled to keep the president in line with the nationalist-populist vision he articulated on the campaign trail.
Conservative media have been increasingly pulled by a tractor beam that demands positive coverage of the president regardless of how far he wanders from the ideas they once enforced.
At Fox, Ailes initially tried to act as a check on the impulsive GOP candidate: During the Republican primary, he worked unsuccessfully to rein in Trump as he butted heads with Kelly and unilaterally withdrew from the network’s debate on the eve of the Iowa caucuses. But those sorts of clashes largely subsided once Trump won the nomination. Under Rupert Murdoch, the executive chairman of Fox’s parent company who took over after Ailes’ departure, the network has continued along the pro-Trump trajectory on which Ailes eventually launched it—and Murdoch, too, has developed a close relationship with the president. (Disclosure: This reporter worked as a writer and producer at Fox from 2008 to 2011.)
While both Fox and Breitbart have undergone modest adjustments since Trump took office, his victory has thrown old-line conservative media into a state of genuine crisis. The conservative elite represented by the Wall Street Journal editorial page—whose hawkish, free-market views enjoyed outsize influence in previous Republican administrations—is now struggling to figure out what, exactly, its role is in the Trump era. After helping lay the groundwork for many of the policies of the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, the elite conservative media have no place in the Trump White House. “They’re like the Catholic Church during the Great Schism, plagued by deep internal feuding, dancing on the head of a pin because they’re not important anymore,” says one executive of Dow Jones, the paper’s parent company, which is also run by Murdoch.
The roots of the modern conservative movement can be traced to the founding of National Review in 1955, and since then, its most important ideas have sprung from the journals and editorial pages of the right. Trump’s victory shook that landscape, reshaping the existing order and igniting bitter ideological feuds that are still playing out. The way they resolve themselves matters not just for an ideologically flexible president who has a closer relationship with the titans of right-wing media than any of his predecessors, but also for the future of the party he leads.
Bannon’s ascent from Breitbart to the Trump campaign to the West Wing might have made him the most highly placed media figure in the country, and perhaps in the history of the U.S. government. But for most of the campaign, the right-wing media figure who mattered most was Ailes.
Ailes and Trump spoke on the phone frequently during the campaign, sometimes several times a week. The connection between the two men ran deeper than merely an alliance of convenience. Both were children of television who came of age in the post-World War II era, just as TVs were becoming standard in American households. While they were both fixtures of the New York media scene in the 1980s, they developed a closer friendship in the years after Ailes launched Fox News, in 1996. Trump was a repeat guest on Fox, and it was there that, in 2011, he used the network to raise questions about the origins of President Barack Obama’s birth.
Although it’s now remembered mostly in tweets, the birther controversy played out largely on Fox’s air, with Trump gleefully stoking it at every turn. It was in many ways a preview of the campaign to come. His successful presidential run can be viewed as the apotheosis of Ailes’ 1988 communications-advice book, You Are the Message: Getting What You Want By Being Who You Are, which emphasized the importance of establishing an emotional, rather than an intellectual, connection with an audience. Trump embodied Ailes’ ideas about reading a crowd and using humor, body language, facial expression and energy to connect.
On his campaign and in the White House, Trump’s decisions have been informed by a sense of aesthetics he shared with Ailes, one that a Fox News host described to me as more middle American than highbrow. Trump has often sounded more like he was producing a show for a mass audience than filling an administration, telling associates, for example, that then-Indiana Governor Mike Pence was a vice president out of “central casting”; he later used the same phrase to describe former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney when considering him to be secretary of state.
One of Trump’s most curious media habits also has the former Fox executive’s fingerprints on it. NBC News’ Chuck Todd has told Politico how, after Trump sat down for interviews during the campaign, he would request to see them played back with the sound off. “He wants to see what it all looked like. He will watch the whole thing on mute,” Todd said. Ailes was famous among Fox News producers for sequestering himself in his expansive office and watching several television screens simultaneously—all on silent. He followed his eyes, and wherever they wandered—whichever screen compelled him to stand up and turn on the sound—was producing the best television.
Despite their friendship, Ailes found himself unable to control Trump during the campaign, according to one Fox News host. As the candidate would, say, berate prime-time host Kelly as a “bimbo,” Ailes would “tell him, ‘Hey, Donald, settle the fuck down,’” the host told me. Ailes was known as a control freak who kept the lid on problems at Fox by instilling fear in his subordinates, but Trump wasn’t a subordinate and couldn’t be kept in line. Ailes vented privately to at least one associate, telling him that Trump was crazy. (Susan Estrich, Ailes’ attorney, denied this.) But Ailes also worried—from a business perspective—that tilting the network against Trump was just as crazy. And he “became legitimately afraid Trump would start his own network” if he lost the race, says another on-air personality.
By the time Ailes stepped down from Fox in July, it had been clear for months that Trump would be the nominee. And although the network has always maintained a Chinese wall separating news anchors like Shepard Smith, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace from its prime-time lineup of partisan opinion and commentary, much of its coverage had already taken a friendlier turn toward Trump.
Over the course of the campaign and into the beginning of his presidency, anti-Trump voices slowly receded from Fox’s air, while those favorable to him began to appear more often. This has been most evident in the transformation of the panel segment on Baier’s 6 p.m. newscast, “Special Report,” once the premier venue for conservative thought on television. As the political reality on the right shifted, Baier made an effort to include more pro-Trump voices on the panel. Trump critic Jonah Goldberg of National Review and Weekly Standard editor Stephen Hayes, once fixtures on the panel, began to appear less frequently; the network also declined to renew the contract of George Will, another panelist and a reliable Trump critic. Trump-friendly pundits like Washington Times columnist Charles Hurt, American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp and his wife, Mercedes, and Republican strategist Lisa Boothe now appear in their stead. In late March, Fox announced it had signed the Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, a reliably pro-Trump commentator, as a contributor. Through a spokeswoman, Baier said he works to represent a mix of views on the panel: “Throughout the election cycle and transition period, we have tried to represent all perspectives so viewers can make their own decisions. Balance is always the goal on ‘Special Report.’”
Uniquely among the television producers and newspaper editors who report to Murdoch, Ailes had enjoyed total editorial control of Fox News, and when Murdoch stepped in for Ailes after his departure, he allowed the network to continue on its pro-Trump glide path. Despite initial public disagreements with candidate Trump over immigration, Murdoch had become a Trump supporter when his victory in the GOP primary began to seem inevitable. In March 2016, Murdoch tweeted that the GOP “would be mad not to unify” behind the candidate. Murdoch tapped Tucker Carlson—the buoyant, Trump-friendly host—to replace Greta Van Susteren, the anchor of the 7 p.m. hour who had announced her departure from Fox in September. Network executives moved Carlson into the 9 p.m. slot held by Megyn Kelly until she departed for NBC in January, and then to the 8 p.m. slot held by O’Reilly for two decades. In the 9 p.m. hour, Carlson’s ratings have surpassed Kelly’s, nearly doubling year-over-year in the coveted 25-54 age demographic, with which Fox News has traditionally struggled.
If the network, broadly speaking, had ever been a serious venue for interrogating conservative ideas, that mission fell by the wayside as it became clear that Trump-friendly programming meant more viewers. “Nobody needs to put out an edict to producers to try to win their hours,” says the on-air personality. “They don’t need to be told to do anything but win, and the Trump shit rates through the roof.”
Although conservative in his leanings, Murdoch is less an ideologue than a businessman whose experience has taught him that proximity to power is good for the bottom line. Michael Wolff, the journalist who has had more access to Murdoch than any other reporter, wrote in his book about the executive that the key to understanding him is his belief that “You can’t succeed unless you have political influence”—and that his ideological flexibility is rooted in an understanding that “It’s more efficient to get political influence by starting with a new group than with the entrenched group.”
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Murdoch has also developed an increasingly close relationship with Trump, and speaks with the president several times a week, according to a source familiar with the conversations. He is also in regular contact with Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner. “He wants Trump to succeed and is invested in efforts to help him become more presidential,” says a source familiar with Murdoch’s thinking. A spokesman for Murdoch declined to comment for this article.
So far, the relationship has proved mutually beneficial. Fox’s ratings are up, the network has scored six of the eight television interviews the president has agreed to, and he has in turn enjoyed largely favorable coverage. Ailes, meanwhile, now lives in Palm Beach, Florida, and has little to do with the network over which he once enjoyed total control.
Ailes and Bannon weren’t rivals, per se, but they had a fraught relationship that ebbed when Ailes—notoriously territorial and protective of his own fiefdom—began to suspect that Bannon was trying to turn Breitbart into an alternative to Fox News, according to several people who know both men.
Ailes’ introduction to Bannon came through Sean Hannity. In February 2010, he invited Bannon on his show to discuss his documentary Generation Zero, which blamed the financial crisis on baby boomers’ self-indulgence. It was one of a number of ideologically tinged documentaries Bannon had produced for conservative audiences over the years, and Fox helped expose them to an audience several times the size they would otherwise have received. The film also brought Bannon into the Fox orbit, something he would work to exploit when he took the helm of Breitbart two years later, after the death of the site’s founder, Andrew Breitbart.
In 2013, “Hannity” aired a documentary that Bannon made for Fox News—Boomtown: Washington, the Imperial City, which chronicled how big government had become a big business. There’s some dispute about just whose work Boomtown was.While a Fox News spokeswoman said Bannon “never edited or produced anything for Fox News,” and the documentary was billed as “A Hannity Special,” Bannon said he “wrote, directed and produced the entire thing”—and Hannity himself introduced Bannon on the show by saying “great work.” A second source familiar with the program says Bannon produced the show with the help of Fox News camerapeople and edited it on Fox’s edit bays at the network’s Sixth Avenue headquarters in Manhattan. There’s no indication that Bannon was paid for the work, and he doesn’t say he was; rather, sources say he was using the Fox platform to expose himself—and Breitbart—to a wider conservative audience.
Bannon’s intensified interest in cable news coincided roughly with his elevation to the chairmanship of Breitbart in 2012. He went on to pitch Ailes on a series of hourlong weekend documentaries, but Ailes didn’t bite. (Estrich, Ailes’ attorney, denied this.) “They had something of a falling out when that didn’t happen,” says a source familiar with the situation.
“Nobody needs to put out an edict to producers to try to win their hours,” says an on-air personality. “They don’t need to be told to do anything but win, and the Trump shit rates through the roof.”
Bannon’s ambitions for the site were different from those of Andrew Breitbart himself, who had little interest in Washington politics and made his name as a provocateur focused largely on media bias. It was under Bannon’s leadership that the site began focusing on Washington politics; he hired several D.C.-based reporters, including the site’s current Washington editor, Matthew Boyle.
Bannon’s interest in politics and his big ambitions for Breitbart put him on a collision path with Ailes, who was preternaturally paranoid about his potential competitors. The outlets were also at odds over the issue of immigration, which added tension to their relationship—and would ultimately fuel Trump’s campaign. Under Bannon, Breitbart became the vanguard of a nationalist movement skeptical of free trade and hostile to both legal and illegal immigration; later, it would become the leading champion of Trump’s presidential campaign. Fox owner Murdoch had been a vocal supporter of the 2013 “Gang of Eight” bill, which would have granted undocumented immigrants a path to legal status. Ailes, too, told associates privately that he favored the bill, and Fox gave the legislation largely favorable coverage. Breitbart and conservative talk radio emerged to fill the void and, in doing so, launched broadsides against Murdoch directly, linking him to the Obama-era policies the site said were undermining the country’s working class. “Valerie Jarrett, Rupert Murdoch Break Bread and Talk Immigration,” read a June 2014 headline.
Bannon and Ailes eventually had a falling out, though sources differ as to what the breaking point was. Two Fox sources say word reached Ailes that Bannon had bragged to associates about his ability to book guests on the network “whenever I want,” which rubbed Ailes the wrong way. And the two institutions initially viewed Trump differently. “Steve was always saying Trump represented a serious movement,” says a source who spoke to both Bannon and Ailes. Fox executives, by contrast, “saw Trump as kind of this clown and they did not take him seriously, and that caused deep divisions. Steve came heavily to the defense of Trump.”
But on the Breitbart side, it was Kelly’s August 2015 debate performance, in which she questioned Trump’s treatment of women, that permanently altered the relationship. Prior to the first Republican debate, Bannon says of Ailes, “We were very close. … We had a massive falling out over the first debate, over her treatment of Trump.” Days after the debate, Bannon and Breitbart editor-in-chief Alexander Marlow penned an article titled “The Arrogance of Power: Megyn Kelly’s ‘Good Journalism,’” which called Kelly’s debate performance “attention grabbing of the highest order.”
After the article appeared, Bannon says, Ailes “called me up and said, ‘You gotta knock this off,’ and I said ‘No.’”
Following that exchange, according to Bannon, Ailes sent one of his lawyers, Peter Johnson Jr., to Washington to speak with Bannon about the tenor of Breitbart’s coverage. “It was like Tom Hagen showing up from The Godfather,” Bannon says. (Asked about the visit, Estrich denied that it took place and said that Ailes “gets along fine” with Bannon.)
From that point on, it was clear a blowback was underway. Breitbart ran stories aimed at undermining Fox’s reputation as a neutral arbiter of intraparty debates. Much of its coverage suggested that the network was in the tank for one candidate or another and that the network’s executives were part of the elite that Trump’s supporters were preparing to reject. “Trump Campaign Manager Reveals Fox News Debate Chief Has Daughter Working for Rubio,” blared a January 2016 headline.
As Breitbart turned on Fox, its coverage shifted in telling ways. For years it had published articles undermining the credibility of Ailes’ bête noire, New York magazine reporter Gabriel Sherman. (“Anti-Fox Author Accused of Stalking Roger Ailes’s Family,” read a typical 2013 headline.) Over the course of the election season, however, the website began citing Sherman as a credible authority. In one instance, it giddily relayed his January 2016 report about how Trump’s decision to boycott the final debate before the Iowa caucuses had thrown Fox into chaos.
Trump’s victory in the Republican primary not only settled the struggle between Bannon and Ailes, but also tipped the balance toward Breitbart’s nationalist populism and away from Fox’s more traditional conservatism, particularly on the issue of immigration. From then on, when it came to Trump, Fox would essentially follow Breitbart’s lead rather than vice versa. “When Trump started winning primaries, the decision was made [by Ailes] to get behind him because he was going to be the nominee,” says a source familiar with the situation.
Trump’s victory also made Breitbart more than merely a news organization. It is now inextricably bound up with the Bannon wing inside the Trump administration, so much so that it is difficult at times to tell where one ends and the other begins: Bannon brought two Breitbart staffers to the White House, the young fire-breathing University of Chicago graduate Julia Hahn and the Hungiarian-American foreign policy analyst Sebastian Gorka, who now serve as assistants to the president.
Bannon took a leave of absence from Breitbart when he joined the Trump campaign and officially resigned from his post at the organization when Trump won. But it has become something of a parlor game in D.C. media circles to speculate about just how much control he maintains over Breitbart’s news coverage, which has often been harshly critical of some of his West Wing rivals. Both Bannon and Breitbart’s editors say publicly they have little to do with each other.
Marlow, Breitbart’s editor-in-chief, says he rarely speaks with Bannon now, and that the site hasn’t veered from its mission. “If Trump honors the promises he made on the campaign, he’s going to get overwhelmingly positive coverage from Breitbart,” Marlow says. “If he doesn’t, we’re going to be critical.” Citing angry exchanges between Bannon and Boyle, the site’s Washington editor, media reports have suggested that the two are at odds over Breitbart’s broadsides against the administration. Bannon told CNN in mid-February, for example, that he was “livid” over a Breitbart report suggesting that White House chief of staff Reince Priebus was on the verge of losing his job.
“We were very close,” Bannon says of Ailes. “We had a massive falling out over the first debate, over [Megyn Kelly’s] treatment of Trump.”
But Breitbart’s coverage has often reflected precisely the ideological battles Bannon himself is fighting in the West Wing. “I assume that they are working hand in glove with Bannon. The idea that they are at odds with Bannon is silly,” says Shapiro, the former Breitbart editor. As vicious infighting has broken out in the White House, pitting Bannon against the president’s more moderate advisers—including his son-in-law, Kushner, director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn and deputy national security adviser for strategy Dina Powell—Breitbart has pressed Bannon’s case. The site published a report in early March referring to Cohn as “the enemy within,” and reproduced a Daily Beast report in early April charging Kushner with leaking “anti-Steve Bannon stories” to MSNBC host Joe Scarborough.
In a bit of subtle Breitbart Kremlinology, Shapiro points to the way the site has covered Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the Obama-era immigration policy that temporarily protects people brought into the country illegally as children from deportation. The policy had been a pet issue of Breitbart’s for years: The site pounded Obama for it, highlighting instances in which alleged child molesters and others with prior criminal convictions used the provision to stay in the country, and in which other undocumented immigrants leveraged it to get on the Obamacare rolls. Since the election, however, Shapiro notes the site has let up on DACA. Although Breitbart reported in late January that “Donald Trump Signals DACA Policy Within Next Four Weeks,” the site hasn’t been critical of the president for kicking the can down the road.
If Trump’s ascension has empowered Breitbart, the upstart website is also struggling with how to wield that power now that its chosen candidate is responsible for governing. It has seesawed between serving as the ideological enforcer of the administration and delivering more soft-focus coverage of the Trump presidency. Boyle, for example, profiled White House deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh in late February as “the woman who holds down the fort in the White House”—and then pounced on her departure from the administration five weeks later, describing her as a leaker whose boss, Priebus, might be next to go. As Trump works to find his footing in the White House, the media outlet that did the most to get him there is struggling to enforce an ideology whose core may simply have been the spirit of attack.
If Trump’s nomination and election have challenged Fox News and Breitbart in unexpected ways, it has created an identity crisis for traditional conservative media outlets like the Wall Street Journal. With its hallmark support for “free markets and free people,” the Journal editorial page was among the least likely in the constellation of conservative media outlets—ideologically speaking—to find comity with Trump’s populist message. In fact, his election was in many ways a rejection of the worldview championed by the paper’s editors, which includes a devotion to free trade and an open-borders immigration policy.
Covering Trump’s candidacy, and now his presidency, has become the subject of fierce debate among the editorial staff, according to several sources, producing deep internal divisions that reached a boiling point in mid-April, when Bret Stephens, the Journal’s deputy editorial page editor, announced his departure for the New York Times. Stephens’ exit capped months of bitter feuding that had already driven out a handful of other employees. Inside the Journal’s headquarters on Sixth Avenue in New York, the editorial board had formed rival camps: one, more friendly to Trump, led by editorial page editor Paul Gigot, and the other, more critical of the president, led until recently by Stephens.
Two Journal sources say Stephens’ relentless anti-Trumpism produced a “cold war” between him and Gigot, and that by the time of Stephens’ departure, the two barely spoke to each other. Stephens had once been a regular fixture on the “Journal Editorial Report,” the Fox News show featuring Gigot, and a panel of his editorial page colleagues, but he rarely appeared on the air after Trump seized the nomination. Asked about the interpersonal tensions sparked by Trump’s candidacy, both Gigot and Stephens declined to comment.
The Journal’s editors have leveled plenty of criticism at Trump, weighing in against his travel ban and immigration order; chiding him for the chaos among his White House staff; and offering a reminder that protectionist trade policies may hurt the people he claims to want to help. In late March, they issued a rebuke that garnered national attention, lambasting Trump for his refusal to back down from his claim that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. In one of the most memorably stinging lines of Trump’s young presidency, the editorial—authored by Gigot—said, “The president clings to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle.”
The general tenor of the Journal’s coverage began to change when it became clear Trump would be the Republican nominee. A July 2015 editorial addressing the candidate’s criticism of Arizona Senator John McCain, for example, chided Trump’s supporters on the right, stating that his nomination would be a “catastrophe” for conservatism because his “only discernible principle is the promotion of his personal brand.” “If Donald Trump becomes the voice of conservatives,” it concluded, “conservatism will implode along with him.”
If Trump’s nomination and subsequent election has challenged Fox News and Breitbart in unexpected ways, it has created an identity crisis for traditional conservative media outlets like the Wall Street Journal.
Gigot’s critics concede that the editorial page continues to criticize the president, but they point out that it seems to have come around on the man it once thought would destroy the movement. It has at times overlooked some of the president’s most shocking statements, including his charge in mid-February that the news media is the “enemy of the American people,” and it was virtually alone among right-leaning outlets in praising the House health care bill the president campaigned for, despite its shortcomings on the conservative-policy front.
To many, that accommodation was perfectly natural for conservatives who had opposed Trump in the primary but were at least agnostic in the general election, when there was a Supreme Court seat at stake and when, from a conservative perspective, Trump—promising to cut taxes and repeal Obamacare—looked preferable to Hillary Clinton on a number of issues.
But resistance to the increasingly Trump-friendly tone of the editorial page led to personnel changes. After the election, Gigot fired the Journal’s editorial features editor, Mark Lasswell, after the two clashed over the amount of pro-Trump content that should be featured on the page, according to a report in the Atlantic. (Days later, Lasswell circulated the Atlantic report to his contacts to announce his departure.) The paper’s longtime books editor, Robert Messenger, left for the Weekly Standard, one of the leading anti-Trump publications on the right, in March.
Stephens’ exit was the most striking. A Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who had worked at the Journal since 1998, he had become increasingly estranged from his pro-Trump colleagues. Seven weeks into the new administration, with the rest of the editorial page finding plenty to support, Stephens called Trump crazy, characterizing his presidency as “a belly-flop into the cloudy pond of Mr. Trump’s psyche.” He devoted another column to what he described as the “paranoid style” of the president’s allies, for which he laid out two unpleasant possibilities: “irrationalism bordering on mental illness” or “a form of cunning instrumentalism to destroy your political opponents by stoking hysterical fears in your supporters.”
Stephens appeared to take a veiled shot at his colleagues in a lecture he delivered in Los Angeles in February in honor of his late Wall Street Journal colleague Daniel Pearl. “The most painful aspect of this,” he said of the Trump phenomenon, “has been to watch people I previously considered thoughtful and principled conservatives give themselves over to a species of illiberal politics from which I once thought they were immune.” He compared the transformation among his fellow conservatives to the phenomenon captured by the Polish dissident Czeslaw Milosz in his 1953 book The Captive Mind, which documented the intellectual temptations of Stalinism. “The mental pathways by which the new Trumpian conservatives have made their peace with their new political master,” Stephens said, “aren’t so different from Milosz’s former colleagues.”
Gigot, through a spokeswoman, said the paper’s editors cover Trump “like we cover every President, supporting or opposing decisions based on longstanding Journal principles.” He pointed to several instances in which the Journal has been critical of the president—“his arm-twisting of Carrier for its investment decisions, his travel bans, his immigration enforcement order, the views of his trade advisers, dysfunction in the White House with too many competing power centers, his treatment of Mexico and the Australian prime minister, his views on Russia, his accusations about President Obama and wiretaps, his failure to divest from his business, several of his senior appointments, and more”—and said that the paper’s coverage “speaks for itself.”
“When it’s inevitable that the government is about to change, Murdoch changes as well,” says one journalist. Another concludes that Murdoch isn’t so much an ideologue as a “government affairs specialist.”
For much of recent political history, this kind of feuding at an elite venue like the Journal would have been a titanic battle—a proxy war for the soul of the GOP. Today, it is more of a sideshow. During the campaign, Trump attacked by name some of the conservative intellectuals—such as Charles Krauthammer and George Will—whose approval was most valued by previous Republican presidents, from Reagan to George W. Bush. It hurt Trump not at all. Now, his White House contains few conservatives and few intellectuals, and his election effectively relegated the class of journalists represented by the Journal editors, who once enjoyed enormous influence over politics and government, to the sidelines.
That is not true, however, of Murdoch, the Journal’s owner. Since he backed Trump’s candidacy, Wall Street Journal employees have puzzled over what role, exactly, the man at the top is playing in the paper’s coverage. It’s not clear that Murdoch is pulling the strings at the Journal any more tightly than he is at Fox: The Murdoch chronicler Wolff notes that he has a reputation for speaking through his editors—that those who succeed around him don’t need to be told what to do but sense what he wants and act accordingly. It was in that vein that one Dow Jones executive, asked about the paper’s dynamics, traced the tenor of the Journal’s editorial coverage to Murdoch’s newfound relationship with Trump. The softening of its viewpoint, in that sense, is a very Murdochian accommodation to power.
Murdoch is perhaps the most powerful example of the sort of conservative who had little in common with Trump, ideologically or temperamentally, but who found plenty to like once it became clear that Trump had the pulse of the GOP. “When it’s inevitable that the government is about to change, Murdoch changes as well,” the Australian business reporter Neil Chenoweth wrote in an email. Wolff ultimately concludes that Murdoch isn’t so much an ideologue as a “government affairs specialist.”
In the Trump era, where the president has a media mogul by his side in the Oval Office and another on speed dial, the label might apply to much of the right-wing media. But the elite outlets of yore earned their status not just from their proximity to power, but also from the rigorous intellectual framework against which they measured the powerful. And the most significant implication of Bannon’s triumph may be the rise of a governing philosophy that shifts along with the unpredictable man at its center.