John Ziegler hosts a Los Angeles-based nationally syndicated radio talk show. Or at least he did until a couple of weeks ago. On Sunday, December 19, he called it quits. And he did it because of Donald Trump.
A lifelong conservative, Ziegler opposed Trump from the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign, and he paid a steep price for that opposition. Conservatives — or the kinds of conservatives who listen to talk radio — weren’t interested in contrarianism. They wanted affirmation, not information; loyalty, not principled disagreement.
Ziegler’s honesty was not rewarded.
“In a very real sense,” Ziegler wrote in a column for Mediaite.com, “my show was an experiment to test whether it was possible for a radio show that simply called things like I saw them, and which didn’t consciously pander to the bulk of the conservative audience which listens to talk radio, could endure.
“I not only failed in that experiment, I did so in such a definitive fashion that I knew that there was no hope for a dramatic turnaround.”
On air, Ziegler called Trump a “con man” and a fake conservative. Like many others, he insisted Trump was grossly unqualified for the job. But his listeners revolted. Along with threatening emails, tweets, and Facebook messages, he was attacked as a “Hillary-lover” and a “Jewboy” (he is neither Jewish nor a Clinton supporter). “I lost some of my biggest supporters over Trump,” he told me.
None of this was surprising to Ziegler. He believes that the economics of talk radio, transformed in large part by the internet and cable news, put people like him at a disadvantage. Talk radio has essentially become a safe space for insulated conservatives. The business model makes it near-impossible to succeed without selling out or, as he puts it, without relying on “verbal prostitution to maintain levels of revenue.”
Charlie Sykes, who hosted an influential conservative radio show in Wisconsin for nearly three decades, found himself in a similar position earlier this year. I interviewed Sykes in October, after he announced he was ending his show at the end of the year, and his experience mirrored Ziegler’s.
“Every time I brought up the presidential race, my email box filled up with people saying I’ve betrayed them and that I’m a turncoat.” Sykes’s opposition to Trump was a deal breaker for many of his listeners. “It’s the worst cult of personality that I’ve seen since the 1930s,” Sykes told me.
On Thursday, I spoke with Ziegler about the decision to end his show and about the state of conservative media more generally. I asked him about the incentive structure of conservative media, why his audience doesn’t trust the press, and if he believes conservative media has ruined conservatism.
Tell me why you decided to end your show. You say the show was a kind of experiment to see if it was possible to call it straight and tell the truth to a (mostly) conservative audience. Why did your experiment fail?
There are a lot of reasons why it failed, but the straw that broke the camel's back was the election of Donald Trump. The part of this equation your audience will be most interested in is the reality that talk radio, in the era of Trump, isn't remotely conservative. It's also no longer about the truth. It's about telling people what they want to hear.
It's very much like a cult now, where the purpose is to substantiate what the religion is telling you and anything that runs counter to the religion is inherently false and blasphemous, even evil. So anyone who breaks from orthodoxy is a traitor.
For instance, you can't simply say, as a conservative radio host, that Donald Trump lost the popular vote. Now that's an obvious fact, but listeners can't deal with it, they won't deal with it. Fifty-two percent of Republicans, in fact, don't accept this fact, and they don't accept it because they don't have to in their echo chamber.
They live in an alternative reality in which Trump won the popular vote and the Electoral College vote, and that reality is propped up by conservative media.
How have you navigated this? Obviously you’re a conservative, but you’re also a Never Trumper who refused to toe the line this year.
Well, it hasn't worked well. As a Never Trumper, I'm basically selling beef to vegans at this point. There's just no interest in what I'm saying. If you weren’t prepared to toss out your principles and drink the Trump Kool-Aid this year, conservative audiences weren’t listening.
Be honest: Who’s the most egregious offender in talk radio? Who panders the most?
Sean Hannity without a doubt. Here's a guy that's worth tens, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars, whose guy won and he still spends Friday nights attacking guys like me on Twitter. I think he realizes what he's done on some level and I think he's incredibly insecure about it.
But he's completely sold out whatever principles he had and he's an abject hypocrite. It's been great for his ratings, though. I’m sure he sleeps well at night.
In your column for Mediaite.com, you make what I consider an important point about the economics of conservative media. What’s wrong with the incentive structure within which talk radio operates? Why is it so hostile to honest brokers?
A good fairy tale will always be more sellable than a harsh truth. Truth is not always comfortable for people, and we're not living in an era in which you don't have confront the truth if you don't want to. There are a couple of things that have happened in terms of the economics of media that have altered the content.
In the past, talk radio basically had a monopoly on non-liberal thought and opinion. But Fox News emerged and the internet exploded and talk radio lost that monopoly. So talk radio was then forced, increasingly, to pander to its niche audience in order to compete for their attention.
Now, no matter how insane or crazy a belief is, you can find a media outlet that will affirm it for you. So the pressure to feed the crazies is immense in this media environment. What this means is that talk radio hosts are now gravitating toward their audiences rather than audiences gravitating to hosts. If a host refuses to do this, the audience disappears.
People like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin were so afraid of pissing off the Trump supporters that they were co-opted, and that's about ratings, not conservatism or truth.
What you're describing now is a demand-side problem, but you told the New York Times recently that conservative radio hosts have “effectively brainwashed the core of our audience to distrust anything that they disagree with. And now it’s gone too far.”
My question is, how did we arrive at this place? It seems to me that the demands from conservative audiences have been cultivated for years by the very talk radio hosts who are now imprisoned by them.
I'm glad the NYT used that quote because I think it's an important point. There's a lot of blame to go around here. In my view, this started with the mainstream media being both extremely biased and remarkably incompetent, and I'm not just talking about political media. I've dedicated an enormous amount of my life to correcting what I consider media malpractice.
You're right in that this problem stretches back a long time. In my opinion, the point of no return was the advent of overnight television ratings. Once you had overnight television ratings, news was dead. Because that's the moment the tail began to wag the dog. It changed everything.
Once this happened, the news media had no choice but to succumb to the same pressures everyone else did. They had to feed the monster, they had to satisfy the audience. And so we're now in this place in which ratings are booming and facts are irrelevant.
Ok, but that still doesn’t quite explain why the fact-free reporting is served up disproportionately on the right.
Well, as I said, I think there's been a liberal bias in the mainstream media for a long time. People like me rightly criticized it. What's happened, though, is that conservatives now don't trust the media at all. My side no longer trusts the other side. There's just a complete divide. Trump, to his credit, has been very effective at using this to his advantage.
That Trump, a liberal con artist, is the guy who most benefits from the legitimate criticisms of mainstream media over the years is unbelievable to me.
Trump is a monster created in large part by talk radio. His success, then, seems likely to aggravate the problem because his supporters are precisely the kinds of listeners who will demand affirmation, not information, from hosts.
I don't see how this ends well. I don't see how it gets better, because hosts are now in a situation in which they either defend Trump at all costs or they will be seen as a traitor and no one will listen. So I don't see a scenario under which a Sean Hannity or a Rush Limbaugh abandons Trump — they're too committed at this point.
You’ve used the word “consumers” to describe conservative audiences, and I found that quite revealing because it implies conservative media members are entrepreneurs, not ideologues. They’re peddling a product, not a sincere political worldview.
Am I wrong to see it this way?
That's exactly right, and that's why I use the word "consumers." I actually considered writing a book years ago titled "A Business, not a Cause." It was about how the conservative media is in fact a business disguised as a cause. It never got off the ground, but the premise is clearly correct.
And therein lies the problem: Conservative media is invested in the marginalization of conservative ideas, and so the rise of right-wing media has been a disaster for serious conservatives.
Yes! The worst thing that can happen for conservative media is to have an actual conservative as president with a Republican Congress. That's a ratings disaster. Obama was the greatest thing that ever happened to Fox News and talk radio because he fueled the victim narrative on the right. He gave them an enemy to obsess over, and that's always a boon for ratings.
You’ve been at this for a long time. What is it about conservative audiences that makes them so susceptible to fear-mongering hucksters like Limbaugh? To be clear, I think liberals are drunk on their own biases, but there does seem to be something about the conservative psyche that is attracted to the tribalistic narratives being spun on the right.
I think you have it a little backward, though I understand why you see it this way. One of the more devastating revelations this year is that my side is as susceptible as the other side is to believing incredibly stupid and non-factual things. However, I'd suggest that the liberal reaction to Obama was very similar to the conservative reaction to Trump, which is to say it was emotional and non-fact-based.
I have to push back on that point. I grant that there was an element of the left that unconditionally supported Obama, or supported him on largely emotional grounds. This is what human beings tend to do. But there's absolutely no equivalence between candidate Obama and candidate Trump, and here I'm not talking about political views.
Trump is a serial liar who is grotesquely unfit for office, as many conservatives recognize. Obama, whatever you think of his policies, is a decent man who operated well within the bounds of reasonable discourse. The act of faith required to embrace Obama is not equivalent to the unconditional surrender to Trump.
Again, I'm not saying that credulity is strictly a conservative problem, but there's no liberal equivalent to Trump and so your comparison is misleading.
Well, if you let me finish, I'll probably shock you by saying that, given a choice between a third term for Obama or a first term for Trump, I'd vote for Obama.
But, more to the point of your question, why do conservatives buy into this post-fact Trump world? I think it all goes back to the structure of the news media. Because so much of the mainstream media has historically leaned left, there is an understandable paranoia on the right. When you've been shown for decades that the left is against your presidential candidate and they're willing to lie about your presidential candidate, it's not hard to understand why they just don't believe anything.
Is there a psychological element to this? Are conservatives more prone to paranoia? Frankly, I don't know. I can just say that I've seen on it the left as well. And we know that voters on both sides of the aisle tend to be ignorant of negative information about their own candidate, so confirmation bias is a bipartisan problem.
Ultimately, I can only speak for myself, and I just told you that I'd prefer Obama over Trump.
Has the conservative media-industrial complex ruined conservatism?
Indirectly it did. Trump has absolutely killed it. I don't see the scenario under which conservatism survives this. Trump is going to do a lot of the same big government stuff that Obama did. If he was a Democrat and did this with a Republican Congress, you could argue that Republicans were compromising in order to get things done. But if Trump does it with a Republican Congress and Senate, there's just no conservative defense of that.
Conservatism, as a small-government philosophy represented by the Republican Party, will be dead.
So is that how this dance of death between Trump and the GOP ends, with the collapse of conservatism as a relevant governing philosophy?
I know it won't end well, but I have no idea how bad it will be. One of the reasons Trump has so much leverage over the Republican Party is that he has the option to move in a liberal direction and the GOP is essentially hostage to him given how large and loyal his constituency is. His constituency is the base now. Hell, he could later run as a Democrat and he would take 40 percent of the Republican base with him.
So Trump has all the leverage here. You tell me how that doesn't end badly.