On Thursday, two writers for the conservative website RedState, Kimberly Ross and Andrea Ruth, announced on the website the Bulwark that they were leaving RedState.
“For more than a decade,” they wrote, “RedState was a solid voice in the world of online conservative commentary. Unfortunately, the allure of Trumpism has left the once great site a shell of its former self.”
In their piece, they said RedState was curtailing writers’ freedom — particularly those writers who are skeptical of Donald Trump. They detailed how articles even remotely critical of the president (for example, a piece pushing back on conspiracy theories regarding last year’s string of pipe bombs sent to prominent liberals) went unshared on social media due to orders from higher-ups.
“Though we continued on in the hopes the atmosphere might change, that approach is now untenable,” they wrote.
While the wider world of media continues to churn with layoffs, conservative media has its own specific pressures, many of which center on the president.
In fact, how to cover Trump’s presidency — even how to discuss Trump himself, a presidential candidate with no close historical ties to establishment conservatism but tremendously popular with the GOP’s base — has been the leading challenge facing conservative media outlets over the past two years.
Many GOP voters view conservative media not as a news source, but as a safe space of sorts, where their views, and their president, are taken seriously. That provides real challenges for Trump-skeptical conservatives in right-leaning media.
The story of RedState and Salem Media
Ruth and Ross were joined in their exit from RedState by fellow contributor Sarah Quinlan, who told me in an email that “RedState was just no longer a good fit for me or the types of articles I like to read and write.” She declined to comment further.
But Ruth said that she wrote the Bulwark piece with her colleague because she wanted RedState readers to know what had happened to the site.
“While there were and still are writers at RedState who do not like how the site has been run or its content in recent months,” she said, “there is a concerted effort to get more Trumpian. Readers need to know why we were leaving because it was over a site that in the past was a site for sharp, conservative commentary and has been turned into a content mill.”
In response, RedState published (then quickly deleted) a piece by another RedState contributor, Elizabeth Vaughn, defending the site — and Trump.
The RedState writer argued that the Bulwark, a site founded by former Weekly Standard journalists Charlie Sykes and Bill Kristol, was founded on the basis of “fervent hatred for Donald Trump.” She further framed Trump’s victory despite his personal failings in heavily religious terms (“God has used imperfect messengers for his most important missions”) and argued that Ross and Ruth were “go-along, get-along Republicans” standing athwart Trump’s efforts.
Vaughn also expressed confusion with the goals of Trump-skeptical conservatives. “I don’t understand why Never Trumpers are so unhappy with his presidency,” she wrote. “Are they upset with record low Hispanic, Black and female unemployment? Are they upset with the rising labor participation rate? Lower taxes? The appointment of large numbers of conservative judges? When was the last time North Korea shot a missile over Japan?”
(While Vaughn’s post was deleted, RedState published a different piece by Joe Cunningham, a senior editor at the site, with far kinder words for Ross and Ruth. Cunningham wrote, “RedState as a site exists to do one thing and one thing only: Push ahead with a conservative voice” and promised readers that it would be the last piece on the Red State contributors’ decision to leave.)
This isn’t the first time RedState (which is run by Salem Media, the syndicator for a number of conservative radio talk shows), has faced harsh criticism for its handling of Trump skeptics. Last year, the company dismissed multiple contributors and writers, many of whom were critical of Trump. In an interview with my colleague Tara Golshan, Jay Caruso, a former Red State contributor and now deputy editor for the Washington Examiner, said, “When you look at the writers that were cut off and let go versus the ones that are there, the writers that are there are pro-Trump or agnostic.”
Even before Trump officially entered the presidential race in June 2015, he had already caused real problems for RedState’s writers and editors. As former RedState contributor Ben Howe detailed on Twitter, the site’s former publisher, Eagle Publishing (which was later acquired by Salem Media), attempted to pressure writers to not denigrate Trump, as the company was attempting to negotiate a book deal with the then-prospective presidential candidate.
Erick Erickson, a conservative writer and radio host, was editor-in-chief of RedState from 2006 to 2015. He told me that at the time, RedState was pulling in so much web traffic that generally Eagle left his writers alone, but said that when it came to Trump and Eagle Publishing’s efforts to get a book deal with him, “This was very much a ‘please, please, please don’t write critically’ situation.”
He added that he asked his writers to put Trump-critical posts either in the user diary section of the website (where anyone could post) or on any other site. “Out of kindness to me, they did,” he told me. “They wanted to spare me the angry calls” from Eagle.
I reached out to Salem Media multiple times for comment but did not receive a response.
The many, many pressures of conservative media
Erickson said that in his experience, Salem Media was more likely than most conservative media publishers to attempt to exert control over writers and editors.
“For example,” he said, “Salem does a daily email that goes to all its radio personalities that provide them a common form of show prep. More than one person has told me in the last year Salem has encouraged the people who put that list together to avoid my writing and Ben Shapiro’s writing because of our views on the president.”
Shapiro was also among the writers Salem Media reportedly pressured to cover Trump more favorably when he hosted The Morning Answer, a Salem Media-developed radio show based in Los Angeles. (Shapiro said he had no comment on Salem Media.)
But Erickson added that he does think “tribalism” impacts both the content and popularity of right-leaning websites. He told me that his current site the Resurgent, which launched in January 2016, has a smaller readership in 2019 than it did at its launch, both because of technical issues and because “we are not a purely pro-Trump site.”
Sykes, the Weekly Standard writer now at the Bulwark, told me that many media sites with a right-leaning bent “tend to be focused more on providing their audiences with ammunition more than information.”
“They have also evolved into safe spaces for folks on the right, which is increasingly important in the age of Trump — a place where they can get relief from reporting and criticism of the Great Man,” he said, adding, “There is a sense in some conservative media that it is their job to always defend Trumpism ... to always carry the party line.”
Erickson seemed to agree in part, saying, “I think the bigger issue, though, is the forced homogeneity within a lot of online conservative media. Because X, Y, and Z are all focused on these issues and they are getting traffic, the game becomes to also write about those things in hopes of the mighty Google algorithm also driving traffic to your site. ... A certain pro-Trump or anti-Dem topic that can capture clickbait is what the sites are going to focus on.”
He said the exceptions were Daily Wire, which was founded by Ben Shapiro and thus, in his view, has a “strong personality brand” behind it; and National Review, a “historically known brand.”
But not everyone agrees that conservative media outlets are ideologically limited. Fox News host and co-founder of the Daily Caller Tucker Carlson told me via text, “Conservative media used to be more constrained by ideology. Just the opposite now. We’ve got the full gamut of anchors at Fox. You couldn’t work at CNN or MSNBC and praise Trump from the anchor desk. Many conservatives are totally rethinking what they believe. Meanwhile the left is basically united against Trump, except on the far left, which is still thinking independently.”
However, that appears not to be the case for Salem Media, and for other sites. Erickson told me some outlets were more focused on paying back their funders and backers than advocating the cause of conservatism. “Conservative sites think they need to be all Trump all the time,” he said, adding, “Too many are too risk-averse to go exploring for other topics or to develop editorial positioning outside the Trump cheerleading squad.”
Ruth says her exit from RedState hasn’t changed her conservatism, but it has changed how she views the media. And in her view, conservative media outlets need to remember their primary jobs: “to call out the Left, hold their own to account and moving the ball forward in the culture.” But she won’t be doing that at RedState, or with Salem Media, again.