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Conservative media rising in Trump's America

As hard as it might seem to be shocked by anything on cable news these days, Fox News’ characterization of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election as an attempted “coup” has caused jaws to drop. And there has been no shortage in the last week of mainstream and social media criticism of the top-rated cable news channel for it.

But to focus on partisan and irresponsible Fox hosts like Sean Hannity or Jesse Watters is to miss the bigger picture. While Fox might be the most prominent platform to have become more politically emboldened since the election of President Donald Trump, it is only one of several that have taken a more partisan turn or made clear their intentions of serving the president’s goals in 2017. As the year ends, conservative media are bigger, bolder, stronger and more strategically organized to influence public opinion than at any time in my career as a media critic stretching back to the 1980s.

They now have the potential to create an echo chamber of messaging from digital — with platforms like Breitbart News Network and The Daily Caller — through cable, with Fox News, down to 193 local stations with the Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group (with more likely on the way). That power to take a central message directly to citizens in places like Missouri, Maine and Montana has never been realized at the level that Sinclair could possibly achieve this coming year.

And let’s not forget Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, which called for Mueller to resign, or the conservative Koch Brothers’ money involved in the recent purchase of Time and other magazines. Or, how about Donald Trump’s 45 million followers on Twitter and 24 million on Facebook?

Never in my adult life have I seen ties between some media outlets and the White House so flaunted. While former presidential staffers ranging from James Carville on the left to Karl Rove on the right have gone on to be part-time contributors to CNN and Fox News, respectively, in the past, no one in the recent era has actually led a platform as Steve Bannon is at Breitbart News Network.

Breitbart has been more a far-right political tool than a journalistic entity since its founding in 2007, but it was only in this year that Bannon openly described it as a political “weapon” after leaving a job as special adviser to Trump in August and rejoining the outlet as executive chairman. Operating a media platform with the word “News” in its title as a political weapon is a new level of distortion. For all Bannon’s bluster in occasionally disagreeing with Trump or taking on Republican establishment types who don’t fit his definition of populist, he has so far mostly kept to his promise to be first and foremost a warrior for the president with his platform.

“If there’s any confusion out there, let me clear it up: I’m leaving the White House and going to war for Trump against his opponents — on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America,” he told Bloomberg News after his exit.

Boris Epshteyn left a job as special assistant to Trump in March and became chief political analyst for Sinclair in April. Sinclair now has 193 stations in 89 markets in 33 states, according to Scott Livingston, vice president of news at Sinclair. The company is awaiting approval from federal regulators to add 42 more stations from its purchase of Tribune Media. If the sale is approved, the company will have the ability to reach 72 percent of the nation’s TV households.

Epshteyn’s “Bottom Line with Boris” segments — commentaries that are often in sync with themes being sounded by the White House — are “must carry” in the 72 markets where Sinclair produces news. (The company owns stations but does not produce news in some markets, like Des Moines, Livingston explained.)

Here’s Epshteyn on the tax bill the White House was pushing to get passed by the end of the year (Trump signed it into law Friday):

“Does anyone want to pay more taxes?” he asks in his commentary that aired on Sinclair stations and was posted Dec. 7 on his “Bottom Line with Boris” Facebook page. “If you listen to certain folks from the Democratic party and the media, you would think so. The reality is that the tax reform, which is speeding to the finish line, is going to be great for us as a country … Here’s the Bottom Line: My sense is that the over-reaction from those who claim tax reform would ruin America is that they simply cannot accept that Donald Trump and the Republican Party are on the brink of a major achievement that will benefit Americans and resonate come election time in 2018 and 2020.”

I don’t know who those “certain folks” are who are saying some people want to pay more taxes. I haven’t heard anyone from the Democratic Party or media saying that. But Epshteyn does not shy away from doing media criticism, too.

“When is the hyperventilation going to stop?” he asked in a commentary that also aired on Sinclair stations and was dated Dec. 14 on his Facebook page. “Donald Trump is president. The American people have spoken. Will the left-wing media ever accept that fact?”

As strident or partisan as that kind of message might seem to some, the appeal that Sinclair has even over Fox or Breitbart is that such messages are surrounded on local stations by hometown anchors and announcers who give viewers the high school sports scores and joke about the local weather. It makes for a friendlier kind of pro-Trump messaging.

“Currently, we produce five ‘Bottom Line with Boris’ segments per week,” Livingston wrote in response to a Sun email asking about Epshteyn’s current role. “As you know, his content is clearly identified as commentary and constitutes a tiny percentage of the station’s weekly broadcast content. His commentaries provide a viewpoint that often gets lost in the typical national broadcast media dialogue. He also does a couple of station talkbacks several times a month.”

The “talkbacks” term is in response to a question about Epshteyn also being interviewed during newscasts by anchors or reporters.

Livingston argues that “must run” content, like Epshteyn’s commentaries, “contributes not only to the quantity and quality of information available to local viewers around the country, but adds to the diversity of viewpoints on national issues by providing a new voice in addition to broadcast networks, which currently dominate the national broadcast news offerings in most local markets.”

In previous columns, I have laid out Sinclair’s history of news judgments and on-air moments that seem connected to conservative politics.

Yet in answer to follow-up questions about diversity of viewpoints, Livingston wrote: “Our 4,000 journalists who work in our 72 newsrooms aren’t required to adhere to any political ideology. … We ask them to cover the news objectively. We encourage them to look for the stories that aren’t being told. We also encourage all of our reporters to challenge the conventional narrative found in many media organizations.”

On Wednesday, Epshteyn announced that he will be launching a morning newsletter, “Breakfast with Boris,” in January. It will include “three major items you should keep an eye on throughout the day, with some of my insight and analysis included,” he tweeted.

No realm of media has created the kind of echo chamber with the White House that Fox News has this year.

Since its founding by the late Roger Ailes in 1996, the Murdoch-owned cable channel has been a conservative voice. But in the past year, its “Fox & Friends” morning show and three hours of prime-time week-night programming have come to sound more like propaganda on a state-owned channel than anything that could be called news despite the use of that term in its name. Trump sometimes tweets his approval in real time for what he sees on air.

Consider just the shift in the channel’s prime-time lineup year to year. Last December, it was Bill O’Reilly at 8 p.m., Megyn Kelly at 9 and Sean Hannity at 10. Now, it’s Tucker Carlson at 8, Hannity at 9 and Laura Ingraham at 10.

Say what you will about Kelly — she was no right- or left-wing ideologue mouthing White House or candidate talking points. In fact, she was the first woman in the cable news to take Trump on over his treatment of women. She did it early in the 2016 election and on a very big stage, the first Republican candidates debate hosted by Fox.

And she caught holy hell from several sides for her good journalistic deed, feeling the full fury of Trump’s social media assault without any real support from her boss, Ailes, or her then-colleague Bill O’Reilly, both of whom are alleged to have sexually harassed women. (Kelly now is host of the 9 a.m. hour of NBC’s “Today” show.)

Hannity was clearly the least of the three prime-time hosts on Fox News last year at this time. Now, he is king of the hill at Fox.

And while he was always an ideologue, he was mostly a Republican Party mouthpiece. But with his new status as an alleged confidant of the president, he has taken on a more commanding, activist and aggressive voice in White House messaging campaigns.

The most recent effort both at the White House and in right-wing media has centered on discrediting both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the investigation by Mueller into the Trump campaign’s dealing with the Russians.

Looking into the camera on his Dec. 6 show, Hannity warned viewers, “You have to listen. This isn’t a game. What’s happening in this country is dangerous, and it needs to be stopped before the deep state can overthrow the president that you, the American people, voted for and duly elected.”

On Dec. 13, during a discussion about what Hannity characterized as a corrupt and biased team of investigators out to get Trump, the Fox host said, “This is worse than Watergate on a million levels here. … And the media is nowhere to be found. It’s still locked into a one-year investigation with zero evidence. That’s how pathetic they are.”

One of Hannity’s guests during that segment was Sebastian Gorka, another former aide to President Trump. Talk about an echo chamber and virtually no degrees of separation from the White House to media platform.

“It’s a banana republic, Sean,” Gorka said after earlier claiming that replacing members of Mueller’s team who voiced anti-Trump feelings wasn’t enough. “It isn’t about replacing individuals. It’s about dissolving this team.”

It is not a big jump from comments like those to Fox weekend host Jesse Watters saying on his Dec. 17 show: “The investigation into Donald Trump’s campaign has been crooked from the jump. But the scary part is we may now have proof the investigation was weaponized to destroy his presidency for partisan political purposes and to disenfranchise millions of American voters. Now, if that’s true, we have a coup on our hands in America.”

And just in case anyone missed the message, during a Watters interview with Trump aide Kelleyanne Conway, the screen carried the headline: “A COUP IN AMERICA?”

“The fix was in against Donald Trump from the beginning,” Conway said of the Mueller investigation.

That’s one of the key components of propaganda: Repeat the message over and over. The presence of sinister forces at work to harm the listener is a nice touch as well. Here it’s the deep state of bureaucrats and holdovers from Democratic administrations.

I do not want to overstate the power of right-wing media.

We saw some of this messaging machinery on display in Alabama this month with Bannon in his barn jacket strutting around onstage at rallies for U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore. Trump held a rally just across the border in Florida and made a robocall on Moore’s behalf after endorsing him. Hannity, meanwhile, went 180 degrees from questioning Moore’s credibility to embracing him once Trump threw his weight behind the candidate.

And for all of that, Moore lost to a Democrat who favors abortion rights, Doug Jones.

Still, Moore was about as damaged a Senate candidate as you could find.

And the big, red, media machine has yet to get all the pieces in place. It’s still building. I wonder — and worry — what it might look like next year at this time.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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