The Media Today

The space for dissent in conservative media is about to get even smaller

March 1, 2024
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to reporters following a campaign event, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024, in Waukee, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Florida governor Ron DeSantis has been harsh in his assessment of the right-wing media’s kid-gloves treatment of former president Donald Trump.

“He had the conservative media that basically rallied to him and made it where a lot of voters thought his nomination was inevitable,” DeSantis griped during a private call with supporters last week.

His self-serving comments are half right. Conservative media outlets have been increasingly soft on Trump. And it’s about to get worse. 

For a while, major parts of conservative media seemed ready to move on from Trump, especially in places owned by Rupert Murdoch. “DeFUTURE” was the front-page message from the New York Post the day after the 2022 elections, which went disastrously for Trump-backed Republicans; the next day, the paper mocked Trump as “Trumpty Dumpty.” When the 2024 campaign began, many on Fox News fawned over DeSantis, while showing more willingness to criticize Trump than they had in years. 

But over the past year, as it became clearer and clearer that Trump was likely to be the Republican nominee, outlets began to fall in line. 

The Post has still had some recent covers highlighting Trump’s legal troubles—but they’re not nearly as vicious or pointed as they once were. Fox hosts have largely softened their tone. On the news side, the Murdoch publications continue to assiduously cover the Trump criticisms voiced by former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley—but that will stop as soon as she drops out of the race.

Next week is Super Tuesday, with GOP voters in fifteen states heading to the polls. Haley, who has carried the torch for traditional conservatism, is expected to get walloped—and hasn’t committed to staying in the race past then. Once she’s gone, Trump will go from the likely nominee to the presumptive one, and conservative media outlets will rally around him even more. 

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“After Super Tuesday, there’s going to be tremendous pressure: if you are not on board, then somehow you’ve aligned yourself with Joe Biden and the Democrats—and of course, that is a fate worse than death for anybody who wants to be viable in conservative media,” said Charlie Sykes, a former conservative radio host who split with the movement over Trump. “In order to stay economically viable in the right-wing media ecosystem, at some point you’re going to have to make your peace with Trump.”

We’ve seen this movie before. The Weekly Standard, once the most powerful magazine on the right, lost its pull and was shuttered by its conservative owner after becoming the loudest #NeverTrump conservative outlet in 2016. The mighty Drudge Report saw a 45 percent decline in year-over-year traffic in September 2020, after turning on Trump. At the National Review, which had been fiercely critical of Trump during the 2016 primary, writers either came around on him once he won, adopted a Never-#NeverTrump position—or left the publication.

It was Fox News’s earlier attempt to move on from Trump that really drove this truth home. Some at Fox had briefly flirted with trying to find some distance from Trump immediately after the 2020 election. But after its news desk called Arizona for Biden, ratings quickly collapsed, hard-line conservative viewers fled to Newsmax and One America News—and executives and hosts started to panic, leading some to embrace Trump’s false election claims. 

DeSantis noted this broader pattern—in comments that the New York Post didn’t include in its coverage. 

“I think they have made the decision that their business model just doesn’t work if they offer any criticism of Trump,” DeSantis said about right-wing media, as NBC News later reported. “I don’t see the accountability being in place right now for the balance of this campaign.… I think he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and the conservative media wouldn’t even report on it that it had happened.”

And this isn’t just about the Murdoch empire—smaller conservative outlets are quietly making similar adjustments.

Conservative radio host Steve Deace was one of DeSantis’s loudest backers, and told me he agreed with the governor’s assessment of his peers.

“In conservative media, I think a lot of folks are like, ‘Well, we have to draw an audience.’ And if that’s who the audience is, and that’s who’s engaged and most likely to respond to our content, it only makes sense that you’re going to cater your content to them,” he said. “Those are just market realities.”

Deace is still critical of Trump—but he admitted that his calculus has changed now that Trump is the de facto nominee.

For instance, Deace recently grew frustrated that Trump was barely talking about key issues—and went to make sure he was right by checking Trump’s social media. His discovery: of Trump’s last eighty posts on his Truth Social account, just nine were about policy.

If DeSantis were still in the race, Deace said, he would have fired off a comment like “This is exactly why we need someone who actually puts the focus on what we think and we need and care about, not himself.” 

Instead, Deace just posted that fact on X/Twitter with a sardonic plea: “Could sure [use] his voice on everything going on right now. He is the unquestioned emperor of one of the only two political parties we have, after all.” 

“The circumstances have changed,” he told me.

Most Americans already mostly consume media that aligns with their existing views—but there used to be a bit more independence at these outlets, even if they pushed in the same direction. The danger now is that conservatives are creating a monotonous echo chamber built entirely around supporting one person. Trump’s right-wing dominance has produced a vicious feedback loop, in which conservatives increasingly believe anything he says, and only find sources that parrot his claims, even when they’re false and dangerous—allowing him to go even further than before in what he says and does, with no risk of blowback from within his party.

That, too, is only about to get worse.

“As soon as Nikki Haley’s gone, there will be no conservative alternative to Donald Trump. Right now, [conservative outlets] will give her a certain amount of respect, but that door is closing,” said Sykes. “That’s what happened in 2016. And it’s going to play out exactly the same way.”

Cameron Joseph is a freelance political reporter with recent work in The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and Politico Magazine. A recipient of the 2023 National Press Foundation Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress and the 2020 National Press Club award for excellence in political journalism, he previously worked for VICE News, Talking Points Memo, the New York Daily News, The Hill and National Journal.