Conservativism in the Age of Trump

A panel of conservative journalists and a media critic debated conservative media coverage of the Trump administration at SMPA.

SMPA panel on conservative media
From left: SMPA Director Frank Sesno, Jennifer Rubin, Bill Kristol, Amber Athey and Kara Zupkus. (William Atkins/GW Today)
April 16, 2019

By B.L. Wilson

Conservative media representatives, political analysts and students and faculty from the George Washington University filled the Jack Morton Auditorium Thursday night for an energetic and intense discussion on the impact of President Donald Trump on conservative media and conservatism.

The event, titled “Whose Right? Where Trump Is Taking the Conservative Media?” was co-sponsored by the School of Media and Public Affairs, GW College Republicans and the GW chapter of the Young America’s Foundation.

SMPA Director Frank Sesno started the evening noting that there is “a very dynamic conservative media trying to figure out how it charts its way through the Trump administration. He introduced Howard Opinsky, a member of the director's advisory body for SMPA, the National Council for Media and Public Affairs, and president of Five Blocks, a digital technology and consulting company.

Mr. Opinsky said conservative media are playing several roles, “extending conservatism deeper into civic life and promoting policies that are shaping the world today in a way that conservatives have wanted to [for] many years.” He added that conservative media are “defining what conservatives stand for in 2019.”

Mr. Sesno moderated a panel that featured conservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin and founder and former editor at large of the Weekly Standard Bill Kristol, whom Mr. Sesno described as being from the “granddaddy” of conservative media, the National Review. Both now find themselves at odds with the Trump administration. The panel also included Bob Garfield, co-host of “On the Media,” a WNYC radio show broadcast on over 400 public radio stations, Amber Athey, White House correspondent for The Daily Caller, and Kara Zupkus, president of GW Young America’s Foundation.

“Objective truth used to be a mainstay belief of conservatism as opposed to this notion that we have alternative facts,” Ms. Rubin said. “Do we get things wrong? Yes, we get things wrong, but we do not intentionally make excuses for the president or follow him as he meanders from one position to another.”

Mr. Kristol said the shutdown of the Weekly Standard last December came, in part, because of “strains put on conservatives and conservatism by the Trump administration.”

He also emphasized that there long has been a mix of conservative media, “libertarians, social conservatives, paleo conservatives and neo conservatives” and said the changing technological landscape of media also accounted for his magazine’s demise.

Mr. Garfield, who said he “makes a living finding fault with the media, said the past decade has seen a “Limbaughization of right wing media, where it is polemic, it’s screed, unhinged from facts. It’s propaganda, it is demagogy, whatever you have to say about the so-called mainstream media.”

However, Ms. Athey of The Daily Caller, contended that mainstream media have a bias against the president. “I would ask anyone that thinks the establishment media has not become propaganda or reckless to take a look at the Russia story over the last two years,” she said.

Ms. Athey offered to provide numerous examples where CNN and other news organizations put out incorrect stories about the administration colluding with Russia in the 2016 presidential election that she said have been rebutted by Attorney General William Barr.

Ms. Rubin replied. “The fact that you would comment so decisively on a report that no one has seen is precisely the difference between those outlets and other outlets,” she said.

The absent behemoth in the room was Fox News, which Mr. Sesno said had been invited to participate on the panel, but declined and responded with a statement that said: “We do not consider ourselves conservative. We are the leading cable news channel.”

Mr. Kristol said that he thinks Fox News has altered the landscape of conservatism and conservative media. “It’s a different effect than the internet,” he said. It has been “very big in changing the center of gravity from an ideological sympathy to denunciation of heresy.”

With the exception of Ms. Athey, the other panelists agreed. Mr. Garfield said, “Fox, The Daily Caller, Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh and the Washington Examiner have ceased actually to be conservative media. They are grievance media.”

Ms. Athey said the difference was not the right-leaning media’s friendliness toward Mr. Trump but fairness. She said that she tries to provide The Daily Caller’s readers with “a conservative perspective… that is different from the prevailing narrative of the day.”

Ms. Rubin offered a quick response. “Of course it is about friendliness,” she said. “Come on. It is impossible to watch Fox, to watch Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, even to watch program selection choices… and not see that it is entirely supportive, entirely friendly.”

Senior student Kara Zupkus, president of the GW chapter of YAF, said the campus conservative organization wants to provide “an alternative to what is now seen as the age of Trump and people who feel they have to completely agree with Trump or be labeled as anti-Trump.” Instead, she said, her hope is that groups like YAF “hone in on the conservative values of free enterprise, limited government and traditional American values.”


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