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'Politico' Details Trump's Relationship With Conservative Media

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Trump is hosting members of the conservative media at the White House today. These include outlets that under the Obama administration would have been considered fringe - Breitbart News, for example. White House Spokesman Sean Spicer told Politico, quote, "once in a while, it's important to appreciate the folks who have really covered the president fairly."

Eliana Johnson was Washington editor for the National Review. She's now at Politico where she delves into how Trump's run for president and his time in office so far have changed the conservative media landscape.

ELIANA JOHNSON: I think the expectation was he was a ratings boon for many television networks and that it would be this renaissance for conservative media. But really the unorthodox nature of his candidacy served to scramble the pecking order in conservative media, elevating these boisterous online outlets that supported Trump during the campaign and to exile what were once elite conservative outlets with enormous influence like The Weekly Standard.

CORNISH: So it upends expectations. But you also use the phrase (laughter) civil war to describe what was triggered here instead, especially for conservative standbys - the National Review, Wall Street Journal, where you say there is, like, an identity crisis. What were you hearing from writers as you did your reporting?

JOHNSON: Many journalists told me that they feel in the Trump era, for the first time, they as conservative journalists, not Trumpians, are out of step with their readers. And their audience is by and large pro-Trump, and it's really triggered an identity crisis where they're asking themselves - these publications are asking themselves, what is their role in the Trump era? Is it to be cheerleaders for the president or broadly supportive of the president or to stand by and serve as pillars of the old conservative ideology? So this has become the subject of deep internal feuding at many of these publications and led to some bitter fallings out that are chronicled in my magazine piece.

CORNISH: So where do they go from here? Did you get a sense in your reporting that they have a new approach or how they're going to respond?

JOHNSON: I think that they're very much grappling with this right now. And my sense from The Wall Street Journal editorial page is leaning into the Trump presidency. But other outlets like The Weekly Standard and National Review have sort of decided to be in the wilderness right now. And I think the larger question is, how enduring are Trumpian politics? It could be that the old line conservative publications see a resurgence after four years or after eight years.

CORNISH: Why do we care about this now, especially if voters have essentially said that they don't want to hear from establishment, Washington voices, right? So is - can this really be looked at as a kind of proxy debate for the party itself?

JOHNSON: In the Republican Party and the conservative movement in particular, academic journals, media outlets have been enormously influential, and they've paved the way for what was going to happen in the party in the future. So the conservative movement arguably was founded by National Review in 1955, which paved the way for Barry Goldwater's nomination in 1964 and then Ronald Reagan's nomination in 1980.

And so the ideology that's trumpeted in the press has often foreshadowed the ideology that would take hold in the party. And right now it's very difficult to discern what the ideology is of these media outlets that have enormous power. And I think that's because the ideology of Trumpism is a little bit unclear. I think you see Breitbart and the president himself struggling with that right now.

CORNISH: Eliana Johnson - her article "How Trump Blew Up The Conservative Media" is in the May-June issue of Politico Magazine. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

JOHNSON: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.