News & Politics

Report: Executives Pressured Hosts to Support Trump

Hugh Hewitt at Quicken Loans Arena on July 20, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

According to a report at CNNMoney, Salem Media Group executives pressured their on-air radio talent to present a more favorable view of then-candidate Trump in the months leading up to the 2016 election. In at least one case—Hugh Hewitt—the pressure may have worked. In another, a Salem host claims she was fired over her less-than-positive comments about the future president.

The emails obtained by CNNMoney were sent in the summer of 2016 to [Elisha] Krauss and Ben Shapiro, both former co-hosts of KRLA’s “The Morning Answer,” and both conservative Trump critics. Krauss and Shapiro co-hosted the show along with Brian Whitman, an anti-Trump liberal, and later Jennifer Horn, a pro-Trump conservative.

“What I have been hearing on TMA… has not been in the spirit of ‘supporting the GOP nominee,'” one Salem executive, Terry Fahy, general manager at Salem, wrote in an email to Shapiro and Krauss on July 19, 2016. “In fact, it seems that the show gets into negative minutiae of the Trump campaign and the GOP convention (e.g. criticizing Trump for having his kids speak at the convention.) Do we really need a side by side audio comparison of Trump’s wife’s speech with Michelle Obama’s? How is that ultimately relevant to the big picture and advance the cause?”

According to Krauss, Salem executives explicitly pressured her on numerous occasions to go along with the positive views of Trump Salem was hoping to promote. In January 2017 Krauss was fired, she says as a result of her refusal to toe the party line. While she acknowledges that Salem had every right to fire her for not living up to the company’s expectations, she argued, “They shouldn’t do it with the facade that they’re delivering multi-level opinions and they’re not puppeteering those opinions.”

Hugh Hewitt is another Salem host who was pressured to change his views on Trump. In the first week of June 2016, he blasted Trump on his radio show, advising the GOP to dump Trump ahead of the Republican National Convention. Business Insider reported:

He said that Tuesday was the day when it occurred to him that Trump had no chance of winning in November.

Acknowledging that Republicans have “never” defeated Bill and Hillary Clinton, Hewitt said: “We’re not going to beat her now with Donald Trump.

“Right now the Republican Party is facing — the plane is headed towards the mountain after the last 72 hours,” he said.

Hewitt said the Republican Party “ought to get together and let the convention decide.”

He called for a rules change that would inhibit Trump from becoming the party’s nominee in Cleveland.

Exactly one week later, Hewitt did a 180. He penned an article for the Washington Post declaring that Hillary Clinton was the real threat and Trump was the only candidate who could beat her:

Although there’s been talk in recent weeks of implementing new rules at the Republican convention in Cleveland that would allow party leaders to replace Trump — talk that I’ve entertained — the appetite for that sort of drastic measure is gone. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) want no part of a coup, so there won’t be one. Yes, party rules allow for last minute rules changes and tricky procedural maneuvers. But for Republicans to root for a coup at this point would be more than just futile, it could be completely self-defeating. No Ryan, no McConnell, no mutiny. Period.

[…]

No doubt, I’ve had a few collisions with Trump during this campaign season. But conservatives expect candor about the choice ahead of us, and the prospect of another President Clinton, especially a Clinton who is so mired in scandal, compromised on national security and is the author of so many foreign-policy meltdowns, has a way of concentrating the mind. For the good of the country, Republicans have to be clear about the binary choice in front of us, close ranks around Trump and encourage him to eschew the frivolous and move ahead with a serious message.

What changed in the interim? Hewitt claims it was a speech Trump gave at St. Anselm College—one of the rare times Trump stayed on the teleprompter during the contentious 2016 campaign. But internal emails from Salem executives suggest another possible reason: Hewitt was being pressured behind the scenes to promote the Trump campaign.

In his June 2016 email to Shapiro and Krauss, Boyce said that, at his suggestion, Atsinger had written to two other popular Salem hosts, Hugh Hewitt and Michael Medved, “a very well stated case for supporting the GOP nominee because we have to beat Hillary.”

Boyce went on to assert that in the wake of Atsinger’s message to him, Hewitt had begun to modify his position and had gone on to write an article for The Washington Post about why he found it necessary to vote for Trump. That prompted Atsinger to say, according to Boyce’s email, “Wow he took a lot from my email to him and turned it into an article.” (In the email, Boyce also said, “It should be noted that nobody put the hammer to Hugh or Michael. We simply reminded them that they are privileged to work for a company that actually HAS a political world view. … And we reminded them that we have to focus on the ultimate goal, regardless of the circumstances facing us today.”)

Is it a coincidence that Hewitt flipped at around the time he was being pressured by Salem to change the way he was discussing Trump? Perhaps, but that seems a stretch. In a text message to CNNMoney Hewitt denied that he was pressured by Salem to support Trump.

“I have never felt any pressure from Salem to be for or against the President. I do get everyone’s opinions just as I do at NBC and the Washington Post but as with those organizations Salem does not dictate host opinions,” Hewitt wrote.

But the leaked emails seem to contradict Hewitt’s statement that he was never pressured to support Trump.

This bombshell news comes on the heels of mass firings at Salem-owned RedState, which many say were politically motivated—all of the writers who were let go had been critical of Trump in recent months.

Phil Boyce, a senior vice president at Salem who was named as one of the executives pressuring hosts to change their views, told CNN that “it should not surprise anybody” that Salem radio hosts often “support conservative candidates in elections.” He said the company does “a lot of research on what our audience wants.”

In recent months Salem has struggled to make a profit. Broadcast revenue was flat in the first quarter of 2018—decreasing 1.8 percent compared to the same period last year. Revenue for the company’s digital media group that includes RedState, HotAir, and Townhall was down 2.7 percent. The publishing division was 17.6 percent lower than in 2017.

Salem has a right to hire and fire anyone they wish. At the end of the day, they’re a business and they have a bottom line to think about. If they thought that pandering to Trump voters in the run-up to the election was a good business decision, it was within their rights to demand that from their employees. Likewise, if Hewitt and other hosts thought for whatever reasons—job security, ratings, salary considerations—that supporting Trump was a good career move, they had every right to decide to comply with what they were asked to do by their employers.

But all of these recent revelations suggest that what seemed at the time to be an organic groundswell of support for Trump amongst conservative media influencers may have been orchestrated by powerful media executives who had their own agenda. Radio talkers and other media pundits swear up and down that they’re truth tellers who call things as they see them, but how many of them, when push came to shove, sold out for a paycheck or a plumb radio slot? Talk radio has an enormous influence on conservative voters and as such the hosts wield enormous power. How sad to think they may have been disingenuous in their support for Trump and in doing so manipulated their listeners into doing the same.

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