For the past four years, Trump has not only met that demand; he has steadily increased it. Now, with his claims of a landslide electoral win, he has crossed a line that conservative media is asked to cross, too, lest it be left behind. It’s one thing for conservatives to believe Biden is corrupt or hopelessly senile, but to believe that his election is patently fraudulent goes far beyond the outer edges of even toxic partisanship: It invites extreme responses, like excusing, if not endorsing, a siege of the Capitol.
And yet that may be where conservative media outlets find themselves. In the hours after the storming of Congress, Sean Spicer, Trump’s former press secretary and now the host of a Newsmax show, baselessly suggested it was a false-flag operation: “We’ve got to make sure that who was responsible, why they were there, if there was mischief, if Antifa was there,” he said, because “it shouldn’t be blamed on groups that weren’t responsible.” Greg Kelly, the channel’s star anchor, echoed that notion: “These people don’t look like Trump supporters,” he said.
After the elections, those on the supply side of the conservative media equation — especially Fox, a huge corporate entity with significantly more to lose than its smaller rivals — believed their greatest challenge was how, exactly, to serve the audience’s demands without running afoul of libel law. After Jan. 6, it should be clear to conservative media organizations that the stakes of this game are much, much higher.
One solution, of course, is not to give voice to unhinged views at all. In late December, Mike Lindell, chief executive of MyPillow and a big pusher of pro-Trump conspiracy theories, appeared on a Newsmax show guest-hosted by Sebastian Gorka, traditionally one of the most boisterous Trump cheerleaders in all of conservative media. Lindell was about to launch into claims about another voting-technology company, Dominion (which had also sent Newsmax a threatening letter and would later file a $1.3 billion libel suit against Sidney Powell, a former Trump campaign lawyer), when Gorka abruptly cut him off. “Mike. Mike. I don’t want to discuss — Mike,” Gorka pleaded. “Mike, we’re not going to get into the minutiae of the details.” Like the handful of Republican senators who quickly dropped their objections to certifying Biden’s election late in the night of Jan. 6, Gorka had, very suddenly, become a model of responsible caution.
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