Ronna McDaniel and Candace Owens show how MAGA broke the media

Recent controversies surrounding Ronna McDaniel and Candace Owens show how the media struggles to handle the increasingly extreme right.

Candace Owens, a Black woman in a black square-necked sleeveless dress with her hair pulled back, sits at a glass desk with a mug reading “Candace” in front of her, and a window behind her.

Candace Owens on the set of her show Candace on April 12, 2022. Jason Davis/Getty Images Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Two of the biggest stories in the American media at this moment are about staffing choices: former Republican National Committee chair Ronna Romney McDaniel’s hiring and swift firing from NBC, and popular commentator Candace Owens’s departure from the conservative Daily Wire (best known as the home for Ben Shapiro’s mega-popular podcast).

While different in details, both stories are essentially about the same question: How can media organizations responsibly handle an increasingly radical conservative movement?

In McDaniel’s case, the issue was election denial. After her hiring was announced, NBC staff revolted — noting her vocal defense of Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election while running the RNC. Some top talent, like Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, revolted on air — leading NBC to part ways with McDaniel before she really got started.

At the Daily Wire, mainstreaming election denial is hardly a firing offense. But over the past months, Owens has outed herself as an antisemite — recently liking a social media post claiming that a prominent rabbi was “drunk on Christian blood.” Eventually this became too much for the Shapiro-founded website; last week, CEO Jeremy Boreing announced that Owens and the site have “ended their relationship.”

In both cases, the media organization has received significant blowback. Republican sources are threatening to cut off NBC journalists in retaliation for McDaniel’s defenestration. Right-wing trolls, led by Hitler-admiring self-described incel Nick Fuentes, have led a campaign of antisemitic social media incitement against the Daily Wire in support of Owens.

Objectively, this is all absurd: No news organization should have to face consequences for taking a stand against anti-democratic lies or antisemitic bigotry. But it’s important to understand why it’s happening: The conservative movement, the backbone of one of our two major political parties, is off the rails.

That brute reality has thrown American media out of whack. Mainstream outlets are forced to choose between traditional notions of objectivity and platforming obscenity; right-wing outlets have lost whatever ability they once had to keep their followers onside.

Journalism faces a right that has lost its bearings

Imagine you’re the editor of an op-ed section at a major newspaper. You’ve got two main objectives: to both represent a broad spectrum of views and publish high-quality writing that makes your readers better informed.

Clearly, you need to have conservative writers. But what kind?

The ones who best represent where the Republican Party is at, hardline Trumpists, tend to be prone to lying and bigotry; they have to be in order to defend Trump and his core positions. Obviously, you don’t want to publish outright lies and apologias for racism.

The best and smartest conservative writers, by contrast, reject election denial and oppose Trump’s racial demagoguery. But doing so puts them at odds with where the actual existing Republican Party is. By publishing them as spokespeople for conservatism, you risk misleading your readers about the true nature of the American right.

This is a difficult dilemma, and hardly a hypothetical one. Every day in American media, editors and journalists have to make similar choices. Questions like “How do I accurately report what Republican sources say without publishing lies?” and “How can I describe a racist Trump comment without coming off as a Democratic hack?” are the everyday stuff of mainstream American media.

For institutions that pride themselves on objectivity and fairness to all sides, these practical questions raise more philosophical ones. What does “objectivity” mean if not simply treating the positions of the two major parties as reasonable disputes between reasonable people? What is “fairness” in a world where a major party leader is opposed to basic principles of democratic fairness? How do we cover a party that has entirely lost its way?

Conservative outlets face a somewhat different kind of calibration problem. Because their audience is made up of a radicalizing base, their own instincts about where to draw the line might be to the left of their customers’ — even at a place as solidly right-wing as the Daily Wire. Candace Owens was, by all accounts, a very popular podcast host. Losing her is no small thing.

Reflecting on the Owens mishegoss, leading conservative activist Chris Rufo concluded that “we have a problem on the right.” Per Rufo, “the economics of online discourse are increasingly at odds with forming and mobilizing a successful political movement.”

This is an oblique acknowledgment that Owens’s schtick is popular among conservatives. Much like Trump, she has succeeded by openly telling people things they quietly believe but few others are willing to say (because they’re horrible). Being offensive isn’t incidental to her rise; it’s at the heart of it.

This is not a new feature of conservative media: it’s part of what fueled Rush Limbaugh’s rise to prominence in 1990s talk radio. But elite conservatives like the Daily Wire’s editorial leadership long thought they could keep a lid on it, to draw lines and make the audiences play within them. Trump, Owens, and their ilk have proved that to be impossible.

Both mainstream and right-wing media are thus grappling with the same dilemma: The conservative movement is a self-radicalizing perpetual motion machine. The more extreme it gets, the more awkward their own choices become.


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