RedState’s recent staff purge shocked many in the conservative movement. It’s also left me wondering just how much further the “political center” can shrink before it disappears.
For those unfamiliar, RedState is a conservative commentary and reporting site founded in 2004. The website grew in popularity, becoming a major voice in conservative media following the rise of the Tea Party. The site saw a minor decline in traffic after the 2016 election, as did most political outlets. However, it has remained a consistent and important voice in the conservative sphere. The site contracts with writers from a wide geographic area and has had a valuable range of perspectives.
On April 28, the site purged a significant portion of its writing team. The current Editor in Chief, Caleb Howe, was also let go. Former RedState Editor in Chief Erick Erickson was one of the first to announce the firings, and Brian Stelter of CNN covered the story as well. Stelter’s report was particularly controversial. Stelter cited “anonymous sources” suggesting that many of the firings were, at least partly, ideologically motivated:
RedState writers work on contract and are paid based on the amount of traffic to their posts.
“Those who had been under a contract with a higher per-click rate were mostly all tossed, only keeping those who were pro-Trump even if their traffic was comparable,” another one of the sources said on condition of anonymity.
“Of those who make less under their contracts, they mostly tossed those who had been openly critical of the president,” the source said. “It seems to have been a cost saving measure, but the deciding factor between any two people seems to have been who liked the president and who didn’t.”
The “Why” Question
Many people disputed the conclusion that the firings were politically motivated. Jonathan Garthwaite, the Vice President of Townhall Media (which owns RedState directly), claimed as much. In his email firing conservative commentator Ben Howe, Garthwaite said that RedState “can no longer support the entire current roster of writers.” Many others, including site co-founder Ben Domenech, raised web traffic issues as an explanation.
However, many former RedState-ers–including those recently fired themselves–disagreed. The Atlantic‘s coverage of the firings included comments by Caleb Howe, Ben Howe, Jay Caruso, Jason Frey (aka Patterico), and Susan Wright. All of these writers were cut, all were successful at RedState, and all had been critical of President Trump. Wright was RedState’s most-read writer.
Further, in response to accusations by Domenech that Caleb Howe was lying about the site’s success, Howe published a massive analysis of RedState’s traffic at The Daily Wire. The data he shared, if accurate, seriously challenges claims that RedState is somehow struggling to maintain traffic.
National Review‘s Dan McLaughlin, formerly of RedState himself, had a balanced take. McLaughlin pointed out that cost-cutting was only part of the picture:
Today’s spate of firings… had obvious cost-cutting motives and do not seem to have been strictly about enforcing a new editorial line on Trump… . But it is hard to miss the pattern that Caleb and nearly all the others let go were loud Trump critics, while those remaining behind included basically everyone at the site who had made their peace with Trump to one extent or another.
Pressure On The Center
America has become increasingly polarized, and “tribalism” is the new buzzword in political analysis. Thus, in an age of division, people who try to stand somewhere in between have become even more important. Often, the folks who occupy the “political middle” can be the voices of reason, calling out “both teams” when it’s appropriate. Just as frequently, however, they annoy both sides when they disagree on some point or another.
The political middle currently includes, for better or worse, the Trump-skeptical branches of the conservative movement. This group takes plenty of hits from the right, but is equally isolated from the left. As National Review‘s David French recently highlighted, it’s hard to “change teams” when the other side holds beliefs that, logically followed, fully undermine your own.
This isolation is, by itself, a huge source of pressure on the political center. When the heat from both sides gets too hot, it can be very tempting to quit. The middle shrinks when people choose to bow out.
There is, however, a more insidious way that the political center can shrink: changing the rules governing what perspectives are shared in the first place. Shadowban people so no one hears them. Set up algorithms where people can opt out of ideas they don’t like. Try to shape narratives in a way that makes different sources sound oddly similar.
This, based on the evidence we have now, seems to be what Salem Media Group just tried to do at RedState.
The evidence we have now strongly suggests that Salem Media Group, which owns TownHall Media and RedState, wanted to shift RedState’s coverage of Trump in a positive direction.
Republicans have started coalescing around Trump. It’s understandable that many media consumers are frustrated with the barrage of negative coverage from mainstream sources. Companies like Salem recognize that fact and want to capitalize on it. As Erickson noted, Salem has already put pressure on its radio hosts to be less critical of Trump.
However, Salem also didn’t want to actively censor anti-Trump voices. They really couldn’t and still maintain the RedState brand’s positive identity within conservative circles.
So, instead of actively cutting writers, Salem decided to “get its financial house in order.” Unless Salem reports RedState’s actual earnings, we won’t know if there was a real financial motivation for the writer purge. However, in “balancing the budget,” Salem conveniently reshuffled its deck of writers in a way that aligned with its goals. Salem’s cuts, framed as cost-cutting measures, conveniently pushed mainly Trump-critical writers out of the team.
This also explains why many writers like Sarah Rumpf and Brandon Morse–both of whom have been openly critical of Trump in the past–were kept on the writing team. Plus, the day after the firings, Jim Jamatis (aka Anthropocon) penned a post extremely critical of Trump and Trump’s supporters. These writers and their perspectives, by staying in-house, give Salem the plausible deniability it needed to preserve RedState’s reputation.
In other words, Salem changed the rules governing the RedState platform in a way that suited its own agenda. It’s one thing to eliminate a perspective, and another to “make tough choices” that happen to only hurt one viewpoint.
The Middle Moving Forward
This brings us back to the opening question. If RedState, once a bastion for diverse conservative voices, is under siege, how much further can the “political middle” shrink?
With the constant driving force of social media, there’s even more pressure on media companies to conform their content. But as William F. Buckley once pointed out, “the conformity of the intellectual cliques” is a major cultural problem. Thus, standing in the middle of history yelling “stop” to both sides (again, paraphrasing Buckley) is even more important.
We need to create more spaces where diverse viewpoints can compete with each other, not fewer. I’m proud that TCC has tried to do that, and I hope that we will continue to do so. It’s disappointing when an outlet like RedState limits or does away with that same ideological diversity.
We also need to seriously contest this idea that being critical of President Trump is somehow not viable or profitable. Susan Wright is a perfect example of this: despite being critical of the president, she still drew in major traffic. There is an audience for critical voices; it just needs to be properly supported to thrive.
But this effort needs more allies and better organizing, not less, to really maintain a foothold. The middle can’t shrink much further before it risks disappearing.
A Personal Note
I hope that all those affected by the RedState purge–whether they remain on staff or were let go–land on their feet. The Howes, Rumpf, Morse, and others are all great people for whom I have the utmost professional and personal respect. I hope they all keep writing what they believe should be written, and refuse to cave in to pressure.
Given the challenges conservatives face, there are few people I’d trust more to continue fighting the good fight moving forward.