Rewriting the Right

Two events are pretty much synonymous with the current dynamic of Washington: at once indicative of our political culture and everything wrong with that culture.

Two pillars of conservatism grapple with life under an administration neither could predict, and a president that neither would prevent. 

Less than four months into the unalloyed conservative triumph of Donald Trump assuming the presidency of the United States — an objective deeply desired and widely praised by think-tank and media conservatives — the symbol of American right-wing media and a leading conservative policy organization are going through major changes of their leadership and their missions. Just not the way they planned, or expected.

Change comes at you fast, they say. For these groups, the sudden changes that have already taken place could lead to more upheaval, as the conservative bloc in Washington faces the prospect of having to realign its objectives with something called reality, the reality of changes they can’t control.

The rightward realignment started last week when Bill O’Reilly, the longtime anchor and chief interlocutor of Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, was fired, in the wake of numerous sexual harassment lawsuits; anecdotal statements of some who claimed victimization by O’Reilly; and the millions in settlement money O’Reilly and/or Fox has paid out in recent years to make the whole thing go away.

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A longtime loyal water carrier for the Republicans, their policies and world view, O’Reilly was ultimately cashiered by his own hubris; growing indignation from former Fox News staffers calling O’Reilly to account for various improprieties; and a changing of the guard at 21st Century Fox (formerly News Corporation), the company owned by Rupert Murdoch and possibly soon to be culturally transformed by his sons, James and Lachlan Murdoch.

The younger Murdochs are thought to be serious about a wholesale cultural change at Fox News, turning away from the “band of pirates” ethos that’s characterized much of Fox News’ leadership style for years. O’Reilly’s exit was apparently just the beginning.

On May 1, just days after O’Reilly left the building, Fox News co-president Bill Shine was forced to tender his resignation, maybe because of misdeeds tied to O’Reilly and Fox News’ buccaneer culture, or perhaps it’s just more evidence of the cultural shift that the younger Murdochs hope to put in place at Fox News.

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Whatever the reason, Shine’s departure is thought by many news observers to be the death knell for Sean Hannity in his tenure at Fox. On Monday, veteran media journalist Lloyd Grove, at The Daily Beast, reported that Hannity “is ready to follow him out the door. Last week, when rumors of Shine’s imminent exit were circulating in the press, Hannity posted a series of tweets that were widely interpreted as a threat to leave in protest.

“If Shine were to be fired, Hannity tweeted ‘that’s the total end of the FNC as we know it. Done.’”

The Murdochs, father and sons, would probably beg to differ. They have reasons beyond the obvious. The O’Reilly matter and the follow-on dismissal of Shine were dramatic moves aimed at something besides the public consumption.

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Grove reports: “According to multiple industry insiders, Shine’s swift exit will not be sufficient to stop Fox News’s continuing PR debacle, and the departure of several more Fox News execs, including general counsel Dianne Brandi, is likely to be required amid multiple lawsuits, a federal criminal investigation, and the pending recommendation of British regulators on whether 21st Century Fox is a ‘fit and proper’ company that should be allowed to assume total control of the profitable European television and internet platform, Sky PLC.”

With the dismissals of O’Reilly and Shine, huge Fox News payouts for sexual harassments real and alleged, and a lawsuit from black Fox employees alleging rampant racial discrimination kin hiring, promotion and salaries, Fox News looks to be trying to reposition itself as a Good Steward of the Airwaves, in order for parent company 21st Century Fox to close the Sky PLC deal.

Nothing says “responsible” like firing people thought to be irresponsible, and their allies. Nothing says “good steward” like making amends for past practices — by starting a PR rehab that’s as much about seeking or exploiting corporate and technological leverage as it is about reflecting noble motives and generational change.

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The Heritage Foundation is the other conservative pillar shaken hard lately. On May 2, Jim DeMint, former firebrand South Carolina Republican senator, was ousted from his post as president of the foundation, the nation’s most powerful and influential conservative public-policy organization, holy of holies for movement conservatives. Several Heritage staffers loyal to DeMint exited too. In a statement, foundation chairman Thomas Saunders III said:

“After a comprehensive and independent review of the entire Heritage organization, the Board determined there were significant and worsening management issues that led to a breakdown of internal communications and cooperation. While the organization has seen many successes, Jim DeMint and a handful of his closest advisers failed to resolve these problems.”

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But what at first blush sounds like a matter of the trains at Heritage not running on time conceals something else. With perhaps as many as 30 people walking out the door with DeMint, it’s clear that more was afoot: a clash of politics and policy.

The infighting found DeMint & friends squaring off against a group of Heritage staffers led by Mike Needham, the head of Heritage Action for America, the foundation offshoot responsible for lobbying Congress under 501(c)(4) tax laws.

The Daily Beast reported: “This dispute ... came amid a stark disagreement over Trumpcare-related tactics that exacerbated existing tensions within the marquee conservative think tank, multiple sources confirmed ...

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“On March 28, just four days after Republicans pulled the plug on the first incarnation of Trumpcare, Heritage held a conference call for its members to discuss the bill and the diminished Obamacare-repeal prospects. Heritage Action had actively campaigned against the original Trumpcare bill as at best a capitulation to the progressive premises of President Obama’s signature legislative victory.

“According to a Heritage member who was on the call and took notes, DeMint and Needham were both chairing the conference call — and their stark differences were on full display. DeMint was busy trying to calm down the callers who were angered that Heritage’s advocacy arm helped sink Trump’s first real Obamacare-repeal push. Needham, alternatively, was aggressively defensive of Heritage Action’s campaign to kill the effort, and emphasized that it was the right course of action.”

Molly Hemingway in The Federalist probed deeper on May 2, in an analysis that fully undercuts the watercooler consensus: “Contrary to the media narrative floated last week that DeMint needlessly politicized Heritage and turned it into a brass-knuckle political combat group instead of a policy-focused think tank, these sources say Needham bears much of the blame for politicizing Heritage.

“Rather than pushing to make Heritage more political and less focused on producing high-quality policy research, DeMint actually tried to rein in Heritage Action in recent years, as the 501(c)(4) group began racking up enemy after enemy on Capitol Hill without actually putting any congressional policy points on the board. Multiple sources told The Federalist that Needham bristled at DeMint’s repeated attempts to assert control over the splinter organization and began plotting to overthrow DeMint once it became clear that the former South Carolina senator had no desire to outsource control of the think tank to the 30-something political operative with no policy background.”

The clash of media talking points on DeMint’s role at Heritage dovetails with conflict within conservative ranks. No matter which way you go, which version of the truth you believe, upheaval is the one constant.

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As with all things political in Washington’s hothouse environment, it’s best not to look at these as separate. There’s really no convenient way to silo one from another. They're pretty much synonymous with other events in the nation’s capital in 2017: at once indicative of our political culture and everything wrong with that culture.

Fox News and its parent company grapple with social, demographic and competitive truths they previously ignored, while the Heritage Foundation decides what hills movement conservatism will die on between now and the 2018 midterms, and who’ll lead the foundation on that charge.

They’re coming to grips with life under an administration neither could have predicted, and a president that neither would have prevented. 

Michael Eric Ross
Michael Eric Ross

Author and journalist Michael Eric Ross contributes to Medium. His writing has also appeared in PopMatters, The New York Times, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, Salon, The Root, msnbc.com, BuzzFeed and other publications.

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Rewriting the Right