The Ascendance of Breitbart

The head of Breitbart news is on his way to a top role in the Trump administration. During the election, Breitbart’s influence on the so-called ‘alt-right’ was phenomenal. In the month before the US election, the site generated 240 million page views and 37 million unique visitors. How concerned should the big players be about the new kids on the block?

Despite failing in her quest become the first female President of the United States, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was undoubtedly one of firsts. The first woman to be nominated by a major American political party also earned a slightly less noteworthy accolade — the first presidential candidate to be endorsed by Vogue. But why did a fashion magazine wade into political waters?

Rattled by what it described as the “profound stakes” of the election, Vogue endorsed a candidate for the first time in its 124-year history. Whether or not it believed itself to hold sway over voters, it was certainly in good company. In 2012, newspapers split roughly evenly between Obama and Romney. But 2016 showed a very different picture; Clinton garnered the endorsement of over 200 publications, her rival received 19.

The media’s distaste for Trump was far from one-sided. He famously described journalists as the “most dishonest people I have ever met”, denouncing them as “scum” and “terrible people” early on in his campaign. His anger escalated as the election season progressed, describing the press as being part of a “global conspiracy”, working in concert with Hillary Clinton to destroy his candidacy. So how did a man with such a terrible relationship with the mainstream press manage to win the Presidency? And what are the implications for media relations now that he has done so?

Breitbart news may answer both questions. It campaigned hard for Trump throughout the primaries, waging war against rival Marco Rubio, soon becoming a rallying point for Trump’s “alt-right” support base- an echo chamber for Trump’s campaign promises. Denounced just a few months ago by Hillary Clinton as “a fringe element [that] has effectively taken over the Republican party”, the take over is now complete. Trump has appointed former editor, Stephen Bannon, as chief strategist in his administration. The once obscure anti-establishment outlet now sits firmly in the bosom of establishment politics.

Celebrating Trump’s victory at an election-night party, Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos declared Breitbart to be the new “mainstream”. Dan Cassino, a political scientist at Fairleigh Dickinson University, says Breitbart is set to become “what Fox News was for Bush”. He argues that Bannon will see it as a media source he can rely upon to get his message out. If true, this will leave Bannon as the main point of contact between the administration and its preferred outlet. Breitbart will become “an influential source for the mainstream media to find out what’s going on inside the White House”.

Beyond this, candidates who once solely required television, printing presses and attentive journalists to speak to the populace, can now engage directly through social media. Trump is nothing if not a master of this medium. The press corps in the Obama Administration already complained about the Presidential Office bypassing the press and releasing policy plans and announcements directly to the public. With 16 million followers on Twitter, Trump is about to take this dynamic to another level.

This has worrying implications for journalists of the established media. At the time of writing, Trump has not held a single press conference since his victory. He has used his Twitter presence to publicly criticise The New York Times and Saturday Night Live, as well as skirting the press corps and refusing to reveal his whereabouts. The absence of a “protective pool”, which ensures journalists are with the president and president-elect when they appear publicly, has been a worrying sign as traditional journalists decipher what type of access they will be granted post-inauguration. For some, these decisions are merely the preferences of a leader who likes to do things differently. But for many in the press this is a brave new world.

The relationship between a free press and an open and transparent White House has been a crucial pillar of American democracy. But these concerns may hold little weight. The mainstream media misread the popular mood during this election. They now face a different and stark choice: adapt to a new reality and play by Trump’s rules, or continue the fight against him. It is a fascinating clash between two distinct visions of how the media contributes towards public discourse.

Let battle commence.

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