Does Electoral College end election for conservative media?

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Democrat Sophia Danenberg, a member of Washington's Electoral College, fills in her ballot for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at the state Capitol in Olympia, Wash., Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

NEW YORK – Newsmax's newest star, Greg Kelly, sought to rally President Donald Trump's supporters after Monday's Electoral College vote confirmed their hero's defeat at the hands of President-elect Joe Biden.

“My fellow deplorables,” he said, “it's not over.”

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By continuing to support the president's unfounded accusations of election fraud, Kelly is by no means alone within a media infrastructure that competes for the loyalty of Trump's backers. He doesn't speak for all, however, and a shift toward preparing for a post-Trump world is slowly gaining momentum.

Geraldo Rivera offered tough love following Biden's nationally televised address Monday night, telling his Fox News Channel audience that “it's over.”

The Wall Street Journal editorialized that Trump and Republicans “can help the country and themselves by acknowledging the result and moving on.” Online on Tuesday, Breitbart News played up the story of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan saying that Republicans who won't accept the election results are “embarrassing us.” Only one of 15 stories on the homepage of Dan Bongino's site concerned the election.

Polls illustrate the stark choice imposed by Trump's refusal to concede.

A CBS News-YouGov poll released this week found that 82% of Trump voters didn't believe Biden was the legitimate winner of the election. Similarly, a Fox News poll found that 77% of Trump voters believe their candidate actually won.

So if success as a media personality depends upon this audience, do you tell them the truth or what they want to hear?

“It may not be the ethical answer, but in terms of business? You tell them what they want to hear,” said Nicole Hemmer, a Columbia University professor and author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.”

Throughout the Trump era, conservatives who opposed the president have generally lost their media platforms while pro-Trump voices have been ascendant, she said.

As often stated by Rush Limbaugh, many conservative media voices consider themselves entertainers, even if listeners treat them as news sources, said Brian Rosenwald, author of “Talk Radio America” and a scholar in residence at the University of Pennsylvania.

The audience is their first loyalty, he said.

“As conservative media proliferated, it put a lot more pressure on the hosts to move to the right and embrace warfare politics,” Rosenwald said. “If they don't, they get accused of selling out. This is a business.”

Hemmer said she expects the Electoral College vote will begin to shift the narrative from “the election is undecided" to “the election was stolen.”

The difficulty of that transition was evident in coverage of the Electoral College voting.

Newsmax, riding a wave of newfound popularity thanks in part to Trump's promotion, has resisted calling the election for Biden, making it significant when anchor John Bachman twice referred to Biden as the president-elect.

Some colleagues had trouble with that idea: Host Chris Salcedo referred to a “potential Biden administration." With Congress meeting Jan. 6 to formally count the Electoral College vote, Kelly said, “the way I read it, we won't have a president-elect until then.”

CNN treated it like a second election night, keeping a running tally of Electoral College votes on the screen. Dana Bash said it was a routine event and covered like that in the past, but Trump's stance made it necessary to be more aggressive.

Fox News Channel, like other cable and broadcast news networks, carried Biden's evening speech live. The Electoral College vote led Bret Baier's newscast, which was not a given considering COVID-19 vaccinations began Monday.

Meanwhile, daytime anchor Bill Hemmer's hourlong newscast didn't even mention the Electoral College. Trump aide Stephen Miller was invited on “Fox & Friends” to call for “heroes to step up and do right thing” and grant the president a second term.

Then there are, like Kelly, the true believers. Maria Bartiromo said on Fox Business Network on Monday that “an intel source (is) telling me that President Trump did, in fact, win the election.” Lou Dobbs cited “cries of fraud from almost every corner of the country.” Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity said that anyone who doesn't “bow before the election decrees” will face a media mob's wrath.

It was notable, though, that while Tucker Carlson found no shortage of things to criticize Biden for, he did not talk about election results.

The idea that Trump was robbed isn't likely to disappear. But it's not a long-term business strategy, and “I also think it's not very interesting editorially,” said Steve Krakauer, who publishes the Fourth Watch conservative newsletter and produces podcasts for Megyn Kelly.

Fox would be better off establishing itself as a check on the Biden administration, much like MSNBC and CNN have for Trump, Krakauer said.

Fox appears better positioned to maintain leadership, despite a post-election ratings boomlet at Newsmax, because it has much more robust news capabilities than its competitors for a conservative audience, he said. A Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday also suggests limits to the dissatisfaction with Fox that has been expressed by some Trump fans. Republicans who said Fox is a major source of their election news had a better impression of the network's coverage than those with a more mixed media diet.

No matter how things shake out, experts don't expect it to be pretty for Biden.

“There is no appetite for even recognizing Biden's victory, much less actually working with him,” Nicole Hemmer said. “All the incentive structures now encourage more radicalism, more conspiracies, more obstruction. So while the past month has been remarkably corrosive, it likely will be surpassed in the not-too-distant future.”

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