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Donald Trump has created fissures through the once solid US conservative media in the same way that he has shaken the foundations of the Republican party, and torn up the rule book for a presidential candidate.
This week Mr Trump enlisted Steve Bannon, chairman of rightwing website Breitbart News, to head his campaign. The move came three days after the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, typically a sounding board for American conservatives, called on Mr Trump to “decide if he wants to behave like someone who wants to be president”.
It is a measure of how extraordinary the 2016 White House race has been that Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, traditional bastions for US Republicans, have clashed with the party’s nominee.
Publications such as the National Review have long been part of the establishment GOP while drawing on outsider status as the Democrats held control of the White House. But with the arrival of Mr Trump, “establishment conservative media all of a sudden wakes up and says: what have we created here?” said Gabriel Kahn, a professor at the University of Southern California and former Wall Street Journal reporter.
In a digital age the media industry has fragmented, with the internet opening up a new echo chamber for sites such as Breitbart to cater to more granular audiences. “Only in today’s media landscape can a candidate like Trump thrive,” said Mr Kahn. “20 years ago it was mainstream media and not much else.”
Breitbart News, founded by Andrew Breitbart in 2007, aimed to be a “global, centre-right, populist, anti-establishment news site”, Mr Bannon has said. “Our readers demand accurate, original reporting untainted by establishment spin.”
But the site’s freewheeling style has embroiled it in controversies. It came under fire for publishing a story in May about a prominent conservative critic of Mr Trump headlined: “Bill Kristol: Republican spoiler, renegade Jew”, which critics said was anti-Semitic. In June, Twitter suspended the account of Milo Yiannopoulos, an editor at Breitbart, after a string of tweets directed at actor Leslie Jones.
The site has grown in prominence this year as it aligned with Mr Trump. It drew 31m unique visitors in July, the company said, and ranked 11th in engagement on Facebook that month, putting it ahead of the Washington Post and the Guardian, according to NewsWhip, an analytics site.
“We’re seeing a reordering at the top of conservative media,” said Ken Doctor of Newsonomics. “You’ve got 30 to 50 sites out there taking up a lot of air.”
Meanwhile Fox News, the cable news network founded by Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch, which has historically held considerable sway over conservative American audiences, has clashed with Mr Trump. The billionaire fought with one of the channel’s biggest stars, Megyn Kelly, at a Republican presidential debate, marking a rare rift between the network and the GOP nominee and exposing cracks in its dominance as a political news brand.
Roger Ailes, Fox News’s chief executive before he left last month in light of sexual harassment allegations, has been a key adviser to more than two generations of Republican presidential candidates. Republican candidates have launched their bids from Fox studios and worked as paid Fox contributors. Among others, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and John Kasich have been employed by Fox. About 60 per cent of its viewers identify as conservative and 88 per cent of “consistent conservatives” trust Fox News’s output, according to Pew Research.
Mr Trump has been the exception. Rather than court Fox and its audience, he has attacked it as part of a campaign fuelled by populist anger. Unlike his predecessors, Mr Trump turns to Twitter as a platform, which he has used as his main publicity tool.
While Fox News has enjoyed record ratings as audiences flocked to US election coverage, the Republican candidate has “dented the aura” of the station, said Chris Ruddy, founder of Newsmax, a conservative media group. While Mr Ruddy still viewed Fox as a “giant and a powerhouse”, Trump showed that it “was not the all-influencing power in the Republican party it had been up to this point”.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign characterises Mr Bannon’s appointment as a further sign that Mr Trump is alienating centrist and even moderate Republican voters, and running fundraising operations off it.
“Never heard of Breitbart News? It’s a fringe website where there’s no opinion too ugly, too divisive, or too outright crazy to be worth breathless promotion,” Christina Reynolds, Mrs Clinton’s deputy communications director, wrote in an email to supporters on Thursday.
“Now, we’ve had a conservative media in this country for a while. I don’t always like what they have to say, but I respect their role and their right to exist,” she said. “Breitbart is something different. They make Fox News look like a Democratic Party pamphlet.”
Mr Trump and people close to the campaign insist that the appointment of Mr Bannon is a way for the businessman to get back to the roots of his primary campaign, when the candidate faced little oversight or blow back from advisers. But others outside the campaign worry that Mr Bannon will fall into the role of Mr Trump’s yes-man and fail to provide the candidate with necessary discipline.
“[Trump’s] problem is not that he hasn’t been able to maintain support from the band of supporters that took him through the primary,” said Tony Fratto, a former top Republican official in the administration of George W Bush. “His problem is he can’t expand the electorate. It’s hard to see how Steve Bannon will help him expand the electorate.”
“It’s like changing state rooms on the Titanic,” he said. “There’s still a big gash in the boat.”
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