By Jonathan Easley - 03-27-17 06:00 AM EDT
Conservative media outlets have suffered through a tumultuous few weeks punctuated by infighting and public controversy, underscoring the difficulty some are having adjusting to the new levels of attention and scrutiny that comes with their elevated status in the age of Trump.
GOP majorities in Congress and Donald Trump's presidency have been a boon for conservative media, which has benefitted from increased access to Washington's power brokers and a White House that has gone out of its way to accommodate outlets that were once considered fringe.
But the transition from the edges of the media to its center can be difficult. Conservative media's mainstream peers have greeted them with suspicion and hostility, often eager to highlight the newcomers' stumbles or question their legitimacy.
In interviews with nearly a dozen key figures in conservative media, right-leaning reporters and editors spoke about their relative youth and inexperience and the need to professionalize and move on from the sensationalism that initially helped them attract readers.
They see their challenge as one that mirrors what the Republican Party as a whole is experiencing, as it makes the transition from being the opposition party to the party in power.
"I think there is a bit of an existential crisis," said Lucian Wintrich, a 28-year-old gay conservative provocateur who is moving to Washington to be the White House correspondent for the Gateway Pundit blog.
"We're having some growing pains as we try to expand our reach and become more mainstream and less sensationalist in our writing and journalism. It's an interesting transition. You have publications that historically have not had much oversight suddenly needing to reevaluate how they do things."
The millennial-focused conservative website Independent Journal Review suspended three staffers last week, including creative director Benny Johnson - a former BuzzFeed reporter who had been a high-profile hire for the young outlet - for publishing a conspiracy theory about President Obama. The controversy provoked one of the site's reporters to resign in frustration over the direction of the company.
Also last week, Breitbart News investigative reporter Lee Stranahan quit the publication after going public with his frustrations with the site's political editor, Matthew Boyle, who has greater editorial control now that former chairman Stephen Bannon has become Trump's chief White House strategist.
Meanwhile, Glenn Beck's website, The Blaze, suspended one of its top personalities, the unapologetically pro-Trump booster Tomi Lahren, for announcing on "The View" that she supports abortion and for criticizing anti-abortion conservatives.
And Fox News yanked one of its top legal experts, Andrew Napolitano, after he alleged that a British intelligence agency had wiretapped Trump Tower at Obama's request. White House press secretary Sean Spicer repeated the claim during a press briefing, resulting in international backlash.
The errors and turmoil have frustrated some on the right, who warn that the mainstream press and the left will seize on every misstep in an effort to delegitimize conservative outlets.
"Conservative media has always been held to a higher standard than liberal media, and as conservatives we have to live up to that higher standard," said Matthew Continetti, the editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon. "When we don't, it not only undermines our work as journalists, but also the conservative project as a whole."
Tensions between the mainstream press and right-wing media outlets have spilled into the open in recent weeks.
State Department reporters cried foul when only one outlet - the conservative I.J. Review - was allowed to travel abroad with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The I.J. Review instructed its reporter, Erin McPike, not to tweet or write daily news reports. She focused instead on a single feature story they could be packaged as an exclusive.
Reporters excluded from the trip were furious that McPike didn't act as their eyes and ears by filing incremental news stories or pool reports.
And Wintrich, the Gateway Pundit correspondent who once ran a group for young gay men called "Twinks 4 Trump," was accosted in the White House briefing room and called a racist by a Fox News Radio reporter who berated him in front of the press corps.
"If you're legacy media and have been trading on that access for decades, when the new guy comes in and gets your access, it's enraging," said Sean Davis, a co-founder of The Federalist. "I don't buy that this is about conservative outlets making errors or not knowing what they're doing. This is legacy outlets acting like an entitled monopoly or a cartel when someone new comes in and does the job better than they do."
Still, many conservative media players interviewed by The Hill acknowledged that adjusting to the brighter spotlight, coupled with the gravity of covering the White House, has been a challenge.
"A lot of them aren't ready for prime time," said John Ziegler, a Trump critic who spent 20 years in conservative media but left his radio show last year after he grew weary of battling his pro-Trump audience.
"A lot of so-called conservative media is like the dog that caught the car and now they don't know what the hell to do. They're completely confused because they've never been in this situation before."
Many are rushing to "professionalize" or "institutionalize" their operations.
Some conservative outlets have never before been in the rotation for White House pool duty. Their reporters are learning on the fly as they follow the president around the country to file reports for the benefit of the entire press corps, in what has traditionally been the domain of nonpartisan outlets.
Breitbart has applied for its first permanent congressional credentials, a process that opens the outlet to new scrutiny about its investors. In order to get the credentials, Breitbart had to disclose that the conservative billionaire Robert Mercer, a major Trump backer, is a part owner.
These outlets are also facing editorial challenges over how to cover a political landscape that is dominated by like-minded conservatives.
"It was a lot easier under Obama, when you could just hate on everything he did," said one source who works in conservative media but requested anonymity.
And covering Trump, who is not a traditional conservative and who is viewed as reckless and dangerous by some in his own party, presents a unique challenge.
"Trump has added a new dynamic to conservatism," said Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor who now runs the Daily Wire, another conservative news site. "Politics used to exist on a right-left X-axis. Now we've added a pro-Trump, anti-Trump Y-axis. And that's throwing everything into turmoil."
Indeed, the way these outlets cover Trump is often itself news - especially if the story is coming from Breitbart.
Under Boyle's stewardship, Breitbart has steadfastly backed Trump, even as the president whipped support for an ObamaCare replacement bill that the outlet has tried to sink. As they have long done, Breitbart cast GOP leadership as the villains in the drama.
That editorial decision has been controversial and is one of the criticisms Stranahan, the site's former investigative reporter, made as he unleashed a litany of frustrations with Breitbart's direction.
"Bannon was such a visionary and when he left it was significant," Stranahan said. "It is still a good company. But there is a difference between being a good company and a disruptive one. When Steve left, it was a big deal."
Still, Breitbart's impact on the political landscape remains.
They lobbied hard to doom the GOP healthcare bill, making themselves instrumental in shielding Trump from political damage while setting Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) up for defeat. Boyle is one of only a handful of reporters to score an Oval Office interview with Trump.
But access can have its downsides. Breitbart scored an exclusive interview on Facebook Live with White House press secretary Sean Spicer minutes after a judge blocked Trump's travel ban - a much-watched scoop that was undermined by the broadcast's poor production values and awkward camera angles.
Even as these tensions play out in public, though, conservatives argue that the growing pains are a good problem to have. They believe that conservative media can appeal to a growing audience frustrated with the mainstream press.
"This is healthy. These outlets are earning their battle scars," said one editor at a conservative outlet. "These are the key moments every outlet needs to survive and get to the next stage. It sucks now, but we'll get there."