By Jonathon Van Maren
Every few months, a mainstream media outlet publishes a piece by a journalist who is deeply concerned by the consistently growing popularity of conservative podcaster Ben Shapiro and his media platform, The Daily Wire. Most recently, NPR published an article titled “Outrage as a Business Model: How Ben Shapiro is using Facebook to Build an Empire.” The opening line is obviously intended to be ominous: “In 2021, Ben Shapiro rules Facebook.” Shapiro, NPR reveals, has more followers than The Washington Post, and The Daily Wire get more likes, shares, and comments “than any other news publisher by a wide margin”—and more than CNN, the Post, NBC, and the New York Times combined.
The Daily Wire’s content is very diverse—a range of podcasters, written (albeit mostly recycled) articles, video content, long-form interviews (Ben Shapiro’s Sunday Special) with guests from all sides of the political spectrum, and a growing catalog of video content. All of that, according to NPR, amounts to “outrage politics” and notes that “experts worry” that Shapiro “may be furthering polarization in the U.S.” Of course, NPR is particularly worried about DW’s conservative influence—there are no equivalent articles detailing their concerns with mainstream outlets like MSNBC and CNN or online gigs like Mother Jones, Vice, or any other progressive platforms. The fact that these platforms are less successful than Shapiro’s is not for lack of trying.
In short, the purpose of articles like this is to push Big Tech towards doing something about it—thus the dire warnings from experts about “polarization” that only ever comes from the Right and never from the Left. This despite the fact that NPR begrudgingly admits that the “articles The Daily Wire publishes don’t normally include falsehoods”—which merely means that other pretexts for limiting DW’s reach must be found. NPR even has the guts to obliviously complain about DW’s conservative bias—again, a criticism that is only ever leveled in one direction. We are all constantly regaled with warnings about the far-Right (which exists—I’ve written about it, and Shapiro has spoken up about it consistently)—but never the far-Left.
That said, there are also conservatives who have also been critical of Shapiro’s business model. I believe they are missing some of the key factors that make The Daily Wire good for American conservatism—and I say this as someone who differs with them on a number of key issues.
Decades ago, William F. Buckley’s National Review defined conservatism for a generation largely by making judgement calls regarding which voices constituted genuine conservatism and which ones did not. Anti-Semitism was out; fringe conspiracy theorists were out; the John Birchers were out. By refusing to publish or publicize these voices, Buckley cut them off from the mainstream and out of key debates. Arguably, this was as significant a contribution to conservatism as much of the writing published in NR’s pages.
With the Internet, this model no longer works so well. Publications have to court readers who can easily find other platforms tailormade to their specific beliefs. No single publication comes close to filling the role that National Review once did—and certainly not National Review. Instead, many of the legacy publications compete feebly with growing online giants willing to create the clickbait necessary to keep the hits coming and the readers returning for more. Good writing ranks low on the priority list; podcasts, personalities, and videos are king.
Large platforms are thus generally not looking for writers, they’re looking for “content creators” who can produce more video or text to feed to consumers. Many extremely talented writers have rightly concluded that money, fame, and influence can be found onscreen, not in columns. When Tucker Carlson launched The Daily Caller, for example, he envisioned a conservative version of the New York Times—quality writing, in-depth journalism. It hasn’t quite turned out that way. Tucker himself, of course, largely left writing for TV despite a record of brilliant journalism and brilliant writing. Christopher Hitchens, famously, begged him not to do it.
To dislike this new media landscape—which, in many ways, I do—is irrelevant to the reality of its predominance. It is what it is. I understand the criticisms leveled by some conservatives against The Daily Wire. There is no doubt that they are producing some content to generate clicks and shares, and that means, among other things, posting things that will outrage people. I’ve noticed this with my own articles—a good news story about a significant pro-life victory will often get far less attention than a short, snappy piece about something negative. If they want to survive in this market, large media platforms have to play the game to some degree.
I’d also argue that many of the pieces that the mainstream media claims are “designed to provoke outrage” don’t really need to be “designed” at all. Plenty of these stories are about genuinely outrageous things—like Drag Queen Story Hour, sex-ed in schools, abortion horrors, and the trans agenda. Often, conservative “fearmongering” constitutes the actual details of what progressives are up to. There really are things that we should be outraged about, and they are often the very things progressives don’t want publicized. Conservative cultural critiques are often written off as “conspiracy theories” or more infamous incidents of “Republicans pouncing.”
While this isn’t necessarily a defence, it is also important to point out that media has always been like this. “If it bleeds, it leads,” as they say. I collect old newspapers, and the headlines, stories, and editorials in many would put plenty of our clickbait to shame. Incidentally, the so-called “mainstream media” has the exact same modus operandi, with a solid six straight years of panic porn from Trump’s election to the COVID crisis—and they almost never get held to the same standard. I shouldn’t say don’t hate the player, hate the game—but, oops. Unless we want to cede this territory entirely to the Left, it is important that intelligent, savvy, and entrepreneurial folks from the Right are willing to conquer these markets. That’s going to mean producing the sorts of things people want to watch.
With all of that out of the way, the key point I’d like to make is that I believe The Daily Wire is doing something very important on the Right. With their vast and rapidly-growing audience of young people, they are in some ways doing what National Review did decades ago—they are deradicalizing people and presenting a fundamentally reasonable and coherent version of conservatism that avoids the fringe conspiracy theories while declining to express contempt for those who have gone down rabbit holes. You might not care for how they express these views; you may not like the format, the packaging, or the social media brawls; but The Daily Wire is a necessary counter-balance—and sometimes antidote—to the many sites that have devolved into clearinghouses for stolen election conspiracies and other debunked disinformation.
While many conservative platforms either went anti-Trump (and were then often pulled Left by their audiences) or hardcore pro-Trump, Ben Shapiro steered a careful path between the pylons. His “Good Trump, Bad Trump” shtick was skillfully executed. He called Trump out consistently while praising him for his pro-life policies and other conservative moves without losing sight of who Trump actually was. He called out Trump immediately when the president declared he’d won on election night, and debunked, day after day, the theory that Trump had actually won—while taking seriously each claim of election fraud and examining them with a lawyer’s eye. Many people who initially took these claims seriously were persuaded by Shapiro and The Daily Wire that the “stolen election” narrative was, in fact, wishful thinking on the part of Trump and a handful of his close associates (not even Pence believed it, after all.)
Shapiro has also been clear, time and again, about the danger of a post-truth GOP; on why the stolen election narrative is a poison pill; on why being rooted to principle rather than personality is so important. He and other DW hosts are reaching huge audiences of young people with this message while the viewership of Fox News sits solidly south of sixty years old. The Daily Wire is the only large-scale media operation of its kind promoting solid, consistent conservatism and dominating spaces that traditional conservative sources cannot. If Shapiro and DW weren’t occupying this space, who would be?
And then there’s the fact that while platforms like Breitbart and others courted the poisonous alt-right during the 2016 election, Shapiro called out their anti-Semitism and racialist ideology immediately. He was certainly not the only one, but The Daily Wire was an essential voice during this period, warning rank and file conservatives who do not live on social media and are unaware of what happens in the Internet’s darker caverns what the alt-right is (or was) actually all about. Shapiro’s DW provided a firewall between the anti-Semites and their allies and mainstream conservatism in the media sphere.
It is easy for people who prefer more highbrow forms of commentary to disdain The Daily Wire as an outrage machine, but that would be to miss the fundamental utility of what Shapiro and many of the DW hosts are actually doing. The Daily Wire is one of the largest conservative platforms on the Internet, and Shapiro has steered that ship through stormy and shark-infested waters for the last six years, grounding his listeners in facts, logic, and calm analysis. You don’t have to agree with him all of the time (I don’t) or like his style to recognize that he is doing something that most other conservative outlets either can’t do or won’t do. Like Buckley, they are popularizers. Like Buckley, they are effective at it. I, for one, am glad that The Daily Wire is a growing and successful operation—because I think American conservatism needs them.