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Critics of Steve Bannon, the incoming chief White House strategist, are growing increasingly concerned that his influence under President-elect Donald Trump could legitimize and empower the alt-right and turn controversial conservative news sites into a messaging arm of the new administration.
Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, has called the website a platform for the alt-right—a deeply conservative ideological movement often criticized for being racist, misogynist and anti-Semitic. Critics have linked Breitbart News and other alt-right websites and groups to white nationalism, a view Bannon and his allies have disputed.
Breitbart has a long track record of publishing articles that disparage minorities and women. Consider, for example, these Breitbart headlines: “Why Equality and Diversity Departments Should Only Hire Rich, Straight White Men,” “Here’s Why There Ought to Be a Cap on Women Studying Science and Maths,” “Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?” and “Gay Rights Have Made Us Dumber, It’s Time to Get Back in the Closet.”
Bannon stepped down as executive chairman of Breitbart News in August when he joined the Trump campaign.
But now that Trump has named Bannon to a top role at the White House, media scholars and nonpartisan government watchdog groups say they expect Breitbart’s influence to grow.
“For Breitbart and the alt-right movement, having Trump and Bannon in the White House legitimizes their agenda and gives them a direct conduit to power that they’ve never had before,” said Kurt Bardella, the CEO of Endeavor Strategies, a public relations firm that represented Breitbart News for two years.
Bardella quit working for Breitbart in March, saying he had not signed up to represent a “de facto Trump Super PAC.”
During the campaign, Breitbart’s coverage was highly positive toward Trump. The site regularly featured opinion pieces from Trump supporter Ann Coulter, coverage of his rallies rarely questioned his policy proposals, and some articles bolstered Trump’s claims that independent fact-checkers rated as false. The day after the election last week, Breitbart announced it would expand its operations overseas.
White House ethics rules do prohibit staff from having any form of coordination with their former employers for one year after their hire, Politico reports. Other regulations prohibit executive branch staff members from benefiting financially from their positions, and that could also limit Bannon’s influence on the site. But those limitations aren’t calming Bannon’s critics, since a Trump administration could soften the rules.
Once Trump takes office, Bardella said he expects Breitbart’s relationship with the Trump administration to become even more mutually beneficial.
Breitbart is likely to be one of the most-read publications inside the White House over the next four years, giving it more legitimacy and influence over policy, Bardella said. He added that the website would likely publish articles espousing the Trump administration’s views — making it a powerful messaging tool to influence conservatives who voted for the president-elect.
“The media should treat Breitbart not as a media organization but as a direct arm of the White House,” Bardella said.
Other media watchers said they would wait and see before characterizing Breitbart News as a vehicle for the Trump team’s messaging operation.
“I don’t know if I at this point would be prepared to go that far,” said Ryan Milner, an assistant professor of communications at the College of Charleston. “But I think it’s worth paying attention to [the fact] that Bannon and the ideology he represents has the ear of the president and vice versa.”
Milner, who studies internet behavior, said the formal nature of the connection between Breitbart and the White House, paired with Trump’s broader disdain for traditional media, made Bannon’s appointment — which does not require Senate confirmation — wholly unprecedented.
“Having a prominent alternative outlet to tell state-sanctioned stories that match the narrative coming out of the Trump administration is entirely possible,” Milner said.
Bannon’s appointment is also causing nonprofit watchdog groups to rethink their approach over the next four years.
“This is new territory for us,” said Danielle Brian, the executive director for the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan group that tracks corruption in government. “When you are looking at an ethical government, you can’t have a senior advisor and strategist for the president who has so aggressively mocked the democratic values that oppose bigotry.”
House and Senate Democrats have seized on the controversy, with some calling on Trump to rescind Bannon’s appointment. Many Republicans have been silent about Bannon’s appointment, a signal that they plan to distance themselves from the former Breitbart executive.
But allies have rushed to Bannon’s defense. Joel Pollak, Breitbart’s senior editor-at-large, recently disputed the view held by many critics that Bannon transformed Breitbart into a platform for the alt-right. He also praised Bannon as a fantastic choice for the position of White House chief strategist.
“From a conservative perspective at least, [Bannon is] a national hero, because in helping Donald Trump win, he’s helped defend the Supreme Court and the constitution,” Pollack said in an interview with NPR. “And I think Americans can take heart in the fact that you have someone who’s so calm under pressure in the White House.”
Pollack and Breitbart News declined to comment for this story.
Trump administration officials and other supporters have also hailed Bannon’s appointment as a fulfillment of Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington by replacing establishment officials with outsiders.
On the Today Show this week, Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, came to Bannon’s personal defense, saying that he is “not as scary” as some people portray him to be.
“I know him well. I work hand and glove with him, and I feel these charges are very unfair,” Conway said.
Gretchen Frazee is a Senior Coordinating Broadcast Producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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