When NBC News hosts the third GOP primary debate of the 2024 cycle Wednesday night, it will do so in partnership with a conservative media organization that “bankrolled” (in the words of a company executive) a documentary floating flimsy allegations of fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
Such partnerships are commonplace for Republican debates. The same organization, Salem Media Group, co-hosted four debates with CNN as a media partner during the 2016 election cycle. But in the years since, many of its popular talk-radio and podcast hosts have made notably inflammatory remarks about political figures and social issues, in addition to Salem’s investment in pro-Donald Trump 2020 revisionism.
Now, NBC is drawing some criticism for partnering with Salem, even though it may not have had much say in the matter.
It was the Republican National Committee that assigned Salem to partner with NBC — and although Salem radio host Hugh Hewitt will serve as one of the moderators, NBC News will retain full editorial control over the questions asked, a network spokesperson said.
Still, Salem’s overtly political and rightward shift has raised questions about the undertaking. “This is a major mistake for NBC,” said Brian Rosenwald, who wrote a 2019 book about the history of political talk radio. “I think it really undermines their journalistic credibility.”
Salem Media Group served as the executive producer of “2000 Mules,” a film released last year by right-wing pundit Dinesh D’Souza that purported to demonstrate that rampant illegality flipped the results of the 2020 presidential election. An analysis by Washington Post columnist Philip Bump found the movie to be based on “shaky, misrepresented, incomplete claims.” A fact-check by Reuters found that it “does not provide any concrete, verifiable evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.”
Phil Boyce, a senior vice president for Salem, argued otherwise. “What you saw there was evidence that something was going on in the 2020 election,” he said during a 2022 podcast interview. He rebutted criticism of the film by saying that “all the fact-checkers are liberal.” A Salem executive did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
One of Salem’s star podcasters is Jenna Ellis, the former Trump lawyer who recently pleaded guilty to illegally conspiring to help overturn his 2020 loss in Georgia.
Although not as prominent a conservative brand as Fox News, Salem has a large national reach, distributing radio programming to 3,100 affiliated stations throughout the country. The company also owns websites dedicated to Christianity and right-leaning political news and almost a decade ago acquired the conservative publishing house Regnery Publishing.
In contrast to strictly business-oriented radio networks such as Cumulus Media and iHeartMedia, Salem was founded in 1974 “to provide the best outlets and platforms for the Christian message” and has never been shy about its politically conservative orientation and belief that the country should be guided by Judeo-Christian principles.
“Salem is from top to bottom a true believer,” said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers Magazine, which covers the talk-radio industry. “There’s a certain purity to their programing that appeals to a devoted listener who is into conservative politics.”
But the political commentary on Salem’s programs has coarsened in recent years, particularly after the company experienced something of a rupture with the rise of Trump.
Several Salem hosts who were either critical or ambivalent about Trump left the network, believing they were pushed out because they would not get behind the party leader.
“You had a decision to make: Get on Team Trump,” said former congressman Joe Walsh, a Salem host from 2013 to 2019, when he announced a run for president. “I told them I can only say what I believe every time I go on the radio, and that just couldn’t stand there. You could not stand there being even ambivalent to Trump.”
Salem replaced the Trump-critical radio host Michael Medved with former Trump White House staffer Sebastian Gorka and in 2020 hired the conservative youth activist Charlie Kirk. In Walsh’s view, “they brought in these idiots whose only cachet was they were Trump cheerleaders.”
(Gorka responded by referencing Walsh’s past as a social media flamethrower. “You mean the same Joe Walsh who tweeted Obama is a Muslim?” he said in an email to The Post.)
On his Jan. 6, 2021, radio show, Gorka seemed to defend the Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol that day. “Those who elect our representatives and our senators have had enough and they are in their house,” he told his listeners, adding: “Should I feel guilty for feeling good?”
In July, Kirk referred to President Biden as “a bumbling dementia-filled Alzheimer’s corrupt tyrant who should honestly be put in prison and/or given the death penalty for his crimes against America.” Earlier this year, he declared that only people in a “monogamous heterosexual marriage” should be eligible to adopt children; last year, he argued that people who identify as gay “want to corrupt your children.”
This is the sort of rhetoric that raised red flags about NBC’s debate partnership with Salem. “They’ve always bragged about being a good Christian company, and they just spew hatred,” Walsh told The Post. (The RNC also gave Rumble, a conservative-targeting video platform that flirts with conspiracy theories and that describes itself as being “immune to cancel culture,” exclusive rights to live stream the debate.)
But to get the rights to air a Republican Party debate, you generally must “be willing to have a conservative partner,” a veteran Republican operative told The Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
For a news organization like NBC, sitting on the sidelines of the debate cycle would be a hard pill to swallow — even though the alternative means providing its resources and infrastructure to a party whose standard-bearer, Trump, has regularly attacked the network and declared that NBC’s parent company should be “investigated” for treason.
Trump is not expected to participate in Wednesday’s debate, just as he has sat out the previous two.
Although Salem is increasingly defined by fire-breathing personalities such as Gorka, Kirk and Dennis Prager, none of them will be on the stage Wednesday night. Salem’s representative as moderator will be Hewitt, a contributing columnist to The Post’s editorial page.
Hewitt, a former NBC News and MSNBC analyst, will moderate alongside NBC anchors Lester Holt and Kristen Welker. During the 2016 debates, he impressed some viewers with his probing of Trump. “He was not a sycophant in terms of his performance,” Harrison said.