Seattle’s nationally prominent talk-radio host Michael Medved, having faced a backlash over his campaign-season stance against Donald Trump, tries to stay positive as the administration gets under way. It isn’t easy.
“We’ve got breaking news,” Michael Medved announced 15 minutes before he was to go on air. It was almost noon, and a half-eaten pastry lay on his desk, competing for space with a jumble of newspapers.
On a TV in the corner of his office, housed in the Eastlake headquarters of conservative talk-radio station KTTH-AM (770), CNN was abuzz with the top story of Day 5 in the Trump administration. The president told congressional leaders that as many as 5 million people had voted illegally, robbing him of a popular-vote majority.
“It’s not true; it’s stupid,” said Medved, a Reagan Republican and syndicated talk-radio host, ranked number 30 in trade publication Talkers Magazine’ 2016 list of the 100 most important such hosts in the country.
And yet, Medved condemned what he called “this CNN freak-out.” Trump made the comment “off the cuff,” Medved said. “He’s not acting on it.”
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It would be a different matter — and “an absurd waste of taxpayer money,” he soon told listeners on his three-hour show — if the president launched “some kind of big investigation.”
The next day, Trump tweeted he would be asking for a “major investigation into VOTER FRAUD.”
What’s a conservative talk-show host to do?
It’s a thorny question for Medved, who opposed Trump throughout the campaign. Medved is striking a balance that differs from the fierce resistance mounted by liberals: He praises what he finds positive in the new administration, criticizes the “hysteria” on the left and lashes into what he considers Trump’s follies.
His estimated 2 million to 4 million listeners, according to Talkers editor and publisher Michael Harrison, take it all in, well aware of Medved’s campaign-season bias — a risky one in a Republican-aligned industry.
For 20 years, Medved, 68, has enjoyed a reputation as a thoughtful conservative. “It’s very hard to listen to Michael and not learn something from him, whether you agree with him or not,” said local conservative talk-radio host John Carlson.
“He’s the kind of conservative I aspire to be,” said Joseph Castleberry, president of evangelical Northwest University in Kirkland. Although Medved is Jewish, his religiously influenced worldview aligns with that of evangelical Christians.
“He understands us,” Castleberry said.
Not coincidentally, Castleberry also opposed Trump. Despite widespread support among the evangelical rank and file for the Republican nominee, his personal morality, among other things, turned off a number of Christian leaders.
Many of Medved’s listeners, however, reacted badly to his stance. He started getting hate mail, some laced with anti-Semitism.
Syndicator Salem Media Group dropped his show in Greenville, South Carolina, and moved it to a middle-of-the-night slot in Dallas. “It was kind of hard to listen to during the election,” said Salem executive Phil Boyce, who, nonetheless, maintained the changes happened for business, not political, reasons.
Many of Medved’s radio peers also criticized Trump — early on, said Talkers’ Harrison. “Most of them buckled under pressure from the audience.”
It was a seminal talk-radio moment. “For years and years, hosts were preaching to the choir and the choir was preaching back a lot of love,” Harrison said. “All of sudden, audiences got angry. It got so vicious.”
Medved stuck to his guns. Explaining why, he said he believes in small government, free trade and comprehensive immigration reform — all positions that put him at odds with Trump, who champions big infrastructure projects, protectionist policies and an energetic use of deportation.
Another point of departure from the outburst-prone president is Medved’s tone. “I have really staked my whole career on the idea that anger is oversold,” said Medved, who is also a history author.
Like a number of other anti-Trump Republicans, Medved voted for independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin. But Trump, Medved said, “is our president now. Like most sane Americans, I’m hoping he won’t be a complete disaster.”
Actually, in the first days of Trump’s presidency, Medved declared himself “hopeful.”
“I am, by nature, an optimistic person,” he said. “I don’t think Trump is cancer.”
He has a frame of reference. Not long ago, Medved had throat cancer and beat it, now free of the illness for two years.
Medved’s big hope is that the president’s hard line on undocumented immigrants might paradoxically allow him to forge an elusive compromise on immigration reform, akin to how die-hard anti-communist President Nixon brought about rapprochement with China.
Medved’s optimism would come to be tested.
“Another great day”
“I’ll tell you the best thing, in my opinion, that happened in Trump’s first two days as president, and the worst thing,” Medved said, speaking the Monday after.
He started with the worst — “that insane, incoherent meandering, stream-of-consciousness, narcissistic embarrassment at the CIA.”
He paraphrased Trump’s talk at CIA headquarters the day after his inauguration: “Trust me, I’m a very smart guy.” Medved looked around to find a transcript.
“I feel young,” Medved continued, reading now. “When I was young — and I think we’re all sort of young. When I was young, we were always winning things.”
Medved speculated on what intelligence officers were thinking: “My God, this man’s in control of my life.”
And the best thing? Medved cited Trump’s honoring of Hillary and Bill Clinton at a Capitol luncheon on Inauguration Day. “It was positively presidential,” Medved said.
And it spoke to an important idea in Medved’s mind: “We’re one country.”
If that wasn’t exactly fulsome praise for the president, Medved was more positive the next day on the radio.
“And another great day in this greatest nation on God’s green Earth,” he started out, as he always does. “And what a great day it is for President Trump. “He is active. He is busy. He is wildly controversial.”
Medved turned to Trump’s executive orders fast-tracking work on the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines. Furiously opposed by mainstream environmentalists and, in the case of the Dakota pipeline, Native American tribes, Medved said that as a “a pro-environment green elephant,” he considered the projects important. “They will help the economy and yes they will create jobs.”
Medved also was bullish about Trump’s announcement of a government hiring freeze, which the radio host said echoed President Reagan.
He ticked off another development: A Senate committee had voted to confirm Trump’s secretary of state nominee, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, whom Medved called a “very impressive guy.”
“There’s all this good news!” Medved trilled.
But when he gave his take on the president’s claim of voter fraud, dismissing it as a foolish offhand remark, a caller didn’t want to let Trump off so easy. “Words matter,” she lamented.
“I agree with you,” Medved allowed. When his producers played a clip of White House press secretary Sean Spicer telling reporters that the president “believes what he believes,” Medved put his hands over his head.
The caller is perhaps one of the many new listeners Medved says he has gotten by veering from the party line on Trump, more than making up for those he lost. It’s hard to know. Ratings are tallied market by market, making a nationwide calculation difficult. Revenue-wise, though, Medved said, “we ended up with our best year ever,” thanks to strong bookings from advertisers.
Still, Salem’s Boyce said it will take time to see how Medved weathers his controversial election stance.
The radio host certainly hears from listeners still angry about that, and eager to defend Trump. Several callers tried to back up the president’s voter-fraud claim, one by invoking a supposed conspiracy — by billionaire investor and leading Democratic funder George Soros — to control voting tabulation software.
Medved cut her off: “There’s something much worse than being a sore loser,” he said. “Being a sore winner.”
The losers are not doing themselves any favors, though, in Medved’s eyes. He, and his listeners, have seized upon the sometimes extreme rhetoric at protests like the nationwide women’s marches following Trump’s inauguration. Medved played clips: Madonna talking about wanting to blow up the White House, Ashley Judd reading a poem envisioning “Hitler in these streets.”
“What they are doing,” Medved said off air, “is alienating the public” and playing into Trump’s hands.
Liberals ought to dump the obsessive negativity, Medved said, and come up with a positive agenda and negotiate with Trump. “There’s a lot of stuff Trump talks about that is traditional Democratic stuff,” he said, citing infrastructure projects and fixing Obamacare (though the president, like most Republicans, has talked about ending and replacing Obamacare rather than fixing it).
But a week after Medved made that observation, his well of positivity was running low. When Trump nominated conservative federal appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch for the U.S. Supreme Court, Medved, citing Gorsuch’s impeccable credentials and graciousness, applauded. But Medved called the nomination “the only thing [Trump’s] done in his entire presidency for which I unqualifiedly approve.”
By that time, Trump had issued a series of executive orders on immigration, the most notable temporarily banning immigrants and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries and stopping the influx of all refugees.
“Much worse than anything I expected,” Medved said on his way to the airport to catch a flight to Chicago, where he was to talk about his latest book, “The American Miracle.”
The onetime attendee of Yale Law School didn’t find the travel ban unconstitutional. Like the Department of Justice, he pointed out that those outside the country don’t have constitutional rights. (Two federal courts have, nevertheless, found enough constitutional questions about the order to put it on hold.)
Still, Medved didn’t think the order would make the country any safer and he deplored the rushed, “haphazard” way it was done. “You have to have some junior level of competence,” he said.
In contrast, John Carlson remained upbeat. Sure, the rollout of the travel ban was clunky, he said. Yet, he said “the actual policies are by no means radical,” constituting a mere pause in the flow of immigrants and travelers.
“I give him a B,” said fellow KVI host Kirby Wilbur, a former state Republican Party chairman. “He’s moved quickly on many issues,” which is good, Wilbur judged. The president has a lot of opposition, and it would only mount if he took his time, Wilbur said.
Medved, though, equivocated when asked if he was still hopeful. “Ehhh,” he said, and wryly laughed.
“I’m hopeful about the country. We have survived all kinds of things, and I think our institutions are robust enough to cope with some of the challenges of a Trump administration.”