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Salem executives pressured radio hosts to cover Trump more positively, emails show

(CNNMoney) Executives at Salem Media Group, a conservative media company that syndicates some of the country's most recognized talk radio hosts and operates a batch of popular commentary websites, pressured some of their radio talent to cover Donald Trump more favorably during the 2016 presidential campaign, emails obtained by CNNMoney show.

One former radio host employed by Salem is now speaking out on the record, claiming the company fired her because of her refusal to play along.

It might not be unusual that a conservative-minded media organization would aim to support the Republican nominee. But the former host, Elisha Krauss, said she feels it's disingenuous to ostensibly hire hosts to be open about their views, only to pressure them behind the scenes to change.

For months, Krauss said, Salem executives explicitly pressured her to change how she treated Trump. Though Krauss said she praised Trump when she felt he deserved it, it ultimately wasn't enough. In January 2017, Krauss said, she was shell-shocked when a casual meeting with a company executive turned into her dismissal.

Krauss declined to discuss the details of her severance, but said the rest of her contract had been settled.

The emails obtained by CNNMoney were sent in the summer of 2016 to Krauss and Ben Shapiro, both former co-hosts of KRLA's "The Morning Answer," and both conservative Trump critics. Krauss and Shapiro co-hosted the show along with Brian Whitman, an anti-Trump liberal, and later Jennifer Horn, a pro-Trump conservative.

"What I have been hearing on TMA... has not been in the spirit of 'supporting the GOP nominee,'" one Salem executive, Terry Fahy, general manager at Salem, wrote in an email to Shapiro and Krauss on July 19, 2016. "In fact, it seems that the show gets into negative minutiae of the Trump campaign and the GOP convention (e.g. criticizing Trump for having his kids speak at the convention.) Do we really need a side by side audio comparison of Trump's wife's speech with Michelle Obama's? How is that ultimately relevant to the big picture and advance the cause?"

Related: 'Mass firing' at conservative site RedState

The revelation of the emails comes after Salem late last month suddenly dismissed writers at RedState, one of the web properties it operates, along with HotAir and TownHall. Multiple people familiar with that matter told CNNMoney that they believed executives targeted conservative critics of Trump at RedState for removal.

Krauss said Salem executives sat her down several times, including twice during the 2016 Republican National Convention, trying to encourage her to change her tone and questioning why she couldn't find anything positive to say about Trump. She believes her firing was "ideological," though she noted executives never explicitly told her that was why she was let go.

While Krauss noted that Salem has the right to hire and fire their hosts as they see fit, she said, "They shouldn't do it with the facade that they're delivering multi-level opinions and they're not puppeteering those opinions."

In a lengthy email, Phil Boyce, a senior vice president at Salem who was one of the executives in the emails urging Krauss to be more favorable toward Trump, told CNNMoney that Krauss was not let go because of her position on Trump. He said that "it should not surprise anybody" that Salem radio hosts often "support conservative candidates in elections" and explained that the company, which also operates the conservative Regnery publishing house, does "a lot of research on what our audience wants."

"That research shows that our listeners want our hosts to support the President when he does well, and criticize him if and when he does or says something wrong," Boyce said.

He added that the radio division is "completely separate" from the company's web division, and stressed the recent firings at RedState were "business related."

One of the emails CNNMoney obtained was sent by Boyce in June of 2016, responding to what he said was Shapiro's request for guidance on the company's position on Trump.

Boyce wrote that "Salem has not taken an official position," but noted that the company's chief executive officer, Edward Atsinger, had made the case that supporting Trump was necessary to beat Hillary Clinton.

"So for you I would say the same," Boyce wrote to Shapiro. "While your show is wildly entertaining and your positions make so much sense I have to salute. I do worry about the long term implications of where this is all going."

Boyce added, "For YOU I suggest that you become a trial lawyer. You suspect your client is guilty, but you are paid to get him off. The jurors will ultimately decide his fate."

Shapiro, who remained intensely critical of Trump throughout the election, declined to comment.

Salem executives were not themselves uniform in their support for Trump; indeed, at least one was sharply critical of him in the internal emails. Instead, they emphasized two major reasons why Shapiro and Krauss should tone down their criticism of Trump: First, that it was their Atsinger's position that the company should back Trump in order to defeat Clinton, and second, that listeners would be turned off by a staunchly anti-Trump stance and ratings would suffer.

Krauss said she had few direct interactions with Atsinger, but one that stood out was from a few weeks before the election at a Salem-sponsored event, when Atsinger told her that her "position had been bothering" him but that he would just have to grin and bear it.

In his July 2016 email Fahy included a note from another executive, saying that "The Morning Answer" wasn't experiencing huge election-related ratings growth because the hosts were "doing nothing but throwing rocks at a significant percentage of our audience every morning."

"Why should we unnecessarily (in my view) drive away all the Trump supporters from your show? Is there no nuanced way we can highlight shortcomings of the campaign?" Fahy wrote.

Speaking with CNNMoney in a recent interview, Krauss disputed that the show's ratings were suffering.

"Our ratings were up that summer. July of 2016 was the highest criticism Ben and I had on air of Trump and it was the highest ratings we had," she said.

Krauss now works with Shapiro at his podcast and website, "The Daily Wire."

Shapiro and Krauss were not the only people working with or for Salem who were pressed to take a more positive stance regarding Trump, multiple people who have been associated with Salem told CNNMoney.

In his June 2016 email to Shapiro and Krauss, Boyce said that, at his suggestion, Atsinger had written to two other popular Salem hosts, Hugh Hewitt and Michael Medved, "a very well stated case for supporting the GOP nominee because we have to beat Hillary."

Boyce went on to assert that in the wake of Atsinger's message to him, Hewitt had begun to modify his position and had gone on to write an article for The Washington Post about why he found it necessary to vote for Trump. That prompted Atsinger to say, according to Boyce's email, "Wow he took a lot from my email to him and turned it into an article." (In the email, Boyce also said, "It should be noted that nobody put the hammer to Hugh or Michael. We simply reminded them that they are privileged to work for a company that actually HAS a political world view. ... And we reminded them that we have to focus on the ultimate goal, regardless of the circumstances facing us today.")

In a text message to CNNMoney, Hewitt denied ever being pressured to change his position.

"I have never felt any pressure from Salem to be for or against the President. I do get everyone's opinions just as I do at NBC and the Washington Post but as with those organizations Salem does not dictate host opinions," Hewitt wrote.

Medved remains one of the few nationally syndicated Salem hosts who continued to staunchly oppose Trump, and he has come under pressure from Salem executives, people familiar with the matter said.

During and after the election, Medved's time slot in several major markets -- including Washington D.C., Dallas and Chicago -- was changed from the prime afternoon hours to the late evening. His contract is up at the end of this year and there has been widespread speculation in the conservative radio world that it won't be renewed, sources in conservative media said.

Asked if he would be leaving Salem, Medved said "that is not at all my intention" and that he "never got the impression they don't want to renew the contract." He declined to comment further.

Boyce said if Medved's time slots were changed it was solely a business decision.

"Medved was not removed from any station due to his position on Trump. If he was removed it was due to lower than expected ratings," Boyce told CNNMoney.

Krauss told CNNMoney that she was "honest on air" and that after the election when she agreed with Trump, especially on his cabinet picks, she said so.

"I never praised Hillary ... I just said, 'These are my issues with the guy; this is what conservatism to me.' They wanted someone to toe the line of 'He is the greatest, he is the best," Krauss said. "It was all or nothing, at least in my case that's what it felt like."

Just five months later, Krauss would be let go. On a Sunday in January 2017, at a meeting she was told to bring her husband and child to, Krauss said a Salem executive told her she had just hosted her final show. She was not to communicate with anyone at the station or her listeners. She was done. Her listeners, she said, were told she was the one who decided to leave.

Boyce said the decision, which he described as "painful," came down to chemistry between the co-hosts at KRLA. The morning show is now hosted by Whitman, the anti-Trump liberal, and Horn, the pro-Trump conservative.

"It was a painful one for me because I had recruited Elisha for the job," Boyce wrote. "But the show is sounding much better today with Brian and Jen, and at the end of the day, what comes out of the speaker translates to better ratings. It's that simple."

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