ALL THE NEWS THAT’S FIT TO MISS
Dear Conservative Media: Do Some More Damn Reporting
If a major donor wanted to truly change the trajectory of the Republican Party, investing in journalism would be a smart place to start.
The American political left has something that their counterparts on the right do not.
It’s not a particular point of view, or a thing that is particular to a point of view. It is more foundational than that. It is something utterly essential not just to the growth and credibility of the right, but to the political health of the American landscape at large.
What’s missing is an entire subset of media. Sure, the conservative media has solid opinion writers and deep-thinking essayists by the handful. And within that hand are diverse opinions, notwithstanding recent, glaring errors in judgment at some outlets. There is depth. There is talent. However, there is almost no original reporting.
The right has stopped being investigative, stopped being reporters and journalists. It’s occurring precisely at a time when vigorous reporting is most desperately needed. But what’s even more ominous is that the money may not be there to start it again.
Let’s first take a step back in time.
In politics, the notion of distrusting the media is as old as the media. For partisans, anything less than an equally partisan and allied news report is, by definition, helping the other side. If you report fairly, you aren't helping the cause, which means you’re hurting it.
For conservatives, it’s much more than that. The sheer density of the liberal world view in mainstream press outlets—of Democrats working in media—has created an atmosphere that far exceeds the mere distrust of the typical partisan. On one side is conservative philosophy, on the other is the near entirety of media.
That war with the press has been a rallying cry for some time. But for people my age, it began as a warning issued by radio host Rush Limbaugh.
It was formative for me to hear Limbaugh, booming through the stereo speakers in my dad’s car when I was 12 years old, stridently and urgently warning that the press we see at night was false, fake, and against us.
Back then, most news consumed by the average American came by way of nightly network news programs, from anchors like Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, or Ted Koppel, among others. In the early ’90s, CNN made big waves with the 24-hour news format. But until the Gulf War brought Wolf Blitzer and the Patriot missile into everyone’s living rooms, the cable network was still more of a novelty than the primary source of information.
CNN stayed though, and over time Fox News and MSNBC joined the cable line-up.
Although Fox was viewed as practically a godsend on the right, nothing changed the way conservatives consumed news in the last 20 years more than the emergence of news online. That is, blogs, online-only publications, and eventually, social media. In particular, the crowning achievement of the right’s alternative to liberal media was the Drudge Report, which broke the story of Monica Lewinsky’s affair with former president Bill Clinton and still reigns supreme today.
Through the Internet, conservatives began a years-long effort to build a true counterweight to what was only then becoming routinely referred to as the "mainstream media" or, more succinctly, the MSM.
No longer did Republicans, conservatives, right-wingers need to parse through the bias of the MSM elites to try and find truth. An army of basement-dwelling amateurs with more skill and time on their hands than research interns at the big networks started to pick apart what might have been unchallenged reporting at one time. They had a method to distribute what they found. There was a new empowerment for the right. Something Dan Rather found out the hard way.
An icon of traditional journalism, Rather also is the most famous victim of the new order. In 2004, he had a story blown apart after a right-wing blogger, Harry W. MacDougald, first questioned, then examined, and then destroyed the credibility of documents he’d presented on then-President George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard.
MacDougald had noted that the typography in Rather’s documents was proportionally spaced in a way that would not have been possible without laser printers which were not available until after the memos were allegedly typed. After MacDougald’s criticisms were reviewed by experts and following an internal investigation at CBS News, producers Mary Mapes, Josh Howard and Mary Murphy in addition to Senior VP Betsy West were all terminated or resigned. Dan Rather’s career never recovered. He retired from anchoring the CBS Evening News in March of 2005 (arguably earlier than planned) and, in the process, confirmed that it was time for everyone to take this new media seriously.
For conservatives, this was a bellwether. The liberal media that Limbaugh had long warned could not be trusted had been usurped. There was an alternative. And stars began to rise.
Bloggers were given media credentials. They offered new analysis, new opinion and, importantly, new reporting.
Consequently, and consequentially, money began to pour in. “Ventures” and “efforts” and “presences” were created. This was a market not just for potential business and profit but for influence and political gain.
By the early Obama administration, the conservative media marketplace was more than bustling, it was nearly bursting at the seams with conservative journalists offering readers the opportunity to circumvent the legacy media. Yes, much of the right wing press remained content to keep their focus on discrediting the reporting of others rather than contributing reporting of their own. But others were firmly in the original news business.
The Washington Free Beacon, established in 2012, was at the vanguard of this shift, quickly establishing itself as a credible source of conservative journalism with deep investigative dives and exposes on money in politics. Free from the typical over-reliance on opinion writing, and steering away from focusing solely on MSM bias or discrediting it, the Beacon operated more like a traditional news room. They were churning out scoops that were, in a full circle moment, picked up by the same “dinosaur” media the conservative press had grown up to oppose.
There was a conservative underpinning to their mission. This was not held as secret or disputed. The Free Beacon proudly admitted it, arguing that they were more editorially honest than mainstream outlets that hid their biases behind a veneer of neutrality.
Their gumshoe reporting spoke for itself. And, as a result, even liberal outlets such as Mother Jones could not deny the effectiveness of the Free Beacon’s style and work-product.
In its short history, the Free Beacon’s tiny staff of fewer than two dozen journalists has pulled off an almost unprecedented feat: Amid a conservative movement that has often evinced something between disinterest and disdain for the work of investigative reporters, it has built genuine muckraking success.
In May 2014, reporter Lachlan Markay obtained a secret list of donors’ pledges to the progressive Democracy Alliance—something akin to getting the Koch brothers’ political ledgers. A month later, [Alana] Goodman posted previously unreleased audio of Hillary Clinton candidly discussing her vigorous defense, as a young court-appointed attorney, of an accused child rapist. In October, she uncovered Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor’s college thesis, in which he described school desegregation as a “figurative invasion.” Two weeks later, the Democrat lost his reelection race. Like the Southern Avenger expose, each of these stories was picked up by the mainstream media, a rare accomplishment for a conservative outlet. Taken together, the stories suggest that the Beacon may be poised to break out of the agitprop model of much conservative media to become a real player in hardcore news reporting.
In other words, the Free Beacon was becoming that which had eluded so many on the right for so long: legitimate. They were real. They were news.
Something, however, has happened on the way to Donald Trump. Here in 2018, the landscape has changed again, and not for the better. After Trump’s victory, conservative media is producing less actual reporting. And, because of that, it is quoted less in the mainstream press.
There is an extent to which you can attribute that shift to the closing of ranks by the liberal-leaning media, which has been under direct attack by both Trump and his movement. But it also seems true that the Free Beacon and others have shifted away from the template they were establishing and more towards the path of least resistance: spending their time criticizing the left and the media, along with healthy doses of opinion writing.
The void they’ve left has been filled by the tin-foil hat portion of right-leaning media. You are far more likely to find a camera crew with a microphone-wielding reporter from InfoWars these days than from any mainstream conservative outlet. You are far more likely to see writers for ostensibly right-wing websites trying to discredit Roy Moore’s accusers than report out their accusations. You are far more likely to see conservative television hosts dismiss the president’s transgressions than critically question his aides about them.
These individuals and outlets do make the news. But it is primarily when they’re being mocked for the outlandish conspiracy theories they peddle, or cover they offer, as opposed to any serious citations of their stories.
This is bad for a movement already fighting off the stigma of “fake news.” It may be worse for the future of the Republican Party.
Conservative journalism has been clearly demonstrated as a valuable counterbalance to biases that may exist in the mainstream press. From the successes at Free Beacon to Rather-gate and the Lewinsky scandal, there is ample evidence that the best way to combat media bias is not to write scathing op-eds about how Chris Cuomo is an asshat or MSNBC’s chyron had a typo.
The best way to combat media bias is to do original reporting that the press can’t ignore and have, over and over, shown they will not. All bias aside, ratings is king on any network and if a credible conservative journalist has a scoop, Joe Scarborough or Wolf Blitzer or any of the other favorite targets of conservative scorn will be happy to pick it up.
But the type of effort I’m describing requires money. Building a sustainable economy for conservative-based original reporting has proven difficult, which is, in part, why many outlets have fallen back on clickbait journalism and hot-take MSM indictments.
Funding can come through other mechanisms, however; like, say, a deep-pocketed donor.
George Soros seems to have figured that out with great success. Rather than relying on ad revenue models—which often end up being cringe-worthy “prepper” or “buy gold” advertisements—Soros poured money into several ventures that have been successful in feeding information into the media ecosystem.
With a few exceptions, the big money on the right seems disinterested in this. Their funds have gone to super PACs and campaign committees, flashy conferences and political ventures staffed by an army of consultants. Sometimes these work. Sometimes they don’t. But at a time when it’s clear that an intellectual balance is needed not just within the Republican Party but within the broader media ecosystem as well, an investment in original conservative reporting has never been more critically needed.
Here’s hoping those with the means to finance such an effort read The Daily Beast.
Ben Howe is a political commentator and author of the upcoming book, The Immoral Majority.