The state of conservative media
In the beginning, long ago, before the rise of talk radio, cable TV, and blogs, the liberal-leaning mainstream media was the only game in town. This began to change with the rise of magazines like William F. Buckley's National Review, and sped up in the 1980s with Rush Limbaugh, in the 1990s with Fox News, and in the 2000s with sites like Red State, to name just a few important outlets.
When conservative bloggers began fact-checking Dan Rather's report on George W. Bush's Texas Air National Guard service, utterly undermining what might otherwise have become the defining narrative of the 2004 presidential campaign, alternative media (which perhaps first made its bones when Matt Drudge helped force the Monica Lewinsky scandal into the mainstream) seemed to have arrived as a vital force in the American political and media landscape.
That's not to say there wouldn't be growing pains. For a long time, the knock on conservative media was that there were too many opinion writers — too many of us trying to be the next William F. Buckley or George Will — and too few conservative-minded reporters like Bob Novak out pounding the pavement. That, too, has changed a lot in recent years. The Daily Caller (where I serve as a senior contributor) made major strides in terms of focusing on reporting guided by a conservative worldview — rather than straight up conservative opinionating — and serving an under-served niche of news-hungry conservative readers as a result. For example, while much of the liberal media thought the ousting of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson was last Wednesday's biggest story, The Daily Caller thought the Veterans Affairs scandal was, perhaps, one of the most important. And so on.
Conservative media has made great strides toward maturity. The Daily Caller, the Free Beacon, Breitbart — they're not merely about conservative opinion, but reported news informed by a conservative point of view. Simultaneously, a large Christian radio company called Salem Communications has, in recent years, acquired Townhall.com (where I formerly worked), Hot Air, Twitchy, Human Events (where I formerly blogged), and Red State. This consolidation will presumably lead to financial benefits involving economies of scale. So far, the new ownership has avoided messing up the good things about these sites, while presumably leveraging the power of negotiating advertising rates on a larger scale.
And then there's the most recent development: the Heritage Foundation's plans to launch a new digital news site next month. It is, perhaps, indicative of how far we've come — of how crowded the market now is — that any attempts to carve out a unique selling proposition inevitably led Heritage to implicitly diss their conservative competitors. As The Wall Street Journal noted, "The publication's target audience will be a group that [Heritage's Geoffrey] Lysaught said is underserved — readers who are 'interested in what's going on in Washington, but they find it very difficult to get trustworthy information.'"
This is not to say they Heritage doesn't have an opportunity to fill a niche. The center-right web market seems to be loosely divided between staid, august publications that provide important, if unsexy, content, and a new generation of irreverent sites which — living in a free market world — can sometimes err on the side of what Reid Cherlin describes as "The Huff-Po-ization of the right ('come for the Obama bashing, stay for the busty slideshows and viral videos.')" Sites like The Federalist try to bridge the gap by providing serious commentary that is typically written by young, pop culture–savvy writers. It is unclear whether this is profitable.
And so, in an ironic turn of events, it could be that the real service Heritage might provide the conservative movement is to remove the free market risks (and Kate Upton slideshows) — and subsidize serious, straight reporting — coupled with commentary and opinion from Heritage's respected scholars — all financed via conservative philanthropy.
But for this to work, Heritage will have to build a firewall, giving the news folks carte blanche authority to report the news as they see fit. Can an organization headed by Jim DeMint — with an activist arm (HeritageAction) that helped force a shutdown over defunding ObamaCare — also be able to run a fair, objective news outlet?
I certainly hope so. After all, it's incredibly important to have more and more conservative news outlets — not just one or two token conservative opinion writers at every major newspaper that otherwise leans left. We need actual news outfits staffed by actual reporters who just so happen to be conservative.
But going beyond the outlets themselves — how should we think about these conservative journalists? Are they reporters first and conservatives second?
In some ways, the issues for center-right journalists aren't terribly different from those of center-left writers. It's a constant struggle to define the increasingly blurred lines that separate journalists and bloggers, straight reporters and ideological partisans. Was Ezra Klein a Washington Post reporter or a liberal blogger or both? On the conservative side, when I was named CPAC "blogger of the year" a couple years ago, there was a legitimate debate as to whether or not I even qualified.
Journalists working at center-right outlets face other unique uphill struggles, too. Although there are success stories of folks moving from a center-right outlet to a mainstream one (Chris Moody, Jon Ward, and Alexis Levinson went from The Daily Caller to Yahoo!, HuffPost, and Roll Call, respectively — and Robert Costa recently moved from National Review to The Washington Post!), it seems much easier to segue from an overtly liberal publication to a mainstream one. (Just look at how many alumni from the liberal Talking Points Memo have left in the last few years to work at mainstream publications like The Washington Post, Roll Call, Time, The Guardian, The New York Times, Business Insider, BuzzFeed — and yes, here at The Week.) What is more, conservative outlets and writers are typically labeled as such. The Huffington Post is extremely liberal, but can be mentioned without any such qualifiers. And yet, the word "conservative" typically precedes the words "Daily Caller."
Nearly all of the aforementioned journalists are straight reporters and editors. But for center-right journalists who inject opinion and analysis into their work, there is always the danger of becoming the "token" conservative to a mainstream outlet. Having written for some predominately liberal outlets, it can be rewarding to reach and persuade readers who might not otherwise be exposed to your ideas. (Ross Douthat at The New York Times, for example, provides a great service by fulfilling this important role.) And we should applaud liberal outlets for realizing the need for intellectual and philosophical (not just racial or gender-based) diversity. On the other hand, there is always the danger of tokenism — of being exploited (and possibly losing your credibility even amongst other conservatives).
Unlike Douthat's helpful role in providing diversity, the danger is in becoming a professional conservative brought into the liberal orbit for the express purpose of attacking fellow conservatives. A related danger lies in becoming the cable news version of a straw man or foil. In wrestling parlance, this is like becoming a professional "heel" who mounts perfunctory challenges to the hero, but ultimately, is paid to lose to the "face." How many cable news conservatives have a spectacular losing streak reminiscent of the Washington Generals?
This can happen on both sides of the aisle, of course, but since there are so many more liberal-leaning outlets (many of them posing as mainstream), this is a greater challenge for center-right journalists to overcome.
The liberal movement also seems more interested in identifying and cultivating wonky young journalists and bloggers. MSNBC, for example, elevated writers like Chris Hayes, Steve Kornacki, and Ezra Klein to prominent roles (the first two of whom have their own shows.) There is no analog to that on the right, which tends to turn to some other farm system for developing tomorrow's stars. (I have warned about the "wonk gap on the right.")
No longer in its infancy, center-right journalism is now in its adolescent stage. Old enough to get drunk and wreck the car, yes, but also old enough to make a big contribution toward saving the world. So how will we know when we've really arrived? I suspect when they no longer describe me as "Matt Lewis, conservative blogger."