Conservative Media Outlets Make All the Right Moves

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Electoral defeat tends to spawn bouts of ideological tinkering. When the Democrats lost the presidential election in 2004, a clutch of books soon emerged, bristling with prescriptions for the ailing left. Last year’s resounding losses for the GOP, from John McCain to dogcatcher, have inspired a sim­ilar smattering of what-now books, though some on the right are rethinking conservative politics elsewhere–in the form of a handful of new online publications.

These new outlets, all of which have cropped up in the past year or so, are varied in their focus: Big Hollywood examines the nexus of politics and pop culture; the Next Right is a group blog that counsels Republicans on how to run modern campaigns; the New Majority is a magazine of ideas designed to lead conservatives out of the political wilderness; and until late January, when it folded after just five months, Culture11 housed narrative nonfiction and arts criticism.

So each has its niche, but the sites share certain important features: They are online-only, more engaged with popular culture than traditional conservative media, and, except for Big Hollywood, eager to challenge conservative orthodoxy whenever it’s necessary.

For roughly the past 25 years, conservative opinion journalism has generally followed Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican. Liberal magazines, on the other hand, prized diversity of opinion, even contrarianism. The Nation, you may recall, invited Christopher Hitchens to endorse President Bush for reelection in its pages.

Conservative publications, both in print and online, have generally competed to be the farthest right and the most extreme in their denunciations of “liberal treason.” National Review, the Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator–the three most influential conservative print magazines (not counting more academic quarterlies such as Commentary and City Journal)–have consistently backed the policies of the Republican Party and its leaders in Congress and the White House, even when those leaders seemingly betrayed their principles. Those publications didn’t complain, for instance, when George W. Bush abandoned his campaign pledge to advance a “humble” foreign policy in order to launch the Iraq invasion. Conservative websites, such as and David Horowitz’s FrontPage, are even more strident. When National Review dropped Ann Coulter’s column after she wrote, “We should invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity,” FrontPage welcomed her.

David Frum quit National Review to start the New Majority, which he hopes will do for conservatives what the New Republic did for liberals in the 1980s. Frum says his goal is “changing the nature of the party,” and “creating a reformist message.” Specifically, he advocates that Republicans define solutions to problems like health care and the environment, which are typically Democratic territory, and “dial back the social issues.”

“There’s a legitimate criticism that [the right] has not fully embraced modern ways of communicating, including the Internet,” says Patrick Ruffini, cofounder of the Next Right, which draws frequent comparisons to Daily Kos, the hugely popular left-leaning group blog. “We’ve become a little sclerotic and bureaucratic. We need new blood. The web is a medium for activism. It’s National Review for a new generation,” Ruffini says.

This younger generation also recog­nizes the importance of engaging with popular culture, a subject that conservative publications have largely ignored, except to decry its excesses. “The establishment places on the right won’t run a cover on comic books because their readers are all 70 years old,” says Julian Sanchez, a libertarian writer who wrote a cover story for the liberal American Prospect on the emergence of anti-Bush comic books. “In print, the limitation is their market more than the editors’ interests.”

But these new conservative websites are not bound by such limitations. They don’t have an existing subscriber base, and Internet users are younger than print readers. Big Hollywood, in particular, is expressly banking on these new realities.

“Any Republicans thinking we can win on our ideas of freedom and liberty have missed the pop-cultural train that has left the station,” says Andrew Breitbart, the founder of Big Hollywood and an alumnus of the Drudge Report. “Obama’s on it and we don’t have a track and we don’t have a train. Conservatives have abdi­cated their obligation to be oriented toward pop culture. If you want to be ascendant, you have to engage pop culture.”

By contrast, the cultural sensibility on display on the National Review‘s website (never mind the print edition) is comically out of touch, epitomized by a recent discussion about the genius of the late Ricardo Montalbán, a former Chrysler spokesman who starred in the television program Fantasy Island (1978-1984).

An even more interesting–and potentially important–aspect of this emerging ethos in conservative journalism is acknowledgment of the need to close the reporting gap that has long existed between liberal and conservative publications. Many liberal journals, most notably Mother Jones, the Washington Monthly, and the Nation, have long-standing traditions of investigative reporting.

Conservative publications, in contrast, have generally opined, with the occasional whimsical reported dispatch. Breaking hard news was simply not in their DNA. Politico’s Jonathan Martin, who briefly worked at National Review, wrote an article suggesting that this gap hurt Republicans in the election because they were not as able to drive news stories, and that it has also led to more liberal journalists than conservatives joining mainstream publications. Martin attributed the difference to tradition: Liberal journalists grew up aspiring to be hard-nosed investigative reporters like Woodward and Bernstein, while conservatives grew up suspicious of mainstream papers and aspiring to be the next William F. Buckley Jr.

Changing that tradition may prove difficult. Conor Friedersdorf, former features editor of Culture11, observes that Tucker Carlson, a talented conservative feature writer and pundit, often wrote his best reported pieces for mainstream or liberal publications such as Esquire and the New Republic; at February’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Carlson was booed for suggesting that conservatives put more emphasis on reporting and look to the New York Times as a model on the left.

Still, it seems that dissent is coming back into style on the right–as it was in the first few decades of the National Review, when the journal was roiled by internal debates that spilled onto its pages over the right course for conservatism. After such significant electoral defeat, even reform-minded conservatives may find small consolation in a shift back to this kind of dialogue. But at least their daily reading diet is becoming a lot more interesting.

Excerpted from Columbia Journalism Review (May-June 2009), a dynamic chronicler and critic of the world’s ever-expanding media landscape. Nominated for a 2009 Utne Independent Press Award for best writing.

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