The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

On Conservative Journalism

Posted on | May 6, 2010 | 16 Comments

Matthew Yglesia is a blogger, not a reporter, at Think Progress — edited by former DNC researcher and Democratic congressional aide Faiz Shakir — which is on the tab of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, which is headed by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta.

Despite these stubborn facts, Yglesias feels entitled to gloat — over and over — that conservative journalists are a bunch of sold-out hacks too stupid to do reporting.  The latest reiteration of this hobby-horse ride links to some pretty good reporting (of the kind that Yglesias himself has never done) by Laura McGann of Washington Monthly. Of particular interest to me was this:

Conservative media . . . have stuck mostly to the model crafted by National Review founder William F. Buckley and poured their energy into punditry — long on fiery rhetoric, short on scoops. . . .
The handful of conservatives who have ventured into investigative journalism have tended to mix reporting with partisan activism, and their high-profile scores have sometimes been spoiled by their zealous pursuit of political victories. In the 1990s, for instance, the conservative American Spectator magazine, after publishing David Brock’s “Troopergate” expose on Bill Clinton’s alleged extramarital affairs, went on to spend nearly $2 million of philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife’s money trying to dig up more dirt on Clinton. But the so-called “Arkansas Project” produced only crackpot accusations — not to mention enough embarrassing revelations about how the funds were spent to nearly sink the publication. . . .

You can, and should, read this rest — even if it is at times grossly unfair and inaccurate. As a frequent contributor to The American Spectator, I am obliged to point out that McGann’s claims about “crackpot accusations” and “embarrassing revelations” are simply wrong. The Clinton administration sicced the IRS and an army of lawyers on the Spectator, at tremendous expense to the publication, which subsequently changed ownership — the George Gilder era — and was nearly driven out of business before Al Regnery took over as publisher.

However, the “Troopergate” saga highlights a couple of real problems with conservative journalism. First, there has been a notable tendency in conservative media toward the sort of “star system” that catapulted David Brock to sudden fame in the early ’90s. Conservatives are so eager to find a David to slay the Goliath of liberal media dominance that the hoped-for-savior is like the protagonist of the Eagles’ song, “New Kid in Town”:

Great expectations, everybody’s watching you . . .
Everybody loves you, so don’t let them down . . .
They will never forget you
‘Til somebody new comes along.

You see this tendency at work when a Glenn Beck pops up and, for a while, it seems as if nobody else matters. Don’t get me wrong — it’s important for conservatives to have their own media stars, but the fetishization of stardom distracts from the unglamorous reality of everyday journalism. For every bold-faced name in the limelight, there are scores and hundreds of people working in relative obscurity whose daily labors are necessary to the success of the overall enterprise.

At Wednesday night’s Boehner reception, I found myself describing to someone the important but almost entirely anonymous work of Pete Parisi, my friend who is a veteran copy editor at The Washington Times. Has any conservative New Media guru ever given a moment’s thought to the value of a good copy editor? Hell, does any New Media guru even know what a copy editor does? I doubt it. Yet  conservative online media could very much use the distinctive skill-set of a Pete Parisi.

The second problem of conservative journalism highlighted by the “Troopergate” saga is a frantic pursuit of The Big Scoop — the “smoking gun,” the “gotcha” quote, the Lewinsky-sized exposé. Big stories cannot be manufactured at will, and while The Big Scoop is usually (a) the natural byproduct of a reporter patiently digging down on a story, it is also sometimes (b) just a fluke.

After Brock hit the big-time with the Anita Hill story — substantially based on research compiled by Senate Republican staffers — he was then assigned to get the Arkansas dirt on Clinton and scored again. But when he was next tasked to take on Hillary Clinton, Brock failed to produce the kind of “live boy/dead girl” scandal that had been expected, and the resulting disappointment led to Brock’s departure from conservative journalism.

You could draw a great many lessons from that saga, but I consider it a cautionary tale about the perils of an unhealthy obsession with The Big Scoop. How often in the history of journalism has any one reporter ever had The Big Scoop more than once? In the more than three decades that followed their famous Watergate reporting, did Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein ever replicate that feat?

Constantly focusing on The Big Scoop, to the neglect of daily reporting, is the journalistic equivalent of a baseball player whose batting average suffers because he’s trying too hard to hit home runs. Swing hard and make contact, and you’ll get your share of home runs, but remember that games are won by singles and doubles, too. If you’re striking out because you’re always “swinging for the fences,” you’re not helping the team.

My friend J.P. Freire has said that conservative journalism needs fewer Bill Buckleys and more Bob Novaks — that is to say, less punditry and more reporting. And if you study Novak’s career, you see that he got his occasional home runs, but he was always a good contact hitter. Novak and his partner, Rowland Evans, made it a rule of their long-running column that each column should contain at least one item of original reporting. They kept that up for decades, it made a difference, and is an example worthy of emulation.

While it is easy to dismiss the hostile sneers of Matthew Yglesias as  a mere distraction, we ought not dismiss the importance of thinking more deeply about the problems of the conservative journalistic enterprise.

Comments

  • TR Sterling

    RSM,
    You write in a thoughtful and considered fashion. While the blog format is useful, I think you should upgrade your talents to book form where the circumspect and perspicacious can intersect to enlighten and at times amuse.
    Hey? That guy Meacham might be looking for someone who can make him a media mogul? LOL Then again you might be the ‘right’ man for the job but ‘wrong time?’ Ha ha Dr. John said it bro: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8OacVjGr8o

  • http://none TR Sterling

    RSM,
    You write in a thoughtful and considered fashion. While the blog format is useful, I think you should upgrade your talents to book form where the circumspect and perspicacious can intersect to enlighten and at times amuse.
    Hey? That guy Meacham might be looking for someone who can make him a media mogul? LOL Then again you might be the ‘right’ man for the job but ‘wrong time?’ Ha ha Dr. John said it bro: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8OacVjGr8o

  • Terry

    Isn’t this what Tucker Carlson was trying to say with the Daily Caller?

  • Terry

    Isn’t this what Tucker Carlson was trying to say with the Daily Caller?

  • Natedawg

    Does Faiz wear a Fez?

  • Natedawg

    Does Faiz wear a Fez?

  • http://www.coldfury.com Randy Rager

    All of this, while very true, does not by one whit diminish the fact that Little Matty Yglesias is an intellectual lightweight of the first water.

    If he retired to the Home for Incontinent Pundits tomorrow, the world could only be improved.

  • http://www.coldfury.com Randy Rager

    All of this, while very true, does not by one whit diminish the fact that Little Matty Yglesias is an intellectual lightweight of the first water.

    If he retired to the Home for Incontinent Pundits tomorrow, the world could only be improved.

  • http://datechguy.wordpress.com DaTechGuy

    Hey I’d be happy to “sell out” to some conservative group if one would hire me.

  • http://datechguy.wordpress.com DaTechGuy

    Hey I’d be happy to “sell out” to some conservative group if one would hire me.

  • Wm T Sherman

    In the back of my mind I had this nagging certainty that there was some blog I was forgetting to read, and then lo and behold there was a trackback to here from Yglesias’ imbecile ranch. Long time no read, McCain.

    I had never taken a close look at Matty’s little train wreck before the last couple of days. I smell a rat. Nobody could be that stupid by accident.

  • Wm T Sherman

    In the back of my mind I had this nagging certainty that there was some blog I was forgetting to read, and then lo and behold there was a trackback to here from Yglesias’ imbecile ranch. Long time no read, McCain.

    I had never taken a close look at Matty’s little train wreck before the last couple of days. I smell a rat. Nobody could be that stupid by accident.

  • TR Sterling

    The lastest from NRO corner:
    Matthew Yglesia says: “Along with Jonah Goldberg, one of the main guys who gets my goat is Eric Cantor. There’s something unseemly about seeing fellow Jews turn into rightwingers.”

    So Kevin D. Williamson (NRO) writes that Eric Cantor is Not Jewish Enough for Matt Yglesias. Evidently being paid by the Center for American Progress gives M.Y. the opportunity to spew his bigotry without a second thought. Yes M.Y. is as unseemly as any bigot is.

  • http://none TR Sterling

    The lastest from NRO corner:
    Matthew Yglesia says: “Along with Jonah Goldberg, one of the main guys who gets my goat is Eric Cantor. There’s something unseemly about seeing fellow Jews turn into rightwingers.”

    So Kevin D. Williamson (NRO) writes that Eric Cantor is Not Jewish Enough for Matt Yglesias. Evidently being paid by the Center for American Progress gives M.Y. the opportunity to spew his bigotry without a second thought. Yes M.Y. is as unseemly as any bigot is.

  • http://flyovernotes.blogspot.com/ Tully

    ***For every bold-faced name in the limelight, there are scores and hundreds of people working in relative obscurity whose daily labors are necessary to the success of the overall enterprise.***

    And who are often doing much better work than the “rock stars” being fetishized.

  • http://flyovernotes.blogspot.com/ Tully

    ***For every bold-faced name in the limelight, there are scores and hundreds of people working in relative obscurity whose daily labors are necessary to the success of the overall enterprise.***

    And who are often doing much better work than the “rock stars” being fetishized.