The Other McCain

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

There Are No Awards for ‘Most Promising Middle-Aged Conservative Journalist’

Posted on | November 18, 2011 | 62 Comments

“One of the reasons why there are so few conservatives in America’s newsrooms is because the profession of journalism is relentlessly derided by those who claim to speak for the conservative cause. No kid who grew up listening to talk radio could possibly believe that becoming a reporter is a worthy ambition. (To be a talking-head pundit on cable TV, yes; to be a mere reporter, no.) And this blanket condemnation of journalism qua journalism is sufficiently broad enough to encompass . . . well, me.”
Robert Stacy McCain, “Conservatives Against Journalism,” The American Spectator, June 26, 2010

“Even after Pruden issued an edict against any more stories about dog-eating, culture page editor Stacy McCain tried using a story about a Korean church in America, where dogs were eaten.
“Pruden came down the stairs to the national desk and said not to use the story.
“McCain popped up: ‘Actually, Wes, it’s a pretty good story …’
“McCain never finished his sentence as Pruden turned bright red, as angry as I have ever seen him, and made it clear, in no uncertain terms, not to use the story.”

Ken Hanner, unpublished manuscript

If you’ve never seen Wes Pruden angry, it’s not an experience recommended for the faint of heart. For some reason, the problem with that Associated Press wire story hadn’t crossed my mind while I was looking for a 400-word item to fill a hole on Page A2. When the Editor-in-Chief made one of his rare appearance at the national editor’s desk, the significance of his edict still didn’t immediately register.

The difference between insubordination and sincere cluelessness is probably not worth exploring here, but reading the ninth chapter of this manuscript by Ken Hanner — who spent 26 years at the Washington Times, rising from rookie business writer to become national editor of the paper — called to mind one of several incidents that earned me a reputation as a loose cannon.

“Not Management Material,” as they say.

And never mind all that — just a random painful recollection. However, perhaps you can imagine the sense of irony that overcame me when I saw Ben Domenech’s lecture about “the real failings of conservative media and the journalists they employ.”


OK, having had a calm smoke and switched to decaf, I’ll attempt a reply.

Setting aside everything else, there is a chicken-and-egg problem involved in Domenech’s complaint. Journalism as a profession is dominated by liberals, who outnumber conservatives in America’s newsrooms by a factor that has been estimated at about 7-to-1 based on the best available surveys.

Why is this so? Given that Democrats and Republicans are roughly equal in the general population, why are Democrats so disproportionately over-represented in the press corps?

Is it because conservatives generally lack aptitude for reporting? Definitely not. As I like to say, journalism ain’t rocket science. The ability to compose coherent prose is not so rare that, among the 60 million Americans who voted Republican in 2008, you couldn’t find 35,000 people qualified to work as reporters. The Bureau of Labor Statistics:

News analysts, reporters, and correspondents held about 69,300 jobs in 2008. About 53 percent worked for newspaper, periodical, book, and directory publishers. Another 21 percent worked in radio and television broadcasting. About 19 percent of news analysts, reporters, and correspondents were self-employed (freelancers or stringers).

If just one-tenth of 1% of Republican voters were employed as journalists, then, half the press corps would be Republican. So what explains the failure of conservatives to achieve parity?

To start with, journalism is the lowest-paying profession that generally requires a college diploma. Teachers make far more money, on average, than do journalists, and this pay differential is especially true at the lower ranks of the two professions: A starting public school teacher in Maryland makes more than $40,000 a year, which is at least 50 percent more than what the typical entry-level staffer would be paid at the Hagerstown Sun.

Widespread public perception of journalism as an “elite” occupation is drastically at odds with the workaday reality (and especially the low pay) of the average reporter. This is because TV and movies have tended to glamorize journalism, and also because most of the journalists people actually see on a daily basis — that is to say, TV anchors, reporters and commentators — are a well-paid tip to the underpaid iceberg.

On-air broadcast-news “talent” (to borrow the industry’s phrase) is a tiny sliver of the journalistic career field, and anyone who hates those people — Brian Williams, Scott Pelley, Diane Sawyer, et al. — will get no argument from the tens of thousands of ink-stained drudges who toil in ill-paid obscurity in the print side of the industry. Diane Sawyer is reportedly paid $12 million a year by ABC, a sum that equals or exceeds the entire annual payroll of most newsrooms at American newspapers.

If journalists seem unusually sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street, perhaps it is because they work in an industry where the 1% genuinely do succeed at the expense of the 99%. With rare exceptions — e.g., covering events live as they happen —  TV news never breaks a story, but rather reports stories first developed by print journalists.

This was a reality of the news business I first encountered as a small-town reporter. Our newspaper would put a story on the front page and, as predictably as clockwork, a bowdlerized synopsis of the story be “reported” by the local radio station without any mention of the newspaper or credit to the reporter whose article was thus recycled. Print reporters at every level of the business experience that high-handed treatment from broadcasters, and it is remarkable that — even on those rare occasions when journalists make the transition to TV news — they instantly adopt the broadcast habit of denying credit to print reporters. This practice is endemic (and perhaps intrinsic) to the trade, and resentment of TV news broadcasters as overpaid glory-hogs is so commonplace among print journalists that it’s taken for granted.

Returning from that slight digression: The low pay of print journalism almost certainly is the chief reason so few conservatives are employed as news reporters and editors. If your kid scores well enough on his verbal SATs (say, 700 or more) to suggest the high level of aptitude that would make him a successful journalist, he could almost certainly excel at law school. And he’d have to be a damned shabby lawyer to earn less than the average journalist.

“Median annual wages of reporters and correspondents were $34,850 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $25,760 and $52,160.”
Bureau of Labor Statistics

Rush Limbaugh likes to mock journalists who say they entered the profession to “make a difference,” but obviously if your career ambition is to make a living, you’d be well-advised to stay out of the news business, where 75 percent of reporters earn $50,000 a year or less. Whether or not reporters actually “make a difference,” most of them do it quite cheaply. This is the kind work-to-reward differential that young conservatives eschew, and who can blame them?

Readers may well wonder how I became a conservative journalist. The answer is this: I was a journalist first, and worked nearly 10 years in the newspaper business before I became a conservative.

No sooner had I abandoned the Democratic Party (or vice-versa) in the mid-1990s than I found myself engaged in furious arguments with friends in the newsroom. In 1996, I won a national award for a series of columns I wrote for our Georgia newspaper about the National Standards for U.S. History, and in 1997 I was hired as an assistant national editor for the Washington Times. My first day on the job at the Times, I was 38 years old, a married father of three and a veteran of nearly a dozen years in the newspaper business. It still took me a few years before I reached that $52,000-a-year mark, putting me in the top 25 percent of my craft and I’ve certainly fallen far below the median since quitting the paper to become a freelancer in 2008.

Of course, the irony is that my journalism career wasn’t inspired by any altruistic desire to “make a difference.” From the age of 14, my career plan was to become a rock star and by the time I (just barely) graduated high school in 1977, I’d already done enough drugs to keep Aerosmith, their road crew and a couple dozen groupies stoned throughout an entire North American tour.

Hell, I never even took the SAT!

Jacksonville (Alabama) State University in those days had an open-admission policy, and I was one of the hardest-partying students in the history of that legendary party school. The story of how I went from writing rock record reviews to becoming entertainment editor of the student newspaper has been told here before — the editor who talked me into joining the staff was a cute chick named Lynn, who more recently collaborated on Sarah Palin’s bestseller, Going Rogue — as has the story of how, after a post-collegiate career that included stints as a nightclub DJ and forklift driver, I finally landed as a $4.50-an-hour staff writer for a 6,000-circulation weekly in Austell, Georgia.

That job didn’t require me to cut my shoulder-length hair, and nobody asked about my politics. Like most everybody else I knew, I was a yellow-dog Democrat, but there was nothing really political about covering city council meetings, Fourth of July parades and high-school sports. And all I wanted was a job to pay the bills while I pursued my real career as a rock star.

So I look back on all that, and see Ben Domenech’s lecture about the “failings of conservative media” and find myself in need of a calm smoke and a cup of decaf before I can even attempt to reply.

Ken Hanner was a 30-year-old college dropout, with no previous experience as a journalist, when he started as a rookie writer on the business desk at the Washington Times in 1982. As he recounts in chapter 12 of his manuscript — which I hope soon will find a publisher — Ken volunteered to be laid off in April 2008, rather than to be responsible for recommending members of his staff for layoffs.

By then, of course, I’d been gone for three months: I tendered my resignation the day after it was announced that Wes Pruden, who was retiring, would be replaced by a new editor hired from our hated crosstown rival, the Washington Post. As a colleague remarked that day, “If I had wanted to work for a Postie, I’d have applied at the f–king Post.”

But to return to the beginning of Hanner’s journalism career in 1982, how many 30-year-old conservatives have ever thought of taking an entry-level job as a business reporter at a newspaper? Or to cite my own case, how many 26-year-old conservatives would take a staff writer’s job at a tiny small-town weekly and spend more than a decade honing their skills before getting a chance to come to Washington as low man on the totem pole of the national desk?

Wes Pruden was proud to be a newsman by trade, and under his editorship, what he deemed the pretentious words “journalist” and “media” were banned from the pages of his paper as rigorously as were wire stories about dog-eaters.

Now out of range of Wes’s wrath, however, I use the common terminology without fear, and certainly without any intent to suggest that what I’ve done for a living these past 25 years is something so fancy that only pedigreed intellectuals should attempt it. And I dare hope my former boss would forgive me for using “journalist” and “media” in addressing what Ben Domenech has called “the real failings of conservative media and the journalists they employ.”

Beyond whatever else may account for the problems with conservative media that inspired Domenech’s complaints, I insist that we must consider the degree to which the Right has become contemptuous of “journalism qua journalism,” as I said in June 2010 after Melissa Clouthier declared that journalists should always be regarded as “a wild animal with an appetite for conservative meat.”

 When I took this remark as a slur upon my profession, my objections were dismissed as “a retarded load of horse sh*t” by Dan Riehl. Both Clouthier and Riehl are my friends, and if I am treated so derisively by my friends, certainly I should expect to have no influence on strangers if I volunteer any analysis of problems involving the conservative movement and the practice of journalism. My friends give me neither respect nor sympathy, because I’m a “wild animal” by definition and it does me no good to ask what my friends were doing on that spring day in 1986 when I talked my way into a $4.50-an-hour job at a little weekly paper in Cobb County, Georgia.

As I suggested in response to Dan’s insults, the conservative movement might as well hang up a sign that reads:

“Help Wanted: No Journalists Need Apply.”

(Hat-tip to commenter Joe for that video.)


62 Responses to “There Are No Awards for ‘Most Promising Middle-Aged Conservative Journalist’”

  1. Dianna Deeley
    November 18th, 2011 @ 11:34 pm

    Currently, STEM is the fashionable buzz-word in education. It’s starting to make my eyes revolve in my head like a freshly-wound top. Every bloody education proposal I read has “STEM” embedded in it like a landmine.

  2. Dianna Deeley
    November 18th, 2011 @ 11:36 pm

    But if this truly is a conservative country, how come all the media outlets are liberal? Why do conservatives buy liberal publications?

  3. Dianna Deeley
    November 18th, 2011 @ 11:38 pm

    Anyone who uses “fussbudget” gets a like from me every single time. It’s a great and under-appreciated word!

  4. Anonymous
    November 19th, 2011 @ 12:10 am

    Fussbudget! Fussbudget! Fussbudget!

  5. Edward
    November 19th, 2011 @ 12:26 am

    So.  No Country for Old Reporters?

  6. Edward
    November 19th, 2011 @ 12:27 am

    21 years and $500.

  7. Anonymous
    November 19th, 2011 @ 2:14 am

    I love how Lowry implies that Cain, moving from the kind of major success his life has been–into politics–is somehow lowering the bar from the situation where media people (Pat Buchanan) move into politics.

    The bizarre assumption that being a media person is higher qualification for national office than a guy with Cain’s background says more about Mr. Lowry than a session with Freud himself could reveal.

    Then there is the comments section.  I could have sworn for a moment I had stumbled into New Republic.  With some notable exceptions, they aren’t even sounding like Republicans at NRO, let alone “Buckley” Republicans.

  8. Anonymous
    November 19th, 2011 @ 2:49 am

    You bring up an interesting point, Stacy.  “Journalism” as a field has the same problem “Teaching” has:

    Most people in those careers have never worked outside of them, yet either career cries for people with life experience in other areas.

    In areas of specialization, like say a Science teacher, it really helps if the teacher has worked at Union Carbide for ten years.

    Learning to write is a craft, very much separate from learning to be a “reporter.”  The  kinds of writing I see in “journalism” shows me that few practitioners seem to understand that.

    I learned to write from being a technical writer, inside the corporate world.  I know that even after reading Stacy’s descriptions of the reporting dodge that I would be terribly weak at it.  If he were forced to hire me for some bizarre reason, he’d spend months struggling to beat some semblance of skill into me.

    But one thing he wouldn’t have to do is teach me to be thorough in my research, and comprehensive in my approach to the subject.

    Let us hope the world never has need of me working as a reporter.  But I wish more people from outside of reporting were working in that field.

  9. Joe
    November 19th, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    I am not who has the biggest Mittens crush, K-Lo or Lowry.  I predict a cat fight between them if Mitt ever signals he is looking for one of them as an “assistant.” 

  10. Anonymous
    November 19th, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

    I can think of much worse things than Consul in Davao.
    Ambassador to Pyongyang, for example. >_<

  11. Anonymous
    November 19th, 2011 @ 12:08 pm

    LOL.  I love Serbia.  Just got back from Belgrade.

    Though, while the hatred for Muslims is slightly understandable, it is a stain upon the character of many Serbs (but not all, most of the youth seem not to care one way or the other).

    That many of my Muslim Serbian friends (who of course mostly look like normal Serbs) choose to hide their religion is a bit sad.

  12. Under the Fedora: Pastors, Sports Prima Donnas, and Parties
    November 21st, 2011 @ 12:47 am

    […] a very hard thing to try make a living off of blogging. Stacy McCain pointed out that new reporters start out making something in the mid 20s if they are lucky. I’m not even at the point where I’m drawing a paycheck yet, but I’m been blessed by good […]