How to Be a Right-Leaning Journalist

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A libertarian guide for young reporters tells us how media, ideological or otherwise, should work in the digital age

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With the rise of ideological journalism over the past decade, a period when opinionated bloggers, Web journalists, and muckraking activists have changed the face of the profession, there's been cause for celebration: The ideological gatekeepers that once narrowed our public discourse no longer hold sway. Every bias is challenged. New perspectives abound. The right and left each have their success stories. But an avowedly ideological press has its pathologies, just like the avowedly objective press it's in the process of replacing.

For a decade, I've followed the right's journalistic efforts and accompanying pathologies particularly closely.

And I see new reason for optimism.

Unlike left-of-center journalism, where ideological outlets like Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and The American Prospect mostly accept the norms and ethical conventions that reign at older guard outlets like the New York Times, many (though not all) right-leaning outlets have gone their own way. Bloggers like Glenn Reynolds started off critiquing the approach of the mainstream media. National Review publishes some folks who think of themselves as reporters or journalists first -- and others who thought of themselves as ideological warriors first, an approach that often diminishes editorial standards, especially at institutions less careful than NR, where no one in charge demands sound reasoning and accuracy. Activists like James O'Keefe have gone a step farther, behaving as if the end of ideologically useful scoops justifies means of reportage that are illegal, immoral, or both. And Fox News is among the outlets that has used the excuse of commentary as license to broadcast the most outlandish, inaccurate nonsense, as evidenced by any number of Glenn Beck conspiracy theories.

Ideological warriors of all stripes perpetrate crimes against facts and intellectual honesty. Some of the pathologies I've mentioned are merely due to the fact that the right is not immune. In a series of pieces over the years, however, I've tried to point out some flaws that particularly affect the way many on the right think of journalism. In "Electric Kool Aid Conservatism," I argued that what the right needs are more people who understand conservative insights, but who consider themselves journalists first. Later in "At the Gates of the Fourth Estate," I argued that the dearth of conservative and libertarian journalists at mainstream journalistic organizations is exacerbated by people like Andrew Breitbart, who hyperbolically insists that non-liberals are doomed to lifelong persecution in the industry. Similarly harmful are exaggerated claims like this one from the late Robert Novak: "Liberals have now filtered into the executive ranks of journalism. And so if you go into journalism now not in the closet but out in the open as a conservative, you're going to have a hard time getting a job, believe me." That's just not true.

For a long time, a young conservative or libertarian who aspired to be a journalist would absorb these pathologies in the course of listening to a lot of talk radio, watching Fox News, reading certain Web outlets that publish a lot of hackery, and seeing conservative movement types fawn over the likes of Breitbart and O'Keefe. They'd be set up for failure, in ways big and small, if they entered the profession. As a longtime critic of the guilty parties, it's easy to despair at their influence.

Credit is now due, however, to a libertarian think tank, the Institute for Humane Studies, for publishing a "Journalism Career Guide" (PDF) that is a potent antidote. As a skeptic of journalism career guides generally (they're almost always clueless about new media), and especially ones produced by avowedly ideological organizations, I'm shocked that I can't find anything in its 68 pages to disagree with. In fact, I bet press watchers as diverse as Jay Rosen at the New York University journalism school (where I earned a masters degree), Slate's Jack Shafer, Chapman's Hugh Hewitt, and Columbia's Nick Lemann would all largely endorse its prescriptions, which is saying something, especially since it mixes practical advice and bits pitched to right-leaning readers.

Don't major in journalism as an undergraduate, John Elliott writes in the introduction -- report for your college newspaper, and learn how to write even if you're going to be a TV or radio broadcaster. "Editors not sympathetic to classical liberal thinking will run most of the student newspapers, but aspiring libertarian journalists should not be deterred by that," he adds in a passage refreshingly devoid of victim-mongering. "I have had two excellent interns who wrote for the Daily Californian at UC-Berkeley. You need to get reporting experience, and you should get it any way you can."

He goes on to mention the single most important thing to know about graduate school in journalism: "The master's in journalism can help you acquire skills and clips. But you need to carefully consider the costs and benefits. In particular, you need to ask how much student-loan debt you will acquire... My major concern with a master's in journalism is that the student loan debt will actually force you out of journalism."

It happens.

My favorite part of the pamphlet is the section written by Matt Welch, editor of Reason magazine. "The vocation is not dying, it's thriving," he insists "and despite every insider indication to the contrary, the journalism racket is one hell of a lot of fun. And understanding the contours of the market you're entering is the most important of seven basic steps to jump-start your media career."

It's sound advice. More than ever before, every journalist must be his or her own brand manager and opportunity seeker. "Submit yourself to the rigor and humility of reporting and analyzing the media business and practice yourself in a far more sophisticated way than merely snickering at The New York Times or Glenn Beck," he advises. "Understand what parts of the media sphere are expanding, what parts are contracting, and why. Identify which activities -- such as the bloviation of opinion -- are being priced downward toward zero, and which ones (such as being able to shoot and edit video) are being better compensated every
day."

He's got more useful practical advice besides. Always be starting a blog, opening a Twitter account, starting a YouTube channel, and mastering old school skills so that you rise above all the other people doing those things. But what I liked best, especially coming from the editor of the leading magazine in libertarianism, is the following advice, which ought to be memorized by every ideology-minded journalist:

Journalism is pretty much the world's best excuse for learning stuff you don't otherwise know about. But ideologically flavored journalism is often the world's worst excuse for reporting because the writers are working backward from a conclusion, tailoring facts to meet the argument. Any sound ideology will survive collisions with reality, and not every slice of truth will fit neatly into a philosophical narrative. The best journalism starts with enough humility to appreciate the value of a well-turned fact above all else. If you think you know it all--on any subject--in your 20s, you are not only almost certainly wrong (and irritatingly so to your superior), you are also closing off avenues for discovering a better story.

Other tips, some related to ideology, others not, round out the pamphlet. Says Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, the freelance journalist, describing her first job: "My beat required me to cover government waste, fraud, and mismanagement. Despite my lack of journalism education, I managed to do pretty well. I chalk most of this up to my contrarian political views. Many of the folks on similar beats at other papers were big fans of a large, expansive government. I was not, so I could find stories about waste, fraud, and mismanagement more easily than they could."

Precisely so.

Any rigorous thought that is also different from the herd is an asset, not a handicap or an excuse to play the victim.

Says Megan Ward, "Never be shy about saying, 'I don't understand.' Never lie for your job."

She adds, "Don't do your reporting by phone. You will get more information and connect more by interviewing someone in their office or home. Reporters who do most of their reporting by phone are lazy."

I found myself nodding, and then came to this tip by Lene Johansen, which made me feel old, because it's a sign that a new generation has come along with different formative experiences than mine:

Pick up the phone and call people. We are the digital generation with our emails, text messages, chats, and social networks, but at the end of the day there are many jobs you can't do without picking up the phone. Yes, it is scary. But the people on the other end are regular people, not brain-eating zombies, bill collectors, or your mom, and you are helping them by spreading the word about their passions or by filling a magazine with compelling content. Think about it as doing them a favor and it will be much harder to come up with excuses to not call.

In my day, picking up the phone was the easy way!

I've left a lot out, so if you're an aspiring young journalist, go read the rest. Impressively, it doesn't matter if you're a liberal, a conservative, or a libertarian. If the philosophy embedded in this document is the future of right-leaning journalism, it's going to get a whole lot better in years to come. 


Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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