In national politics, imitation is less often a form of flattery than an admission of hypocrisy: "What I maligned when done by my opponents is so effective I'll now do it myself." In this way, folks outraged by media bias celebrated the Fox News Channel; partisans who saw the distortions of lobbying launched the K Street project; bitter critics of right-wing talk radio started Air America; conservatives who mocked the celebrity of Barack Obama cheered Sarah Palin; and progressives who called Dick Cheney a fascist for his national security policies continued to embrace Obama even after he transgressed against civil liberties in some of the exact same ways.
Seeing this inversion of Gandhi's maxim, this being the change one doesn't want to see in the world, shocks some people into disaffection: they find it glaringly obvious that picking a side and participating in a never-ending ideological arms race makes about as much sense as a cantankerous snake eating its own tail. Others choose a party or clique, survey the most effective new weaponry on the other side, and copy the form of the thing that they regard as most malign.
The new D.C.-based Web publication was started by conservatives who regard the Center for American Progress as so beastly that they liken the progressive non-profit to a vicious wolf. Their plan? Clone it! I am not imputing motives that aren't there. Says Matthew Continetti, The Washington Free Beacon's talented editor in chief, in an inaugural essay titled Combat Journalism:
Republicans were routinely outspent, divided, and distracted by the messes they had made for themselves. They lacked, too, the means by which the progressives had so effectively identified, frozen, personalized, and polarized their targets: the wolf pack. Tony Blair, in a 2007 speech, described the press as a "feral beast" that tore "people and reputations to bits." But the feral beast is not a solitary creature. Hunting in a pack, he surrounds his targets and devours them in swarms. The Counter-Counter-Establishment's greatest achievement was in serving as the wolf pack's sleigh driver. The left-wing groups, in concert with the Democratic Party, would select the Republican politicians, institutions, and media figures on which the beast would feed.
Whether the victim was George Bush, Joseph Lieberman, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Charles and David Koch, the Chamber of Commerce, Fox News Channel, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, or Mitt Romney, the technique was the same. The left blogosphere would manufacture a smear or distortion or line of attack. Larger blogs and liberal news sites like Huffington Post or Talking Points Memo would pick it up and publicize it. From there the critique would jump to liberal radio and MSNBC and Comedy Central's news parody shows. Before long, the mainstream media would be reporting the misinformation as news that was fit to print. By the time the wolf pack reached that point in their meal, the prey had little hope of survival.
Sounds vicious and unethical, doesn't it?
Yet here is what Continetti told Politico about the new publication he's running: "Our models are the Center for American Progress/Think Progress, TPM, and Huffington Post politics. These outlets have been at the cutting edge of ideological journalism for years, and it is time for the right to emulate their success."
This is what D.C. does to some people.
Among conservatives, it isn't even noteworthy that the editor in chief of a new publication is openly modeling his enterprise on a sort of journalism he regards as corrosive and dishonorable when others do it. Neither Jennifer Rubin nor John Podhoretz thought to mention it in their write-ups. Nor is anyone remarking upon the irony of the publication's name. It is inspired by a Ronald Reagan speech: "How stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was eight years ago. But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she's still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home."
Reagan's words were hardly a call to build a publication devoted to turnabout as fair play, though if The Washington Free Beacon functions as one, drawing like-minded people as if by a magnet, it has chosen a perfect location: the publication is headquartered at 1600 K Street.
There is a part of me that hopes this new publication will transcend its flawed, soulless mission and do good work -- that Continetti realizes he's too talented to write hyperbolic apologias for pols like Sarah Palin; that Sonny Bunch, a staffer, lives up to the integrity I've seen in his past work; that the whole editorial staff (I know nothing of the rest of them) takes its cues from the best rather than the worst progressive and mainstream journalism have to offer, trying to cover politics with integrity rather than mirroring every pathology they perceive to be aimed against their allies. I've very much wanted that sort of outfit to thrive on the right for going on 5 years now.
But I'm not sure any amount of talent or integrity can triumph over a vision as flawed as the one Continetti has laid out -- and mimicking outlets he regards as vicious wolves is just the biggest of its problems.
In America there are so many conservatives doing first rate journalism. Upstarts would do well to emulate the best of what is published in City Journal, The Claremont Review of Books, The American Conservative, National Review, or National Affairs; or to take as their models Andrew Ferguson or Ross Douthat or George Will or Peter Robinson or Matt Labash or Heather Mac Donald (or even the best stuff Continetti has published) or any number of others.