The Worst Mission Statement in the History of D.C. Journalism

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A new conservative website is online, backed by millions, and modeled on publications its own editor regards as vicious and unfair.


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.

Take The Washington Free Beacon.

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.

But Continetti invokes different trailblazers when he describes the journalistic subculture he seeks to join:


Andrew Breitbart pioneered the new approach. His websites were dedicated, impassioned, and broke news. Glenn Beck exposed White House czar Van Jones's radical, 9/11-Truth past. Guerilla journalist James O'Keefe performed sting operations that led to ACORN, Planned Parenthood, and NPR having very bad days. Tucker Carlson's website, The Daily Caller, published excerpts from the Journolist, which showed liberal writers coordinating their party line.

Breitbart, Beck, O'Keefe: all three are firmly in the "be the change you don't want to see in the world" tradition. Breitbart, whose biggest pet peeve is when dubious charges of racism are cynically used as a cudgel, is best known for publishing a misleadingly edited video of Shirley Sherrod in order to persuade people that the NAACP is racist. Beck, lauded above for exposing another man's conspiracy mongering, did more than anyone else in America during his tenure at Fox News to spread dubious, conspiratorial nonsense. O'Keefe, who reacts with righteous indignation anytime he thinks he's caught a professional journalist behaving dishonorably, has released misleadingly edited videos; and he once tried to lure a female reporter aboard a boat in hopes that he could cruelly seduce her as a joke while secretly recording it.

I mean, really. Here is one of the guys Continetti is praising:
 

Whatever you think of The Daily Caller, Tucker Carlson's Web site, it shouldn't be lumped in with that trio. Its story about Journolist, the liberals-only email listserv, does have one thing in common with every Breitbart scoop, the Van Jones story, and the James O'Keefe sting: each was seen by hard core conservatives as a game-changing triumph, when actually they changed little of consequence. The ostensible goal of conservatism is shrinking government, ensuring public policy is consistent with the Constitution, and upholding the values of civilization. Why get so excited at forcing a re-branding at ACORN or a management change at NPR?

Later on in his manifesto, after going on about the poor performance of the mainstream media, Continetti writes:

What would happen, though, if a website covered the left in the same way that the left covers the right? What picture of the world would one have in mind if the morning paper read like the New York Times--but with the subjects of the stories and the assumptions built into the text changed to reflect a conservative, not liberal, worldview? What would happen if the media wolf pack suddenly had to worry about an aerial hunting operation? You are about to find out.

Once again, he is aspiring to mimic a product he regards as unfair and lacking in quality, but never mind that -- I quoted the above passage so I could point out that we are not, in fact, going to find out what the world would be like if a right-leaning publication covered the world like The New York Times. There isn't going to be any left-leaning equivalent of William Safire or David Brooks or Ross Douthat publishing opinion pieces at The Washington Free Beacon. There won't be an independent public editor who'll take the staff to task when they've behaved badly. Deliberately neutral language won't be adopted when matters of ideological dispute are characterized. Continetti is smart enough to understand that it makes no sense to say that you're modeling yourself on TPM and the Huffington Post... and that you're going to show the world what things would be like if the right were running The New York Times.

Near the end of Continetti's piece, there is one sentence that grabbed me. "Our talented staff will add to the chorus of enterprising conservative reporters, publishing original stories, seeking out scoops, and focusing on the myriad connections between money and power in the progressive movement and Obama's Washington," he writes. That isn't an awful vision for a publication. If Obama is re-elected and the publication hews to that vision, forgetting everything else Continetti has written, it'll be useful for four years. Honest partisan watchdogs have their place. The only trouble will come when a Republican is next elected, for The Washington Beacon has set itself up as an enterprise more interested in getting to the left than getting at the truth.

There were a lot of outfits like that when George W. Bush took office. Boy were they determined. Their mission was to keep attacking the left and defending the right no matter what, and they did it -- boy, did they do it -- even as the Republican Party ballooned the federal budget deficit, expanded entitlements, spied illegally on Americans, mismanaged two wars, created a new cabinet level agency, and so discredited conservatism in the minds of voters that they elected Barack Obama (who has proceeded to violate civil liberties and wage illegal wars as CAP looks on).  

Maybe what Washington, D.C., needs isn't a new publication that targets the left, so much as one that targets bad policy, people abusing power, dubious ideas and nefarious behavior generally. Why can't money be raised to fund that sort of enterprise when The Washington Free Beacon's parent non-profit is reportedly being bankrolled to the tune of seven figures? Of course, if there's no ideological bogeyman, I guess then there'd be no convenient enemy at hand, no consistent other to blame for everything, no opportunity to tell yourself that you're doing "combat journalism," absurdly running an old AP photo of actual combat troops at the top of your piece, as if your "taking the fight to the left" resembles in any way the fights that they were waging.

Worst. Mission statement. Ever.

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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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