The Conservative Media Need to Self-Police for Their Own Sake

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Stigmatizing shoddy work results in less of it.

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Every so often, a journalist at a "mainstream" or "establishment" outlet gets caught up in some sort of scandal. Stephen Glass. Jayson Blair. Jack Kelley. Rick Bragg. Dan Rather. Johann Hari. Jonah Lehrer. The list goes on. The transgressions vary, as do their seriousness. But they share one feature: The offending writer is invariably subject to intense scrutiny from colleagues and peers. Unlike in law enforcement, where police officers routinely cover up for one another's misdeeds, and going out of one's way to catch another officer lying is regarded as a betrayal, journalists who uncover fabrication, plagiarism, or even lesser misdeeds are praised.

That isn't to say that self-policing in the "mainstream" or "establishment" media is perfect, or perfectly executed, or even adequate. Like a lot of journalists, I regularly have complaints about coverage and more. But insofar as "mainstream" or "establishment" publications employ "public editors," permit employees to be critical of one another's work, and/or reliably correct significant errors, among other things, they do themselves credit and produce journalism that is better than it would otherwise be. 


The creditable parts of the culture I'm describing are rooted in a belief among almost all professional journalists that misbehaving colleagues ought to be exposed, ridiculed, and shamed, because they undermine the credibility of all journalists every time they misbehave. In borderline cases, "establishment" journalists do succumb to the human tendency to give friends, colleagues, and co-ideologues the benefit of the doubt. But they constantly discuss and debate ethical gray areas in multiple venues, and you'll never see reporters or editors more angry than when someone they trusted is proven to be dishonest. And if you read Romenesko, hang out with the smokers outside any newsroom, or spend time at any journalism school, you come away hearing media criticism as scathing as any there is.

As best I can tell, the incentives in the conservative media are very different. To be sure, there are a lot of honorable professionals at conservative publications. A confirmed plagiarist would surely be terminated at National Review or The Weekly Standard as quickly as at the New York Times or USA Today. And there is plenty of work published in conservative journals that equals -- or sometimes even surpasses -- the quality one typically finds in the "mainstream" press. But there is very little interest in the conservative media in policing ideologically friendly outlets. And choosing to spend one's time writing about the misdeeds of a fellow conservative journalist? I can't recall an instance when someone who did that was celebrated. The typical conservative attitude is that right-leaning outlets exist to counterbalance the liberal media, not to snipe at one another, a pervasive mindset that presumes intra-right criticism would be destructive.

In fact, insufficient self-criticism undermines the credibility of the conservative media, deprives it of the feedback needed for constant improvement, and leaves shoddy information unchallenged.

Breitbart is an instructive example.

Over the years, I've objected to many examples of shoddy journalism published there. The site's editors have had ample opportunity to institute better methods for vetting what they publish, or to more forthrightly acknowledge their mistakes after the fact. The rest of the conservative media have received ample warning that Breitbart's coverage shouldn't be presumed correct. 

And yet, this happened to Dan Friedman of the New York Daily News:
When rumors swirled that Hagel received speaking fees from controversial organizations, I attempted to check them out. On Feb. 6, I called a Republican aide on Capitol Hill with a question: Did Hagel's Senate critics know of controversial groups that he had addressed? Hagel was in hot water for alleged hostility to Israel. So, I asked my source, had Hagel given a speech to, say, the "Junior League of Hezbollah, in France"? And: What about "Friends of Hamas"? The names were so over-the-top, so linked to terrorism in the Middle East, that it was clear I was talking hypothetically and hyperbolically. No one could take seriously the idea that organizations with those names existed -- let alone that a former senator would speak to them.

Or so I thought. The aide promised to get back to me. I followed up with an e-mail, as a reminder: "Did he get $25K speaking fee from Friends of Hamas?" I asked. The source never responded, and I moved on. I couldn't have imagined what would happen next. On Feb. 7, the conservative web site Breitbart.com screamed this headline: "SECRET HAGEL DONOR?: WHITE HOUSE SPOX DUCKS QUESTION ON 'FRIENDS OF HAMAS'" The story read: "On Thursday, Senate sources told Breitbart News exclusively that they have been informed one of the reasons that President Barack Obama's nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has not turned over requested documents on his sources of foreign funding is that one of the names listed is a group purportedly called 'Friends of Hamas.'" The author, Ben Shapiro, wrote that a White House spokesman hung up on him when he called for comment. 

That went in the story -- to buttress the assertion that the White House didn't deny the claim. Shapiro tweeted the link to his nearly 40,000 Twitter followers. Blogs like RedState.com and the National Review's The Corner linked to it... On Monday, I reached my source. The person denied sharing my query with Breitbart but admitted the chance of having mentioned it to others... But there was another fail-safe. Since the "Friends of Hamas" speech was imaginary, it was not like another reporter could confirm it, right? Not quite. Reached Tuesday, Shapiro acknowledged "Friends of Hamas" might not exist. But he said his story used "very, very specific language" to avoid flatly claiming it did.

Everyone's bullshit detector goes wonky sometimes, but at this point, there's no excuse for anyone, let alone two separate National Review writers, to be credulously taken in by misleading Breitbart stories. (To his credit, Editor Rich Lowry, who has standards, corrects the record here.) Ben Shapiro's reaction at Breitbart? Among other things, he says "the story Breitbart News ran originally was accurate and clearly caveated." It's the sort of reaction that guarantees every scoop he ever gets, even if accurate, will be mistrusted by everyone outside conservatism. Who has time for writers who get self-righteous about egregiously misleading posts because they were carefully caveated in a way that rescued them from being technically false?

Yet inside conservative media, he'll likely maintain his standing. National Review contributors might be more careful when touting his stories. But there won't be public blowback. It won't seem like his peers are outraged or angered that someone is spending down the credibility of conservative media. And Breitbart presumably won't issue an apology, or hire a public editor, or take any other significant step to bolster its credibility among the people who mistrust it.

Only "mainstream" media outlets do that sort of thing.

Jonathan Bernstein has it right:
Any reporter can get something wrong, any publication can hire a bad reporter, and anyone can mistakenly believe something, especially from a trusted new source, that turns out to be fraudulent.

The question is what comes next.

Does the reporter get punished for botching a story, or rewarded for generating partisan talking points? Does the publication redouble its efforts to enforce standards, or pride itself on the buzz? Do pundits and politicians learn to be highly skeptical of the news source and, if it doesn't clean itself up, eventually shun it -- or do they continue to cite it as if it's totally legitimate? The answers to date suggest that the GOP is perfectly happy to welcome into the tent an organization that is happy to fabricate "news" that supports conservative story lines.

I'm forgiving of occasional mistakes -- we all make them -- but doubling down on content that causes even ideologically friendly competitors to issue corrections? That's harder to forgive or understand.  

Right now, I can think of a dozen extremely talented right-leaning journalists who deserve more opportunities and bigger audiences. Unfortunately, lots of "spots" in the conservative media are occupied by people who don't deserve them. Their intellectual honesty is so compromised that they'll never get a hearing from anyone who doesn't already share their beliefs. Why don't conservative journalists who hold themselves to higher standards angrily object?

They've got the most to lose by staying silent.

But they probably also have the most to lose by speaking up, in part because no culture of self-criticism has yet developed. The conservative tribe is rife with critics of "the mainstream media," but when it comes to right-leaning media, the tribe encompasses no journalism review, no navel-gazing professional discussion boards, no elder-statesman academics, no upstart new-media theorists, no Pulitzer Prizes or National Magazine Awards, and no ethics textbooks. It is apart from and critical of those mechanisms, sometimes with reason; it disdains "MSM" norms; yet it legitimizes no alternative methods of accountability. Only loyalty is vocally enforced.
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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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