The Conservatives Trying to Ditch Fake News

The Dispatch wants to sell serious, fact-based stories to the right. But do readers want them?

Three male employees of a news website sit and stand in cublcles.
Stephen Hayes, Caleb Parker, and Jonah Goldberg (Justin Gellerson)

Updated on January 31, 2020 at 9:03 p.m. ET

Jonah Goldberg, the conservative author and longtime fixture at National Review, used to have a go-to metaphor he’d deploy whenever he found himself defending one of his noisier compatriots in the right-wing media.

“I had this whole spiel about how the conservative movement is like a symphony,” he told me in a recent interview. “You need the fine woodwinds like Yuval Levin or Irving Kristol, but you also need that guy with the big gong who just smashes out the notes.” Sure, the talk-radio ranters were shouty and crass, he would reason, but they had their part to play.

These days, Goldberg has abandoned such rationalizations. “We’re holding a lot of symphonies where it’s basically all gong,” he said. “I didn’t think the gong would swamp the woodwinds quite the way it did.” Looking back, he admits even he was part of the problem: “I could be quite loud.”

Now, Goldberg said, he’s ready to “atone.” Last year, he left his perch at National Review and joined a handful of prominent conservative writers to launch The Dispatch, a new media venture with a mission that’s as straightforward as it is radical: producing serious, factually grounded journalism for a conservative audience. In interviews, editors told me they aim to fill a growing void on the right’s media landscape, which they described as oversaturated with hot takes and starved of reporting, obsessed with lib-ownership and uninterested in facts. On any given day, those who get their news from the loudest voices on the right—Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart News—are bombarded with partisan propaganda, conspiracy theories, and cynical rage-bait.

The Dispatch—which went live earlier this month—was designed to resist these trends. Instead of chasing cheap clicks, the company is courting paid subscribers with a portfolio of email newsletters, podcasts, and a soon-to-be-paywalled website. Original reporting will be emphasized and petty internet squabbles downplayed, with editors pledging to ignore what they call “the daily race to be wrong first on Twitter.” Their target audience is not MAGA Kool-Aid drinkers or Beltway obsessives, but ordinary “center-right” people who want information and context from their news, not catharsis.

One way or another, The Dispatch may end up answering a question with far-reaching implications: How big is the market for reality in today’s Republican Party?

Podcast studio at The Dispatch. (Justin Gellerson)

When plans for The Dispatch were first announced last year, many political-media observers assumed it would be a vehicle for Republican resistance to Donald Trump.

Both Goldberg and his co-founder, Stephen Hayes—the former editor in chief of the defunct Weekly Standard—had established themselves as stalwart critics of the president. And as they staffed up, they attracted similarly inclined conservatives, including David French, a well-known National Review expat. But in my conversations with Dispatch editors, they seemed reluctant to be lumped in with what they see as knee-jerk Never Trumpers.

When I asked Goldberg about The Bulwark—another news site run by GOP dissidents—he told me he appreciates their work, but finds the content “too overwhelmingly about Trump for my tastes.” Nor does he identify with a certain breed of conservative commentator who has tacked sharply to the left since Trump’s election. “I didn’t go full Jen Rubin or Max Boot,” Goldberg said, referring to two Washington Post columnists. “Nobody picked me up and paraded me around in a dunce cap as I renounced all my former positions.” (Asked to respond, Boot said, “I wish The Dispatch all the success in the world.” Rubin said, “That’s just sad. I thought The Dispatch was aiming higher.”)

While the new site hasn’t shied away from criticizing the president, its founders seem more focused on addressing the factors that enabled his rise—most notably, the corrosion of the conservative media.

French told me that his decision to leave National Review—where he had been writing full-time since 2015—to join a new, untested venture was partly a result of burnout. “Frankly, I had just grown exhausted by the relentless partisan pressure that’s been exerted throughout the conservative media really from the day Trump clinched the nomination,” he said. Goldberg echoed this sentiment. “Whenever I wrote a big stem-winder about Trump or against nationalism, some donor or some subscriber would call and complain,” he told me. “For the first time in 21 years, I felt like … writing what I wanted to write was creating problems for the magazine.”

Both men praised their former colleagues, and acknowledged the difficulties that National Review—which is owned by a nonprofit that relies on financial support from conservative donors—faces in navigating the Trump era. But the pressures they described reflect acute structural problems throughout the conservative-media complex. At highbrow publications, Goldberg said, once-respectable writers have abandoned their ideological convictions in favor of an incoherent Trumpism. “People are groping in the dark to find something to hold on to that reconciles their intellectual self-regard with their support for Donald Trump, and for just generalized meanness,” he told me. More populist outlets, meanwhile, have all but dropped the pretense of practicing factual journalism. “At places like Breitbart and further off into the swamplands,” Goldberg said, “you can literally just make stuff up as long as it makes people angry enough to click on it.” (A spokesperson for Breitbart responded by email: “lol.”)

French attributes the dearth of serious reporting on the right in part to the “towering presence” of Fox News. “You have one institution that is so incredibly potent as a validator of conservative personalities, and as a pathway to personal prosperity,” he told me. The success of Fox’s primetime model—grievance over substance, shouting over scoops—has shaped a generation of conservative media. And even those who disagree with the network’s approach hesitate to speak up for careerist reasons, French said: “People on the right are very wary of how they evaluate Fox.” (That’s not to say The Dispatch is boycotting the channel; Goldberg and Hayes are both Fox News contributors.)

Against this grim backdrop, The Dispatch’s editors are projecting a sense of cautious optimism (with the aid of some florid imagery). “Right now, we are a small and merry band,” they wrote in their opening letter to readers, “boarding a pirate skiff with limited provisions amidst choppy waters crammed with well-equipped battleships, barreling through the smoking wrecks of larger vessels that came before us.

“But,” they added, in an expression of faith, “we believe we are not alone.”

Stephen Hayes speaks with a staffer.  (Justin Gellerson)

One afternoon earlier this month, I followed several Dispatch staffers into a sweaty makeshift studio in their downtown D.C. office. They were supposed to be recording the inaugural episode of their flagship podcast, but technical difficulties were getting in the way. As a producer fiddled with cords and flipped switches, the co-hosts bantered and bickered among themselves.

There was a certain sitcom-family energy to the proceedings. Hayes presided over the group with a calming, dad-like earnestness. Goldberg offered wisecracking comic relief. Sarah Isgur, a former Republican strategist—and the only woman in the room—played the eye-rolling spouse tasked with putting the men in their place. At one point, the producer instructed everyone to clap so as to synchronize their audio, which prompted Goldberg to make a gonorrhea joke, and Isgur to let out a performative sigh. “That’s why we have a woman on the podcast,” she said. “To make sure we don’t talk about World War II–era venereal diseases.” (“I think it’s a little older than World War II,” Goldberg muttered.)

Once the equipment was up and running, they launched into a roundtable discussion on the two big news stories of the week: the recent killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and the impending Senate impeachment trial. The conversation was stilted at times—hampered by the eternal panelist temptation to “go back to something that was said earlier”—but it was also free of the frenzied tone that defines so much of the political media at this moment.

Skeptics will no doubt question the sincerity of The Dispatch’s commitment to serious journalism. Goldberg, by his own admission, has often veered toward “smashmouth politics” in his commentary. (His first book was titled Liberal Fascism.) And before entering the media, Isgur was the chief Justice Department spokesperson under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions—working for a notoriously press-hostile administration. When CNN tried to hire her as a politics editor last year, the announcement drew a clamorous backlash from Democrats and journalists, and the network reversed course. (She remains an on-air contributor.) Asked whether her partisan résumé and ties to the administration could compromise her coverage, Isgur pledged transparency. “I completely understand the skepticism,” she told me, adding, “I don’t think I’ll ever work in campaigns or politics again.”

So far, at least, The Dispatch’s output has stayed largely true to its stated objectives. In recent weeks, it’s published a newsy profile of libertarian Representative Justin Amash, a nuanced dispatch from the recent March for Life rally, and a pair of scoops based on internal administration documents. A regular fact-checking column picks apart misleading claims from both Democrats and Republicans. Meanwhile, Goldberg has continued to take aim at the Trumpian right with columns like “The Right’s Bullsh*t Problem” (which mixes in a few jabs at socialism for good measure).

Of course, they aren’t the only ones on the right doing this kind of work. The Washington Examiner and The Washington Free Beacon have produced some memorable political reporting over the years, and the Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Chris Wallace often make news with their interviews. But in Goldberg’s view, the majority of credible journalism is produced by what he considers left-leaning publications. Of the reporting that is done by the conservative media, he said it “is rarely inconvenient to the Republican Party.”

Hayes—who prioritized reporting at The Weekly Standard—hopes one day to preside over a large, bustling newsroom. For now, he has a couple of young, full-time reporters, and told me he’s pushing to infuse every story they publish (including opinion columns) with “new information, a new argument, fresh reporting, or all three wherever possible.” He is convinced that audiences will respond to rigorous news reporting that doesn’t pander, but shares certain premises that are often missing from mainstream coverage, such as sympathy for conservative religious beliefs.

The early numbers—and they are early—have been encouraging. As of this week, Hayes said they have sold nearly 400 “lifetime memberships” at $1,500 a pop, and another 3,500 annual subscriptions for $100. Their three main newsletters each have about 50,000 subscribers, and their flagship podcast briefly cracked Apple’s Top 100 news podcasts this month.

And, in a promising sign of relevance, The Dispatch is already proving somewhat polarizing within the conservative intelligentsia. While the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently praised French’s writing, The American Conservative has attacked the outlet for its ideological bent, declaring it “warmed-over neoconservative news.”

Still, Mark Hemingway, a conservative journalist who writes for RealClearInvestigations, told me the outlet’s reach would likely be limited by its Trump-averse posture. For all the attention Never Trump voices receive from the mainstream media, he said, readers on the right simply aren’t interested: “There’s absolutely zero market for it.”

(Justin Gellerson)

Recent history is littered with cautionary tales about failed attempts to reform the conservative media. In 2009, Tucker Carlson was famously booed during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference when he defended the journalistic values of The New York Times, and suggested that the right should be emulating the paper. Conservative journalists, he said, should “go out there and find what is happening … not just interpret things they hear in the mainstream media, but gather news themselves.”

The next year, Carlson launched The Daily Caller. The site would, he declared, have an old-fashioned journalistic mission: producing stories “that add to the sum total of known facts about politics and government.” But even as he hired promising young reporters, Carlson seemed aware of how market pressures could derail the project. His biggest fear, he told The New Republic at the time, was that “you could wind up with a page only about porn, executions, and Sarah Palin every day.”

A decade later, it’s safe to say that The Daily Caller has not become the conservative answer to The New York Times. Though it still publishes some original reporting on politics, those stories are mixed in with a sea of clickbait, trolling, Scarlett Johansson slideshows, and periodic race-baiting. (In 2018, my former colleague Rosie Gray reported that one of the site’s editors had written pseudonymously for a white-supremacist website.)

Given this trajectory, one could be forgiven for wondering whether the incentives in conservative media can actually support a project like The Dispatch. Have audiences on the right simply been conditioned to expect validation—and nothing else—from their news?

When I asked Goldberg about the case of the Caller, he conceded that “the pursuit of short-term profit can be very seductive.” But, he quickly added, “I want to give the most generous theory of the case, which is that the times needed to ripen more.”

The Dispatch is betting—somewhat improbably—that conservatives are ready now. Pointing to the success of magazines like The New Yorker, Hayes told me, “You’ll never convince me there’s not a similar audience on the right.”

Hayes at The Dispatch offices. (Justin Gellerson)