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Thumbsucking and the Right

David Freddoso has an interesting piece today at the Washington Examiner about his approach to vetting the presidential candidates and conservative journalism. He isn’t wholly wrong here, but I think his career track is instructive in the real failings of conservative media and the journalists they employ. But more on that in a minute.

The general trend among conservatives is to ditch the investigative thing and move into what we might call Novak-lite opinion writing; they talk to sources and cover events but rarely break news. They take the second or third bite out of something, not the first. And they generally leave it to Gawker to file the FOIA requests.

There’s a whole class of people in DC who live this trend, wasting writing talent on minor league punditry which ought to be applied to keeping politicians accountable and rooting out scandals on the other side. Instead of offsetting in some small way the overwhelming advantage the left has among investigative journos, the sights of these writers are nearly always trained on their own party. Their focus is on correcting something wrong about the right, or passing along some bit of oppo handed to them by a rival they prefer, or indicting both parties for something stupid. Rarely if ever are they focused on rooting out the things the left would rather keep quiet.

At the same time, the big publications on the right have gravitated toward three kinds of stories: the thumb-sucking or humorous rehash of what’s in the news; the big think-piece commentary about some social or political meme; or the throw-off profile of a friendly Republican politician. The effect is that these publications have little or no impact on the left or the broader conversation – their influence is limited to the right and stays there.

This trend is a real shame, and it’s one of the reasons that story-breaking on the right about the left has been almost entirely conceded to the amateur or semi-pro class online, or the select handful of less-biased journalists within old media. The biggest story of the year on the right is Solyndra – a story broken by ABC News. The second biggest story of the year on the right is Fast & Furious, which is now resulting in Congressional investigations and calls for Eric Holder’s resignation – it’s a story broken by CBS News. In a just world, these stories would’ve been broken first on the cover of a major conservative publication. But that hasn’t been true since, well, the days of David Brock.

At the Redstate confab in South Carolina (this was pre-Solyndra) I pointed out onstage that Obama’s administration had been to that point remarkably scandal free. I pointed out that scandal had followed the Chicago team for decades, and that we’d learn about the scandals eventually, but likely only after everyone was out of office. This is an indictment for every journalist on the right who has the capability to investigate but spends their time on opinion writing instead. It’s no longer debatable: Andrew Breitbart has done more for the cause of conservative investigative coverage than any of the right-leaning outlets under Obama. And that’s something the DC-NY conservative professional thumb-suckers should be ashamed of.

Now, this isn’t as widespread as it ought to be. Instead of a citizen-journalist revolution, we’ve had for the most part a citizen-pundit revolution, where experience and shoe-leather matters less than quips and regurgitation. Some organizations are trying to push the ball forward: The Franklin Institute, the State Policy Network, and think tanks like The Heartland Institute (my employer) have earned more meaningful footprints in many state capitols. But the ability to be a national/cultural critic is much easier and simpler, and requires much less effort than becoming an expert in the workings of one aspect of government on the local or national level.

The real issue is money (“Everybody wants it, that’s why they call it money“). Credit for breaking something wide open at the state or federal level rarely translates to national prestige. Most of the really good investigative journalists are stuck at local beats and will never get that far above them. It’s much easier to just offer an opinion, do so eloquently, get the TV contract, and the speaking fees, and pay the mortgage. Meanwhile, most of the money on the right which would otherwise go to people with the dedication and skill to tease out stories ends up instead in the slower moving legacy organizations, which are always late to the party.

Back to Freddoso for a moment: he is one of a number of solid shoe-leather investigative journalists with a conservative bent now at the Examiner – he’s there as an opinion page editor (Phil Klein and Tim Carney, two more solid journalists, have undergone the same transition). Freddoso’s no more than an acquaintance (again I stress that I genuinely like his work) but yesterday is a bad day for him to be throwing this stone. He spent a good hour on Twitter deriding Rick Perry for calling Sam Brownback “John” at an event based on a Twitter report from a Bloomberg journo, a report which turned out to be completely false (Perry was referring to John Archer, a candidate for Congress who was in attendance at the government reform event). It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, anyone can make that mistake – but the point is that the Washington Examiner doesn’t have anyone covering that event, and neither do any of the right-leaning outlets. They’re in Washington, offering opinions.

It’s a different problem from the lack of investigative-focused stuff, but it illustrates the same truth. Writers on the right mostly don’t do journalism; they do play-by-play. We need good writers doing more of the former, and less of the latter.

  1. Diane Ellis
    C

    Now who’s going to dare to post here after reading this, Ben? Sheesh, way to make us all feel self-conscious…

    Mmmm, but I do love the picture of Carey Grant you included with the post. It softened the blow of the harsh indictment ever so slightly.

  2. The King Prawn

     Wait, you’re suggesting that somewhere in this universe exists right leaning news organizations with enough clout that investigative reporting by them would have some kind of effect? I don’t buy it. The reason we have Breitbart and all the Big sites is because anything uncovered by investigative journalists within the mainstream press that benefits the right will be encased in cement and buried deep beneath the earth before anyone ever sees it.

  3. EJHill

    Anyone who’s hung around these parts knows I’ve been riding this horse for a long time.

    If I were running a news organization I would encourage all reporters, editors and producers to openly declare their political leanings. Then I would pair them together to balance each other out.

  4. James Gawron

    This is an extremely good point.  I’m not sure what is to be done about it.  Starting a new publication devoted solely to the journalism that Ben refers to comes to mind.  I hope Ben isn’t practicing his type two ‘the big think piece’ here.  If he really wants something to happen you are talking big money and big organization.

    One of the reasons I am so tough on the University System is demonstrated here.   Because the system has been so corrupt for so long without any direct challenge, the people that come out of top journalism schools are just getting worse and worse.  A University System is meant for the long haul.  If it is good it gives a long term push in the right direction.  If it is bad, as it has been, then it magnifies folly.  Just exactly what we see.

    However, back to the subject.  Hey, this is America if you don’t like the way some organization works, START YOUR OWN.  Ben what kind of organization would you start if you had access to capital and quality personel?

  5. Joseph Eagar

    I think a lot of this comes down to appeasement.  A lot of mildly conservative people are attracted to the Democratic party by its corporatist (i.e. special interest group driven) ideology, and often times movement conservatives are tempted to try to appease them.  Republicans are really very ambitious about governing; we believe in resolving disputes through principles and ideals, not special interest group strong-arming.

    Unfortunately, governing through principle is much harder than governing through lobbyists and special interest groups, and a lot of center-right political talent gravitates to the Democrats for that reason.  This is why appeasement doesn’t work; no amount of sucking-up can overcome basic human laziness.   Those odd people who should be Republicans but are really Democrats do not exist because we haven’t been sufficiently nice to them, they exist because they find it easier to influence the political system through patronage and corruption than through enlightened principles.

  6. Austin Murrey
    EJHill: Anyone who’s hung around these parts knows I’ve been riding this horse for a long time.

    If I were running a news organization I would encourage all reporters, editors and producers to openly declare their political leanings. Then I would pair them together to balance each other out. · Nov 16 at 4:41pm

    I have the feeling that if your editors and reporters were honest you’d have to pair the right-wingers with 3 or 4 left-wingers, which is part of the problem.  Although reporters do have to deal with their editors, which adds one more layer of bias (on either side really) on to any report from both green-lighting stories and allowing investigation to go on.  Think of the Lewinsky scandal.

     

  7. Michael Tee

    Byron York seemed to be good at this. He’s at the Examiner too, no?

    Jonah Goldberg has written a definitive volume on the roots of the left.

    But yes, investigative journalism on the right is left to Drudge and Breitbart.

    A question or two: Who broke the Ayers story? The Reverend Wright story? The Rezko issue?

  8. WI Con

     Important post – one we on the right should take to heart. I think that much of the punditry on both the left and right is simply due to production costs. It’s easier to have talking heads babble on a subject rather than produce new information.

    I’d include Michelle Malkin, Hot Air and Ann Coulter in with the folks at the Examiner and Brietbart. They have all uncovered a great deal of material. Tucker Carlson has made the same point as Mr, Domenech.

    I think that there may be too many outlets right now and that they are competing with one another. It feels like Breitbart may become like a Reuters or AP a few years from now. I envision a structure where activists and bloggers are reporting/investigating local stories across the nation, picked up (and paid) by a conservative AP/Reuters so that information & stories ‘cascade’ both ways – for instance, the failed Obama stimulus is covered nationally, but a blogger can uncover locally which unions, contractors & politicians are getting the kick-backs. The local stories reinforce the macro/national stories.

  9. Southern Pessimist

    As a former thumbsucker who gave up the practice at an embarassingly advanced age and as one who parses the words of political pundits almost religiously, I think you have stated something that I think needs to be developed further. Not that I can do that. I have enormous frustration that it is very easy to know almost everything about what is going on in Washington and it is almost impossible to know what is going on in my capitol of Columbia SC. It is even more obscure locally. Last week I voted for my county council. I spent an hour or so on the net to try and figure out which 4 of the 12 running to vote for. The information available was dismal.

  10. Ben Domenech
    C
    Southern Pessimist: I have enormous frustration that it is very easy to know almost everything about what is going on in Washington and it is almost impossible to know what is going on in my capitol of Columbia SC. It is even more obscure locally. Last week I voted for my county council. I spent an hour or so on the net to try and figure out which 4 of the 12 running to vote for. The information available was dismal. · Nov 16 at 6:58pm

    Edited on Nov 16 at 07:03 pm

    I agree completely on this point. As the local publications have died off (killed by Craigslist and the like), there’s an opportunity for online journalists to fill the void. The Franklin Center and SPN shops can do some of this, but they are limited in how much they can cover things. We need more of it, and better. For an example of how it’s done (and done well) in North Carolina, check out the Locke Foundation’s Carolina Journal.

  11. Fricosis Guy

    Let’s not be too self-critical here and show a little patience.  The Right has just started its own Long March through the institutions.  We’ve gone from virtually no right-leaning investigative journalism to at least some. 

    I’m also encouraged by the Freddoso, Carney, etc. move from journalist to pundit.  Isn’t that the “normal” path to punditry in the MSM?  If I were a young writer I’d like to see that it isn’t just the David Broders and Dana Milbanks who get to “graduate” to commentary. 

    It also would help the conservative commentariat if it were refreshed from the bottom up.  Writers who are more fact-driven should cut down the thumb-sucker ratio a bit.

  12. John Marzan

    Are you working for the Perry campaign, Ben? Jen Rubin seems to be a Hitwoman for Romney.

  13. The Cloaked Gaijin

    Good article.

    You’d think that more conservative journalists would spend more time looking at the activities of local SEIU-type union officials and be a bit curious as to how so many of our public servant politicians leave Washington so much richer than when they arrived.

  14. EJHill
    Austin Murrey I have the feeling that if your editors and reporters were honest you’d have to pair the right-wingers with 3 or 4 left-wingers, which is part of the problem…. Think of the Lewinsky scandal.

    You might be surprised. A lot of tech people like me are conservative. Exposure to the loons at CWA-NABET and the IBEW will do that. And you’d be amazed at how much influence camera men and video editors can have over a story.

    And actually the Lewinsky story is a good argument. Who was Matt Drudge’s guy on the inside of Newsweek that realized that they were spiking a legitimate story for political purposes. If news organizations openly recruited conservatives and allowed everyone to be open about their politics good stories wouldn’t get spiked as much.

  15. SteveS
    Diane Ellis, Ed.: Now who’s going to dare to post here after reading this, Ben? Sheesh, way to make us all feel self-conscious…

    Mmmm, but I do love the picture of Carey Grant you included with the post. It softened the blow of the harsh indictment ever so slightly. · Nov 16 at 4:11pm

    Walter and Hildey writing the story of the escaped killer scene from His Gal Friday. One of the best comedies with a social message on journalism ever made. A true classic!

  16. genferei

    What do we have to do to keep Ben on Ricochet permanently?

    (Will anyone else admit to feeling a bit queasy about the ‘Young Guns’ subtitle ‘Tomorrow’s Pundits Today’? As if we needed more pundits. Particularly ‘young’ pundits that have nothing to contribute about #OWS…)

  17. genferei

    Bah.

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