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.