In the domestic Cold War a reporting gap has developed: a number of left-leaning web sites such as The Huffington Post and the TPM and Think Progress blog networks have sprung up to report as well as opine. They dig up documents, cover breaking news and help push stories that embarrass conservatives and Republicans into the mainstream. Conservatives can sound downright apoplectic when talking about their disadvantage, which comes on top of the fact that liberal journals of opinion have historically done more enterprise reporting than their conservative counterparts and what conservatives perceive as a liberal bias in the reporting of mainstream outlets like National Public Radio and The New York Times.
The first iteration of trying to close this gap—and the conservative deficit on the kind of cultural coverage and ideological heterodoxy easily found in liberal-leaning outlets like The Nation, Salon, and The New Republic—was a spate of start up web sites between 2008 and 2010. They had mixed success: Culture11, which set out to be a “conservative Slate,” quickly lost funding and shut down. The Next Right, a reformist and tech-savvy political strategy blog, has barely been updated since last year. Others, such as FrumForum.com, run by apostate former Bush speechwriter David Frum, have thrived in terms of readership if not income. Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller, which supposedly set out to be a journalistic enterprise first and a conservative publication second, has seen those priorities largely reversed as it has promoted questionable evidence to support conservative views. Meanwhile Andrew Breitbart’s web sites have certainly pushed stories into the mainstream, but they have often later been discredited.
Meanwhile new non-profit organizations such as ProPublica and the American Independent News Network are doing investigative reporting that has no ideological orientation. Now, conservative think tanks are stepping in to fill the absence. At the Heritage Foundation, the Center for Media and Public Policy is looking to strengthen the reporting on its blog by hiring an investigative journalist. “Newspapers don’t have the money to invest in investigative units any more,” notes Mike Gonzalez, vice president of communications at Heritage, who oversees the reporting project. “More reporting is being done by think tanks and non-profits, mostly leftist organizations like Think Progress [of the Center for American Progress]. It’s time for a conservative organization to do the same thing, so why shouldn’t we do it?”
Rob Bluey, director of Heritage’s Center for Media and Public Policy, will supervise and edit the reporter. Bluey says that the reporter will write for the CMPP’s blog and probably contribute to conservative journals, as Bluey himself does. The CMPP generally publishes items, both reported and opinion, that bolster conservative policy positions. For instance, Bluey went to the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill and reported that the ensuing moratorium on offshore oil drilling was harming the local economy. “[Ideology] will be a driving factor in what we cover, issues of concern to Heritage,” says Bluey.
Bluey and Gonzalez were both unwilling to specify what issues they want to investigate. So it’s unclear whether their reporting will be mainly focused on trying to embarrass their ideological opponents or investigating the behavior of, say, corporations and government agencies, as many of the non-ideological foundations they point to as inspirations do.
Based on what they’ve done so far, though, their model seems to be something that splits the difference. The ideal CMPP item is one that uses reporting to correct what they see as liberal bias in the media by illuminating events or narratives that confirm conservative views. Bluey’s reporting on the Gulf is a case in point: while the mainstream media was focused on the ill effects of the oil spill, Bluey looked into the unintended consequences of the government’s response.
Some other material they’ve produced is more like propaganda. Take their on the ground coverage of the fight over Republican Governor Scott Walker’s effort to remove collective bargaining rights for public employees. “While other media outlets did little more than relay union protesters’ grievances,” says Bluey, “we produced a Myths vs. Facts video, scored a sit-down interview with Gov. Scott Walker, and teamed with Reason.tv to report on other state budget showdowns.” The “Myth vs Facts” video portrays the pro-union protesters as unhinged extremists by opening and closing with random women comparing Walker’s actions to those of Nazis, and juxtaposes them with conservatives speaking in a measured tone. Another video gives Walker’s interview snippets with no critical context or even audible questions. It might as well have been produced by his own press office.
The investigative reporter will be, like Bluey, part of Heritage’s communications team, a situation that Bluey says does not present any journalistic quandaries. Gonzales notes that not every story the CMPP has done has been especially ideologically motivated. Gonzales points to Bluey’s reporting on the State Department, via the Voice of America Program, offering funding to the BBC, as an example of non-ideological muckraking. “A story’s a story, that’s what gets my juices flowing,” says Gonzalez, who worked in both the news and opinion sections of The Wall Street Journal.
Bluey points to another conservative think tank that is getting into the reporting game as a model: the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which sponsors a network of statehouse reporters. Started in 2008, they now have reporters in 41 states, covering such issues as local disbursement of the federal stimulus spending program. “The work that think tanks and independent nonprofit journalists produce has never been more needed and valued than it is right now,” writes Jason Stverak, the Franklin Center’s president. Now there’s a rare statement that both liberals and conservatives could agree on.
Ben Adler covers climate-change policy for Grist and is a contributing editor for CJR
Tags: Franklin Center, Heritage Foundation, Rob Bluey