Liberal publications seriously engage with culture, while conservatives have largely ignored popular culture, except to decry its excesses. The Nation and The New Republic publish sections of literary and artistic reviews of everything from film and painting to novels and scientific nonfiction. They have launched major cultural critics, such as James Wood, Lee Siegel, and Louis Menand. Salon and Slate, the two leading left-of-center online magazines, feature as much cultural and lifestyle content as they do political features.
“The establishment places on the right won’t run a cover on comic books because their readers are all seventy years old,” says Julian Sanchez, a libertarian writer who wrote a cover story for the liberal American Prospect on the emergence of anti-Bush comic books. “In print, the limitation is their market more than the editors’ interests.” (Of course, the print subscribers to magazines like The American Prospect and The Nation are famously geriatric as well.)
But these new conservative Web sites are not bound by such limitations. They don’t have an existing subscriber base and Internet users are younger than print readers. The difference is apparent, and not only on sites that are explicitly cultural. Frum’s wonky New Majority featured a debate about whether sports fans are more conservative than other people. In its short life, Culture11 framed its mission as a “center-right Slate.” Typical articles included an examination of the declining television ratings of the Miss America Pageant, and a trend piece on humorous children’s books. Big Hollywood, meanwhile, is expressly banking on these new realities. “Any Republicans thinking we can win on our ideas of freedom and liberty have missed the pop-cultural train that has left the station,” says Andrew Breitbart, the founder of Big Hollywood and an alumnus of The Drudge Report. “Obama’s on it and we don’t have a track and we don’t have a train. Conservatives have abdicated their obligation to be oriented toward pop culture. If you want to be ascendant, you have to engage pop culture.” By contrast, the cultural sensibility on display on the National Review’s Web site (never mind the print edition) is comically out of touch, epitomized by a recent discussion about the genius of the late Ricardo Montalbán, a former Chrysler spokesman who starred in the television program Fantasy Island, which aired from 1977–84.
An even more interesting—and potentially important—aspect of this emerging ethos in conservative journalism is an acknowledgement of the need to close the reporting gap that has long existed between liberal and conservative publications. Many liberal journals, most notably Mother Jones, prize muckraking investigative reporting. The Nation funds in-depth reporting at numerous publications through its Nation Institute Investigative Fund. The Washington Monthly has a long history of burrowing deep into the public-policy-making process and lobbying. Talking Points Memo, one of the more evolved liberal news sites, won a Polk award in 2007 for its work unraveling the U.S. Attorneys firing scandal.
Conservative publications, in contrast, have generally opined, with the occasional whimsical reported dispatch. Breaking hard news was simply not in their DNA. Politico’s Jonathan Martin, who briefly worked at National Review, wrote an article suggesting that this gap hurt Republicans in the election because they were not as able to drive news stories, and that it has also led to more liberal journalists than conservatives joining mainstream publications. Martin attributed the difference to one of tradition: liberal journalists grew up aspiring to be hard-nosed investigative reporters like Woodward and Bernstein, while conservatives grew up suspicious of mainstream papers and aspiring to be the next William F. Buckley Jr.
Peter Suderman, who was the arts editor for Culture11, adds: “It is partly the Buckley model and partly the tendency to argue from first principles. If you’re a college conservative, you’re told to read Edmund Burke and Milton Friedman. We’ve built up our pundit ranks at the expense of reporters and critics.”
This new interest in reporting is taking root elsewhere in the conservative media world. The Washington Examiner, a conservative free daily tabloid, recently hired Tim Carney to cover influence peddling in Democratic Washington. The Examiner also hired Byron York, who was widely regarded as National Review’s top reporter, to cover politics for the print newspaper and for its new Examiner Politics Web site. “York is a really good fit for a right-leaning version of TPM,” says David Weigel, of the Washington Independent. “He does what Greg Sargent [a blogger who worked for TPM and recently joined Who Runs Gov, a new Web site launched by The Washington Post] does—gets on the damn phone—or damn e-mail or damn IM—and asks Democratic and Republican staffers and elected officials questions that drive the stories of the day.”