It’s true that some conservative publications have pushed stories into the mainstream media to great political effect. The American Spectator stoked the Whitewater and Paula Jones scandals that plagued President Clinton through much of his tenure, and conservative blogs questioned the veracity of the CBS report in 2004 on President Bush’s National Guard service. But the focus has been either media watchdogging or political score-settling, rather than government and corporate accountability. Carney, who in 2006 published The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money, intends to change that. “When I wrote my book, it was still an odd thing for a conservative to critique corporate America and dig into what they are doing,” says Carney. “It struck people as incongruous. Nowadays, with the bailout and Democrats in power, there is more interest on the right in how concentrated power in both the corporations and government can be abusive.”

The weight of history in conservative journalism, however, will not be easy to shed. Without a tradition of in-depth reporting, some conservative editors say it is hard to find reporters. “The vast majority of pitches I received were from people who did not consider themselves conservatives,” says Conor Friedersdorf, the former features editor of Culture11. And changing that tradition can prove difficult. Just days after Friedersdorf mentioned to me that Tucker Carlson, a talented conservative feature writer and pundit, often wrote his best reported pieces for mainstream or liberal publications, such as Esquire and The New Republic, Carlson was booed at the Conservative Political Action Conference for suggesting that conservatives put more emphasis on reporting and look to The New York Times as a model on the left.

Still, there was a period, well before the Reagan Revolution, that could help inspire and guide today’s reform-minded conservatives. In its first few decades, National Review was roiled by internal debates that spilled onto its pages over the right course for conservatism. And now, after a quarter century of relative contentment with an ever more conservative Republican establishment, it seems that dissent is coming back into style on the right. Even to those conservatives who welcome this shift, it is small consolation for their electoral defeat. But at least their daily reading diet is about to become a lot more interesting. 

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Ben Adler covers climate-change policy for Grist and is a contributing editor for CJR