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.”
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.