Q&A: A scrappy Wall Street Journal reporter on his jump to Breitbart

The news that respected Wall Street reporter John Carney is leaving his role at The Wall Street Journal to head up a new vertical at the right-wing news site Breitbart raised eyebrows among media types late Monday. As Bloomberg’s Joshua Green first reported, Carney will lead a team of contributors in establishing a business, markets, and economics news site that is informed by what Carney describes as “an optimism about the potential for the American economy.” 

CJR reached out to Carney to find out why he was leaving an established, reputable media brand for a digital upstart that often finds itself mired in controversies stemming from its far-right agenda. Below are excerpts of our conversation, which have been edited for clarity.

What attracted you to the position with Breitbart, and how did it come about?

I got my start in journalism at digital startups (Gawker, Dealbreaker.com, Business Insider) so when Breitbart wanted to expand into [business coverage] I thought it was a great opportunity to get back involved in [the startup] world. I’ve loved The Wall Street Journal, and I’ve learned a lot in my time here (three years), but I have always had this very digital focus and a sort of entrepreneurial, startup energy. The opportunity to get back into that was really attractive to me.

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How would you characterize Breitbart’s current economic and business coverage?

It hasn’t been a focus for them. They have done some, and they’ve concentrated on their strengths. We’re going to be informed by an optimism about the potential for the American economy and economic nationalism and populism–the idea that the American worker has gotten a raw deal and that we can get a better deal.


Could you explain the term “economic populism”?

A lot of our politics has [come to] focus on petty issues while our economy is actually rotting at the core. Many Americans have not seen their incomes improve in decades and, in fact, a large and important section of America has actually seen their fortunes decline over the years. Economic populism is an economics that sees its vision of success as improving and bettering the prospects of all Americans. It’s not enough to grow if too much of that growth is concentrated at the top, or if the middle classes are deteriorating. Economic populism is both a vision of success and an optimism that it can be done.


Will you have any input into the editorial direction of the site more broadly, or are you going to stick to business, finance, and economics?

I’m going to stick to business, finance, and economics. Economics and finance crosses over into politics a lot in terms of policy, taxes, so there’s not a completely bright line between the two, but my experience as a journalist is in business, finance, and economics. That’s why they asked me to come on board, so that’s what I’m going to be focused on.


What’s the response been from friends and colleagues to the news?

They’ve been really great. I probably walked in [to the Journal] this morning with a bit of trepidation. It’s not every day when you change jobs that it ends up in headlines. Usually you get to tell people in person before they read about it somewhere, and while I had told The Wall Street Journal that I was going to leave I had not told them exactly what the next step was going to be. But everybody has been fantastic. 


Breitbart has a
reputation as a breeding ground for racist, sexist, and xenophobic views. Does that aspect of the site concern you?

I did a thorough review of everything at Breitbart, and I don’t think that that reputation is justified. I think it is a site that cares about a very broad swath of Americans. It’s a center-right, populist website, and I’m not going to be doing politics explicitly, but I also don’t think that that reputation is deserved. Very few people really got the rise of Trump as right as [Breitbart] did and I think they deserve a lot of credit for being ahead of the curve on that. We’re going to use that as our model. Perhaps a lot of the reason some of us in mainstream media have been behind the curve is because we bought into too many of the orthodoxies. Breitbart’s ability to look beyond those has really been an asset for them, and it’s one that we’re going to carry on into business, markets, and finance.


There’s also been some
controversy over recent days about Breitbart spreading fake news and conspiracy theories.

I haven’t seen any of that. What I can tell you is that I’ve been involved in journalism for a long time. There’s not going to be any fake news emanating from Breitbart. Frankly I haven’t even seen it, so I don’t buy it.


Breitbart has emerged from being a fringe, right-wing website to being a significant media player over the course of the election campaign. What do you attribute that to?

I think it was because they were able to reach beyond a lot of the cliches of politics. [The mainstream media] had gotten so used to conservative-versus-liberal, Republican-versus-Democrat, that it was ignoring a lot of really important issues to people–issues that both helped Breitbart rise in terms of its readership and helped Donald Trump get elected, frankly. I think America was ready for something new and different. Breitbart provided that, and I think that’s been the secret of their success.


What attracts you about working for Breitbart?

They’re daring. They’re unorthodox. They’re willing to take chances, and they have a very single-minded dedication to not trying to be respectable, but as I look at it, to just tell the truth as they see it. And that’s what I want to do. That’s what I see them as doing, and I find that spirit of willingness to be the dissenting truth-tellers very attractive.


What role do you see Breitbart playing in the media landscape over the coming years, and do you think your employment is a way of making the site more legitimate?

I think Breitbart is going to be building on their past success to expand even more. I think that the media landscape is always changing, and I think there’s a big role for a place like Breitbart to play in the changing landscape. 


Do you think your economics and finance coverage will appeal to both sides of the political spectrum, or is it targeted at a conservative audience?

I think some of those dichotomies of conservative and liberal have worn out their usefulness. I think that our coverage will appeal to people who work in manufacturing, people who are union members, people who live in towns like Wheeling, West Virginia, where the steel mill has been on the rocks for years. They may have been traditional Democrats for years and voted Republican this time around. I don’t think of it as having a purely partisan appeal. I think it will have a pretty broad appeal, and at the same we’re going to appeal to people on Wall Street. I have been writing for a Wall Street audience for years, and I think we’re also going to be able to write for them.


Breitbart was pro-Trump during the campaign. Do you have any concerns about your ability to remain impartial?

No. I have a long history of writing about very powerful people, whether they’re on Wall Street or in Washington, and I have never been somebody who’s afraid to speak the truth to power. I’ll be a cheerleader for anything people are doing that’s right and good, and I’ll be a critic of people, whether they are in the private sector, in the public sector, or in the media, when they go wrong. I think holding the powerful to account is at the core of what journalism is, and we’re going to do that. No one has immunity, regardless of what their office or name may be.

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Shelley Hepworth is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymiranda.