Matt Labash on Dan Rather’s Jammies, Chipotle vs. Burrito Brothers, and Liberal Love for Distilled Spirits

Matt Labash

Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard, where he has worked since 1995. He has also worked for Albuquerque Monthly, Washingtonian magazine, and The American Spectator. Labash was named by CJR as one of “Ten Young Writers on the Rise” in 2002. He lives in Owings, Maryland, with his wife, his sons Luke and Dean, and his dog, Leviticus. He spoke with Campaign Desk as part of our continuing series of interviews with reporters, editors and commentators covering the election.

Brian Montopoli: Is there a sense among conservative journalists that the media is becoming increasingly liberal?

Matt Labash: I don’t see how the media could be growing more liberal than they’ve been in the past, considering that these days, there are seemingly hundreds of full-time beat cops on liberal media bias patrol.

There is, of course, such a thing as liberal media bias. I’m not saying there isn’t. But I don’t spend much time worrying about it, since I know that if Dan Rather’s eye twitches when he says Dick Cheney’s name, the blogosphere and any number of others will have him crucified by the time he suits up in his jammies that evening. It’s fine to point out liberal media bias when there are obvious instances of it. And even not so obvious. I just worry that some conservatives grow obsessive at times. Especially when the news doesn’t unfold as they want it to, such as in Iraq. The danger is that it becomes a nervous tic, instead of a well-founded critique. It’s like when liberals start talking Halliburton. It’s tiresome, and kind of sad. I suppose it’s good that there’s somebody there to obsess over bias, so as to keep everyone’s nose clean. But the subject, generally speaking, makes me very, very sleepy.

BM: Who got better treatment from the press: George Bush in 2000 or John Kerry in 2004?

ML: Who knows? I actually think Gore got pounded on a lot harder than Bush did in 2000. Then again, he earned it. Kerry’s tending to skate this cycle. It’s a hard thing to quantify, though plenty still try. Anyone who spends two years of their life running for president has two primary objectives: A) to re-make themselves as a minor deity and B) to cast their opponent as Beelzebub. This means they have to lie a lot, or at least embellish with some regularity. And my personal view is that whoever misleads the most should get the roughest treatment. This election, I’d say Kerry should take that honor. Though Bush, to be fair, has spent the better part of a year and a half painting smiley faces on Iraq, when it is still a festering sore, to put it charitably. So this cycle, whichever candidate suffers a good media pasting has it coming to some degree.

BM: Do you think Air America and the liberal documentaries that have come out this year will have much an effect on the election? And do you think conservative talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh make much of an impact?

ML: I can’t imagine Air America won’t have a profound impact on both of its listeners. As for the documentaries and Rush-like commentators, I look at both as being lagging indicators more than leading ones. Both are outgrowths, more than catalysts, for existing sentiments. Both venues give the faithful sanctuary, a place to take communion. Will they turn voters out who wouldn’t have voted otherwise? Hard to say. I think they’re more effective at passing out sheet music so their respective sides know what to sing when inflicting their worldviews at dinner parties.

BM: Is it ever awkward writing for an opinion magazine with a pretty clearly demarcated ideological position? What happens when your opinions don’t quite square with those of your editors?

ML: I’ll never forget what my editor, Bill Kristol, said when I told him I thought the war in Iraq was a bad play. He looked at me, as a father looks at a son, and said, “Pack your things.” Actually, that doesn’t happen at The Standard. We like to think of ourselves as free thinkers. We are free to say what we want. We are free to make fools of ourselves within reason, as readers of my pieces can attest.

Some voices are amplified more than others at our magazine, which gives us more of an appearance of homogeneity. For instance, during the 2000 election, Kristol was generally regarded as a John McCain advocate, so we became regarded as a pro-McCain organ. But when others of us felt like smacking around McCain in print, as we periodically did, we did so without inhibition or penalty. It didn’t get noticed much, since everybody already had a preconceived notion of what we were. At our magazine, not everybody’s pro-war. Not everybody’s pro-Bush. We do all tend to tack conservative, from neo- to paleo-, whatever those labels mean these days. But there are plenty of healthy disagreements within our halls. Our senior editor Andy Ferguson likes Burrito Brothers, while I’m a Chipotle man, to give but one example. If we’re not calling each other out for duels like the late ’80s New Republic, it’s because most of us have our specialties, or perhaps tendencies would be a better word for it. I tend not to write prescriptive foreign policy pieces, so I won’t have much occasion to publicly cross swords with the guys who do. Which doesn’t mean we don’t privately try to run up scores and humiliate each other. A shot in the teeth, here. An ill-timed I-told-you-so, there. We just try to be gentlemen about it.

BM: The world of DC journalism is pretty small — and pretty partisan. Seems like the New Republic/American Prospect/Washington Monthly folks all hang out together, for example. Do you feel like there are separate social universes for people depending on where they fall on the ideological spectrum? When the Weekly Standard folks have parties, do any liberals show up?

ML: I don’t see it as being that severe. My lunch rotation sees people from all walks. I don’t choose my friends because of their politics. I base it on a really strange notion: whether I actually like them. Or more important, whether they’ll pick up a check now and then. I’d much rather keep company with an engaging anarchist than a bore who is in lockstep with me ideologically.

As for the parties, we unfortunately don’t have that many. Most of us at The Standard are family men with children. But we’ll be having a decent one in New York during the convention, which we’re co-sponsoring with the good folks from the Distilled Spirits Council. My liberal friends, it turns out, love distilled spirits. They’re all hitting us up for invites. We will welcome them, of course, with open arms. Then, when they leave, in the spirit of partisan Washington, we’ll throw out the silverware.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.