Business of News

Jonah Goldberg is ‘ideologically grounded, but I feel politically homeless’

March 13, 2019
Photo credit: Terry ‘TJ’ Johnson

Jonah Goldberg is not just looking for a fight. He’s hoping for a “big, internal, honking fight” to revive the Republican Party, and to fuel the high-profile new media outlet he announced last month with Steve Hayes, a former editor-in-chief of the Review’s long-time rival, The Weekly Standard, to form a new conservative media company.

Goldberg’s venture is notable in part because he’s in it, one of the few sought-out, reasonable voices in media today. But it’s also worth watching because of Goldberg’s vow to break through the siloes much of journalism now finds itself in. The new outlet, he says, will steer away from fan service when it launches this summer. “So much news we see, the audience already agrees with what they’re reading, and they want to be right,” he says. Goldberg plans to challenge the groupthink that he sees accompany “across the ideological spectrum” with “breaking political and cultural firestorms,” like the Covington kids or the Kavanaugh hearings. “If a tulip bulb mania were to break out, we want to be the place that explains both why it’s happening and why you shouldn’t sell your house to buy more tulips.”

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Followers of Goldberg, liberal conservatism’s most prominent delegate and an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, might see a stand being taken: Rich Lowry, the editor-in-chief of the National Review, hosts contributors like Victor Davis Hanson and Dennis Prager, aligned with Trump against the left, and other writers supportive of the president. Goldberg rejects that characterization. “It’s not about Trump, and no one is pushing me out—I’m not voting with my feet,” he says. “This is a new opportunity, it’s good for me professionally and psychologically, and it’s good for the conservative movement and the journalistic marketplace.”

Besides, he adds, heroes Bill Kristol and William F. Buckley built institutions. (National Review, Buckley’s legacy, was built to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop!”)

Goldberg and Hayes plan to start their project, still unnamed, this summer, with newsletters and podcasts—“NPR is the 800-pound gorilla in recorded news podcasts,” he says. “We want to get into that space.” Then, in September, they’ll launch online with daily reported news and long magazine stories, produced by a staff of 15 to 20. A print publication remains a possibility for later. Goldberg says they have an “exciting number of investors who are interested.”

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So what’s the pitch? “We’re interested in topics that are covered a lot by the mainstream media, but from a fairly conventional perspective, or that aren’t covered much at all because they don’t fit the conventional narrative. We’re also very interested in the conservatives and Republicans who are trying to reconcile long-established conservative principles with the tectonic shifts beneath them. So we might cover the work done by crisis pregnancy centers to reduce the abortion rate in this country. We might do a deep dive into how our politics have become performative, particularly at the presidential level. The presidential historian Richard Neustadt argued that the chief power of the president was persuasion. But in recent decades, as the presidency has become an avatar in the culture wars, presidents (and presidential aspirants) care more about playing a role for their fans—and foes—than actually winning over new voters.”

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Goldberg, who started at the National Review in 1998, laments Trump’s character. “One of the problems with Trumpism,” he wrote last week, “is the way people feel the need to redefine their definitions of good character so that Trump can clear the bar.” This is hardly the first time Goldberg has put forth this view; in December, he wrote that neoconservatism had become “what it started out as, an invidious term used by its opponents to single out and demonize people as inauthentic, un-American, unreliable, or otherwise suspicious heretics, traitors, or string-pullers.” In comparison, he wrote, there was a “bizarre need of some of Trump’s biggest fans to be dumb or dishonest in his defense.”

Goldberg calls the National Review “the best analysis and opinion out there”—“I’ll sing the National Review’s praises, but in terms of reporting, there’s a lot more demand than there is supply.” His venture with Hayes, he says, will fill a void of reporting in conservative media. “The Examiner does good news, but it’s not doing an enormous amount of serious investigative news and grown-up opinion writing,” he explains. “Right-of-center news consumers are hungry for more sources they won’t be embarrassed to invoke when speaking to liberal relatives around the dinner table. If a conservative person asks a liberal about something crazy Pelosi has done, and the liberal asks, Where did you hear that? and the answer is Breitbart or Infowars, it’s immediately self-discrediting. We want to be a source both the left and right would see as responsible, with less boosterism for a single party or candidate. There’s a hunger for that among the mainstream media too. We’ll be fun and playful, we’ll piss you off from time to time, but we don’t want to do any clickbait.”

He cautions that he and Hayes won’t follow the lead of Fox, though he credits Roger Ailes for being the first to recognize that the right-of-center news consumer was underserved by the existing market. “I’ve taken this position for years about The New York Times and NPR. Yes, they have a liberal bias, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good news organizations. There’s bias everywhere. Consumers just need to have a varied news diet.” He continues, “The front page of the Times historically set the news agenda for the country. Simply by going against that agenda, the news side of Fox could counter it.”

He and Hayes will use a similar formula. “One of the advantages of being right-of-center is that we’re kind of outside the fish bowl. It gives us a certain amount of independence to pick the stories to cover that we’re not finding elsewhere.” As the 2020 campaigns rev up, Goldberg sees no use in following the big outlets in sending large cohorts to the conventions. “We plan to pick targets that deserve it, and we’ll have fun with that,” he says, “but we’ll do it in a manner you don’t see enough from either side right now. . . . We need to see less picking up the worst example of the other side and claiming it’s representative of the opposition. Whether it’s a MAGA-hat-wearing jerk or a resistance-Antifa jerk, they are not representative of their party.”

Left feeling isolated among conservative news consumers, Goldberg says his conflicts with peers give him a greater purpose. “People keep asking me if I feel ideologically homeless,” he says. “It proves my point. I’ve never been more ideologically grounded, but I feel politically homeless. My role as a pundit who assumes Republicans are more ‘right’ than Democrats, is no longer the case. I’m for skepticism and distrust of all politicians now. I try not to make friends with politicians. I succeed most of the time. It’s like research scientists and lab animals. Don’t get attached. It’s harder to stick a needle in Fluffy.”

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Amanda Darrach is a contributor to CJR and a visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.