Heresy on the Right

A handful of new Web sites try to rewire conservative media
May 18, 2009

Electoral defeat tends to spawn bouts of ideological tinkering—when the Democrats lost the presidential election in 2004, a clutch of books soon emerged, bristling with prescriptions for the ailing left. Last year’s resounding losses for the GOP, from John McCain to dog-catcher, will no doubt produce a similar outpouring of what-now books. For some on the right, though, the revolution has already begun, and their catalysts for rethinking conservative politics are a handful of new, online publications.

These new outlets, all of which have cropped up in the last year, are varied in their focus: Big Hollywood examines the nexus of politics and pop culture; The Next Right is a group blog run by political consultants that counsels Republicans on how to run modern campaigns; and The New Majority, launched by David Frum, is a magazine of ideas designed to lead conservatives out of the political wilderness. A fourth new outlet, Culture11, was built for narrative nonfiction and arts criticism, but it folded on January 27 (five months after it launched), a victim of the sharp drop in its investors’ stock portfolios.

So each has its niche, but all share certain important features: they are online-only, more engaged with popular culture than traditional conservative media, and, except for Big Hollywood, eager to challenge conservative orthodoxy whenever necessary. They may make the conservative opinion journalism of tomorrow look a lot like the liberal opinion journalism of yesterday.

For roughly the last twenty-five years, conservative opinion journalism has generally followed Ronald Reagan’s eleventh commandment: thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican. Liberal magazines, on the other hand, prized diversity of opinion, even contrarianism. The Nation, you may recall, invited Christopher Hitchens to endorse President Bush for reelection in its pages.

Conservative publications, both in print and online, have generally competed to be the farthest right and the most extreme in their denunciations of “liberal treason.” National Review, The Weekly Standard, and The American Spectator—the three most influential conservative print magazines (not counting more academic quarterlies such as Commentary and City Journal)—have consistently backed the policies of the Republican Party and its leaders in Congress and the White House, even when those leaders seemingly betrayed their principles. Those publications didn’t complain, for instance, when George W. Bush abandoned his campaign pledge to advance a “humble” foreign policy to launch the Iraq invasion. And when they have criticized Republicans, it has usually been from the right. The Weekly Standard famously demanded that Donald Rumsfeld resign for not having committed enough resources to winning in Iraq. Conservative Web sites, such as David Horowitz’s Front Page and Townhall.com, are even more strident. When National Review dropped Ann Coulter’s column after she wrote, “We should invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity,” Front Page welcomed her.

Frustration with such orthodoxy boiled over in the final months of the ill-fated McCain campaign, and Sarah Palin became a major symbol of the divide between tradition and evolution on the right. When Palin, who excited the Republicans’ social-conservative base, was criticized for her lack of gravitas by National Review contributor Kathleen Parker, it provoked such an outcry from readers that another NR contributor, Christopher Buckley, took his Palin-bashing to a mainstream publication.

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David Frum, who was one of Palin’s detractors, quit National Review to start The New Majority, which he hopes will do for conservatives what The New Republic did for liberals in the 1980s. Frum says his goal is “changing the nature of the party,” and “creating a reformist message.” Specifically, he advocates that Republicans define solutions to problems like health care and the environment, which are typically Democratic territory, and “dial back the social issues.”

“Until yesterday, it was unheard of for a new right-wing organization to be attacking the party from the left,” says David Weigel, a reporter at the Washington Independent who covers the conservative movement. But The New Majority has exactly that purpose.

The Next Right, a group blog started by young Republican political consultants in May 2008, draws frequent comparisons to Daily Kos, the hugely popular left-leaning group blog. “There’s a legitimate criticism that [the right] has not fully embraced modern ways of communicating, including the Internet,” says Patrick Ruffini, one of the site’s founders. “We’ve become a little sclerotic and bureaucratic. We need new blood. The Web is a medium for activism. It’s National Review for a new generation.”

The growth of centrist heterodoxy and engagement with culture in conservative publications are linked by more than their resemblance to their liberal models. Both spring from the recognition by a younger generation of conservatives that trends in popular culture, such as an expanding tolerance of homosexuality, favor Democrats.

Liberal publications seriously engage with culture, while conservatives have largely ignored popular culture, except to decry its excesses. The Nation and The New Republic publish sections of literary and artistic reviews of everything from film and painting to novels and scientific nonfiction. They have launched major cultural critics, such as James Wood, Lee Siegel, and Louis Menand. Salon and Slate, the two leading left-of-center online magazines, feature as much cultural and lifestyle content as they do political features.

“The establishment places on the right won’t run a cover on comic books because their readers are all seventy years old,” says Julian Sanchez, a libertarian writer who wrote a cover story for the liberal American Prospect on the emergence of anti-Bush comic books. “In print, the limitation is their market more than the editors’ interests.” (Of course, the print subscribers to magazines like The American Prospect and The Nation are famously geriatric as well.)

But these new conservative Web sites are not bound by such limitations. They don’t have an existing subscriber base and Internet users are younger than print readers. The difference is apparent, and not only on sites that are explicitly cultural. Frum’s wonky New Majority featured a debate about whether sports fans are more conservative than other people. In its short life, Culture11 framed its mission as a “center-right Slate.” Typical articles included an examination of the declining television ratings of the Miss America Pageant, and a trend piece on humorous children’s books. Big Hollywood, meanwhile, is expressly banking on these new realities. “Any Republicans thinking we can win on our ideas of freedom and liberty have missed the pop-cultural train that has left the station,” says Andrew Breitbart, the founder of Big Hollywood and an alumnus of The Drudge Report. “Obama’s on it and we don’t have a track and we don’t have a train. Conservatives have abdicated their obligation to be oriented toward pop culture. If you want to be ascendant, you have to engage pop culture.” By contrast, the cultural sensibility on display on the National Review’s Web site (never mind the print edition) is comically out of touch, epitomized by a recent discussion about the genius of the late Ricardo Montalbán, a former Chrysler spokesman who starred in the television program Fantasy Island, which aired from 1977–84.

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.

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. 

Ben Adler is a staff writer for Grist and a contributor to CJR.