If Good Reporting Was In Any Way Useful to Conservatives, They'd Already Be Doing It


Ben Howe, a longtime conservative media veteran and former Red State contributor (until the site’s owners purged the site of its anti-Trump voices), appears in the Daily Beast with a polite request of his compatriots:

Sure, the conservative media has solid opinion writers and deep-thinking essayists by the handful. And within that hand are diverse opinions, notwithstanding recent, glaring errors in judgment at some outlets. There is depth. There is talent. However, there is almost no original reporting.

Howe tells a story of conservative reporting flourishing in the Obama years only to dry up in the Trump era, replaced by punditry and conspiracy-peddling. I may tell the story a little differently, but when it comes to his analysis of the conservative media sphere in the current moment, we are mainly in agreement. “With a few exceptions, the big money on the right seems disinterested in this.”

Curiously, Howe doesn’t really explain why he thinks the money dried up for it. I have some thoughts.

The main barrier to the conservative media doing more serious reporting, it seems to me, is that serious reporting is incompatible with the mission of the conservative movement.

This has very little to do with the philosophical underpinnings of American conservatism. A hostility to original reporting isn’t necessarily inherent to the Right—it’s just inherent to the Right we are currently stuck with. It is difficult, for example, to go out and report on the doings of the Trump administration and not come away with stories about how it is a den of incompetents and grifters, led by an unstable crook, without some very creative interpretations of whatever facts you uncover.

And so, for the foreseeable future, most serious efforts to uncover new information and present it accurately and with useful context will come into conflict with the aim of amassing power for conservatives and convincing people to vote for Republicans.

This is why the right can’t create its own effective, responsible, respectable reporting shops. There are plenty of right-leaning reporters out there doing good work (the best ones work for nonpartisan legacy publications, which, again, is not a coincidence), but conservative movement-affiliated media will never value original reporting so long as original reporting is less instrumentally helpful to the cause than propaganda and misinformation.

In fact, the ultimate proof that rigorous, and fair enterprise journalism is of no use to the right is that they aren’t already doing it. The very, very well-funded conservative movement has shown a willingness to throw donor money at anything that they think might help it to win and maintain power. They have trampled over longstanding political norms, funded dirty tricksters and ratfuckers, and purchased local television stations across the country and forced them to air pro-Trump propaganda. They throw money at winning college campus elections! If anyone on the right believed good journalism would help the right in any way, they’d be funding it.

The right does have a successful information-gathering apparatus, and it is good at opposition research, and much of that information and opposition research eventually finds its way into reporting, but the realization that the audience for conservative media was completely uninterested in accuracy, and that there were no serious electoral consequences for inaccuracy, basically showed that there was no point in taking a lot of time and money to uncover and report true things.

In 2009, Tucker Carlson appeared at CPAC, the annual movement conservative convention, and told the crowd that, despite what they had been told for years, The New York Times strives for accuracy in a way conservative news outlets don’t, and that the conservative movement needed to emulate them instead of only trying to tear them down. The audience booed him.

Then, the next year, Carlson founded a right-wing media outlet, the Daily Caller. Curiously, he did not follow his own advice at the Daily Caller, instead giving readers the usual red-meat commentary along with unabashed titillation and, most importantly, “reporting” that was frequently, embarrassingly wrong. The site’s executive editor came not from a respected journalism background but from the corporate influence-peddling industry. From its low beginnings, the Caller has somehow managed to fall even further. Carlson himself, meanwhile, returned to cable, to host a Fox News show that increasingly doesn’t bother to hide its white nationalist messaging.

What happened? The truth is, Carlson was “right” in 2009 about the worth and value of accurate enterprise reporting, but wrong about its worth and value to conservatives. It was the media version of the story of the RNC’s post-2012 “post-mortem,” which said the party couldn’t solely appeal to aging whites if it wanted to remain viable, only for the party to respond by nominating and then electing Donald Trump four years later on a platform of restoring aging whites to their rightful place atop the American hierarchy of power. As Carlson quickly learned, the way to make a successful conservative site was to make a shitty one, and the way to make a successful conservative show was to make a racist one. If Howe wishes to remain in the conservative media world, he’ll learn the same lessons. Thankfully for him, the liberal media always has room for conservatives seeking respectability.

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