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The Right's New Reporting: Big Journalism and the Daily Caller

5 years ago
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Two new Web sites crashed the D.C. media scene in the past week. Both are the works of well-known conservative media personalities, and both say their goal is to do what the old media seems to do less and less of these days: break big stories.

Andrew Breitbart, the former editor of the Drudge Report and "primary developer" of the Huffington Post, who now operates his own ring of right-wing sites, launched Big Journalism in the afterglow of sister site Big Government's triumph in breaking the ACORN scandal. He says it will produce "solidly backed-up stories" that hold the mainstream media accountable for its liberal bias. Tucker Carlson, the former co-host of CNN's "Crossfire" and a widely published print journalist, launched the The Daily Caller with $3 million from a Republican donor. He told The Washington Post that, in addition to aggregating, the Caller would distinguish itself with original reporting.

Like the Republican Party, conservative media has struggled to adapt to changing times. Rush Limbaugh may dominate the airwaves and Fox News may be making more money than all its competitors combined, but the left wins the Web by a landslide. Culture11, envisioned as a right-leaning answer to Slate's lefty contrarian news magazine format, didn't see its six-month anniversary. Meanwhile, left-leaning sites like The Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo have etched themselves into the Beltway media circuit as must-check destinations for anyone working and writing in the capital--partly on the merits of their swift, thorough aggregation.

As Gawker head honcho Nick Denton said earlier this year, the proliferation of aggregation and news-recycling blogs has driven up the premium on scoops; there's now no better way to win the numbers war than by breaking a big story. Breitbart no doubt got a taste of that reality when his site Big Government got exclusive access to James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles' ACORN video stings. The Daily Caller and Big Journalism, both of which aim to cover stories the mainstream media will not, can be seen as the right's latest attempt to participate in the pursuit of information.

They could also be seen as competitors, but only in the sense that they are both new Web sites founded by conservatives who think the media is too liberal. They won't be competing for page views as much as they will be competing over which vision for conservatives on the Web will land broadest appeal and heaviest impact on public discourse. The contrast of their approaches in many ways mirrors the battle for the soul of the Republican Party: a diverse collective that values pragmatism and collaboration, or a band of bloody-minded purists who see bipartisanship as treason.

Big Journalism drips with the terms, narratives and dubious grammar of the Tea Party movement. On its pages, everyone is conspiring to hide this or that fact that proves conservatism's great worth, or is hiding behind objectivity while promoting this or that "agenda." Big Journalism is obsessed with agendas -- everyone else's and especially its own. Its items are tired right-wing grievances with the media, such as one post that berates Time magazine for refusing to embrace the fringe conservative notion that a "bi-partisan style" equals treasonous liberalism. Another accuses the media of whitewashing Islam. Whatever you call this, it's certainly not the "solidly backed-up stories, sharp points of view, and really great writing" Breitbart has been boasting about.

Breitbart himself best captures the site's paranoid, bellicose voice in a screed against a Business Insider reporter who interviewed him and then (he alleges) deliberately misquoted him in an "obvious hit job." He accused her of using her publication as a front for Gawker (which shares content with the Insider), then refused to have a rational discourse with her editor when they offer to change his quotes. Phony drama may make for clicks, but it's not journalism.

The Daily Caller seems to have rejected this sort of sensational, bristling conservatism before it ever hit the Web. Carlson has downplayed his site's ideological foundations and hired a number of people who say they disagree with him politically. He says he will not enforce an ideological orthodoxy. The site launched with a long, reported account of the third White House "gatecrasher," written by Carlson himself. Elsewhere, pieces provide solid reporting on job stats and Massachusetts' crippling health care budget. There is fresh work, quotes and the ability to form sentences that do not seem to have been written by sixth graders.

Because the Caller doesn't ooze agenda and cliché, and because it offers even, newspaper-quality reporting and writing, it is much more likely to achieve broad attention outside of people who already read RedState or Townhall. This afternoon, the site jumped on the story of the day -- Sarah Palin's Fox News deal -- with a big headline and photo, just like Talking Points Memo and Politico. Before the end of its first day, it was fitting in alongside its counterparts and, as a resource for an aggregator like me, is already a welcome addition to the fold. (Even Gawker's crotchety Alex Pareene mostly approved.) It gives young conservative reporters a place to pursue less-covered stories, but also to write for a general audience that isn't interested in wannabe-comic partisan point-scoring. In sharp contrast, nothing that has yet appeared on Big Journalism is original, factual or broad enough to interest even a moderate Republican.

Breitbart is right to champion the abandonment of the pretense of political objectivity that the Web has spawned, as he does in his uncharacteristically nuanced statement of friendship with the Caller. It is much better to know the biases of your information source. But catering to a political viewpoint is no excuse for abandoning quality reporting, writing, editing, fairness and good taste, or of trading solid information for political fistfighting. In her welcome to the Caller, Breitbart's former boss Ariana Huffington called the tendency to report the news through a red-and-blue lens "the fallback canard of lazy journalism everywhere." Breitbart pays lip service to the idea that journalism should be about discovering information, not spitting and spinning. But it's Carlson who is closer to making that a reality for the right.

Follow David Sessions on Twitter.
Filed Under: Media, Conservatives

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