Mike Flynn thought it was a crazy idea. When James O’Keefe, a 25-year-old, self-styled investigative journalist, first approached him last August about promoting a series of candid-camera style videos on the community organizing group ACORN, Flynn, an old Washington hand and editor of the new libertarian-themed website Big Government, initially dismissed the project as far-fetched.
It didn’t temper his skepticism that the videos in question featured O’Keefe visiting ACORN offices in a pimp costume, along with a friend, Hannah Giles, dressed as a prostitute, and asking for advice on how to buy a house to run as a brothel for underage Latin American prostitutes. “If James and Hannah had told me ahead of time that they were going to do this, I would have told them, ‘There is no way in hell this is going to work,’” Flynn recalls.
Then he saw the videos. Even with the outrageous get-up—O’Keefe in his grandmother’s faded chinchilla fur coat, red-banded fedora, and dollar-store walking cane, Giles in a tight-fitting leather top and hoop earrings—the pair somehow produced a trove of phenomenally rich material. As they secretly videotaped, ACORN staffers in Washington, Brooklyn, San Diego, and Baltimore offered them instructions on how to evade taxes, skirt legal restrictions, and misrepresent their business to get their fictional whorehouse up and running. In their decidedly unorthodox way, O’Keefe and Giles had landed a major scoop. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this worked,’” Flynn says.
If the videos were proof positive of O’Keefe and Giles’s journalistic instincts, their eventual success, fueled by mass media exposure, was a testament to the growing sophistication of the conservative media. Suspecting, rightly as it turned out, that mainstream media outlets would initially ignore the ACORN videos, Flynn devised a strategy to market them for maximum impact with his friend, the web entrepreneur and Drudge Report veteran Andrew Breitbart. They decided to release the videos, one by one, to politically friendly Fox News. At the same time, they moved up the launch of Big Government and posted transcripts, lest critics claim that the videos had been doctored.
Their strategy worked to perfection. With Fox bringing the videos to national attention, and with Big Government and other conservative sites stoking the embers of the controversy, the ACORN story became a sensation even as the mainstream press looked the other way. By the time the ensuing storm died down, ACORN Chief Organizer Bertha Lewis had announced an independent review of the group’s operations; some of the employees captured on video had been fired; Congress voted to cut off federal funding to ACORN; and the Census Bureau severed ties with the organization. The conservative commentariat had scored a major political victory. And they had done so using the tactics—investigative reporting and savvy editorial marketing—of the mainstream media they had long reviled.
The ACORN story is just one recent example of the rise of the muckraking right. If the Bush years marked a heyday for liberal sites like Talking Points Memo and the Daily Kos, which combined independent reporting, punditry, and grassroots activism, the Obama era has seen the right embrace muckraking with similar success.
Just ask Anthony “Van” Jones. A onetime Bay Area Marxist known for his inflammatory rhetoric, Jones was appointed the Obama administration’s special advisor on green jobs. In early September, however, Jones resigned his post in the wake of revelations that he had signed a “Truther” petition suggesting that the Bush administration had deliberately allowed the 9/11 attacks to provide a pretext for the Iraq war. Jones disavowed the petition, but the backlash was too intense.
That part of the story is by now well known. Less appreciated is that the scoop that brought down Jones started with a lone conservative blogger in Missouri.
Jim Hoft, a St. Louis native who works in human resources and runs the blog Gateway Pundit, was the first to bring attention to the 2004 petition , which he found on the “Truther” website 911Truth.org. The revelation prompted Jones to apologize, though he insisted that the petition did not “reflect my views now or ever.” But that defense collapsed the next day, when Hoft uncovered a 2002 press release on the online conspiracy hub Rense.com announcing a march to California Senator Diane Feinstein’s office to demand an investigation into 9/11. Among the questions the marchers wanted answered: “Why is the evidence being destroyed when an investigation of the World Trade Center collapse is needed?” But the truly explosive finding was one of the names on the march’s “organizing committee”: Van Jones.
Hoft’s spadework would prove crucial. Liberal groups had originally insisted that the embattled Van Jones was the victim of right-wing character assassination, and the Obama administration disregarded criticism of its controversial staffer. But the administration’s hand was forced when Hoft exposed Jones as a declared 9/11 skeptic. “Turned out this was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Hoft says.
There was, of course, nothing groundbreaking about Hoft’s approach. It was the kind of driven digging that any professional reporter would recognize. But Hoft’s scoop became an internet sensation because he was covering a story many larger media organizations wouldn’t touch. “The [New York] Times not only ignored the controversy, but the first time people read [the story], it was 36 hours after he had resigned,” Hoft recalls. “I am just a guy in flyover country; I’m not a media organization. But there’s an opening for me because I can cover stories that the mainstream media will not. I can add facts to the debate that can change people’s minds. There’s a great opportunity there.”
Hoft is not the only blogger on the right to recognize it. “The right has never really gotten investigative journalism,” says Erick Erickson, managing editor of the popular conservative group blog Red State. “By and large, the right is still fixated on punditry. It is what we know.”
Erickson is trying to change that. Although Red State still traffics mostly in punditry, the site has begun to break stories. In late September, Red State got hold of Bertha Lewis’s rolodex and reported her close ties to Patrick Gaspard, the White House Director of Political Affairs—a revelation particularly problematic for the Obama administration as it sought to distance itself from ACORN. Red State has also become the go-to source for news about prominent GOPers. When Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty became the first sitting Republican governor to endorse conservative candidate Doug Hoffman in New York’s much-watched 23rd district congressional race, Red State was the first site to report the news.
Erickson allows that Red State lags behind its liberal counterparts in some important ways. Left-wing sites like the Huffington Post, firedoglake, Talking Points Memo are more influential, he argues, because they have more inside connections to mainstream media outlets. He points to the example of Greg Sargent, a blogger for Talking Points Memo who was hired by the Post last January. Erickson sees this revolving-door trajectory as evidence that liberal sites have a “greater apparatus” to get out their agenda.
But Erickson is not discouraged. If the left is better connected, he figures, then the right should compete by producing better journalism. But to do that, the right will have to wean itself off the opinion-driven format that created conservative superstars like Rush Limbaugh. “The right is going to have to step up to the plate,” Erickson says. “It needs to let Rush be Rush and stop putting others up to be Rush online. This is a fight. I aim to help us win it.”
Some activists argue that this fight is not a new one for the right. “I think we’ve had that kind of reporting on the right for several years,” says Ed Morrissey, who began writing in 2003 for the now-defunct blog, Captain’s Quarters, before joining Hot Air, the video and blogging website founded by columnist Michelle Malkin.
Perhaps the most famous example is the 2004 media scandal now known as “Rathergate,” in which CBS anchor Dan Rather relied on forged documents to cast doubt on President George W. Bush’s military service during the Vietnam War. When the forgeries were exposed by right-leaning bloggers like Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs, CBS was embarrassed and Rather forced to apologize. For many on the right, Rathergate was a classic battle between the upstart blogs and webzines against the more prominent cable networks and legacy newspapers. Ever since, conservative commentators have been writing gleeful obituaries for the “old media.”
Triumphalism aside, it’s clear that the media landscape has changed in recent years. The blog search engine Technorati ranks conservative blogs like Hot Air, National Review’s The Corner, News Busters, Michelle Malkin and Big Hollywood among the 25 most popular blogs in the country. On political aggregator sites like Memeorandum, posts from conservative blogs and web magazines like Powerline and Pajamas Media jostle for space alongside stories from the Times and the Boston Globe. In some markets, conservative blogs are even becoming serious rivals to resident media institutions. With 1.5 million unique visitors each month, for instance, Jim Hoft’s Gateway Pundit ranks second behind the big local paper, the editorially liberal St. Louis Post Dispatch. “They keep snubbing me,” Hoft acknowledges. “But it’s like Frank Sinatra says, the best revenge is massive success.”
With success comes responsibility, and it is on that count, some critics say, that conservative journalism still falls short. Unlike traditional media, the argument goes, political blogs and websites are not held to account for their content. They may act like traditional media, but they are not answerable to the public in the way that newspapers, with their editors and reader representatives, have always been. “Accountability, means that one must answer for what one says and does,” observes Robert Berkman, who teaches a course on new media ethics at the New School.
Conservative bloggers insist they have their own forms of quality control. “I link to everything I put up,” says Hoft. “If you’re putting out crappy posts, people won’t come back. You’re held accountable by other blogs, and readers, and you are forced to make corrections. That helps weed out that the toxic, over-the-top sites, and I have to admit that they’re on both the left and the right.”
Then, there’s the more complicated issue of how much of the conservative muckraking trend is really rooted in the values of traditional journalism. Wlady Pleszczynski, the longtime editorial director of the American Spectator, presided over the magazine’s hard-hitting investigative coverage of the Clinton administration in 1990s, but he sees clear differences between the Spectator’s reporting and what right-wing bloggers are doing now.
Take the magazine’s most famous series on “Trooperagte,” in which reporter David Brock (now the politically converted CEO of Media Matters) got Arkansas state troopers on the record about President Clinton’s sexual indiscretions. Investigative journalism with a decidedly partisan bent, Brock’s coverage might be seen as a precursor to today’s conservative blogging, but Pleszczynski isn’t so sure. “Brock was a traditional reporter, albeit one with a certain point of view. He wasn’t acting as a political activist,” Pleszczynski says. “What you see today is more like guerilla theater.”
Pleszczynski is quick to note that this is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, he sees it as a testament to the more democratic character of the new media. “My sense is that the masses are now involved on a much larger scale. That’s what freedom is all about.” That may offend more traditional journalistic sensibilities, Pleszczynski concedes, but “if you’re playing politics you can’t be horrified by the fact that people are playing politics. What you see is that, on issue after issue, the right has made its presence known.”
Unsurprisingly, that has not pleased some on the left. Alan Rosenblatt, the associate director of online advocacy at the liberal Center for American Progress and a blogger at the Huffington Post, gives the right credit for its scoops, but he thinks that the aggressively partisan tone of the coverage lacks balance and hurts their stories. “The ACORN case was a classic investigative journalism model,” Rosenblatt says. “What they caught ACORN doing is illegal. That’s not something that should be swept under the rug. That said, that was just one example. There are a large number of things that ACORN does that are of great benefit in many communities and what they found was just a drop in the bucket. So, in that sense, what they did is really sleazy—using one thing to discredit everything that the organization has done.” Rosenblatt is similarly unimpressed by the right’s reporting on Van Jones. “Instead of saying that the green jobs program is bad, they discredited the guy who was in charge of the green jobs program. It was an intellectually dishonest smear campaign,” he says.
Agree or disagree with that assessment, it is true that conservative coverage is, almost by definition, neither fair nor balanced. At its most partisan, that can result in what University of Chicago professor Cass Sunstein and others see as an “echo-chamber” effect of the ideologically likeminded talking among themselves. Yet even among partisans, journalistic instincts can trump ideological sympathies. One of the more sensational conservative “scoops” of the past year—the supposed fraudulence of President Obama’s birth certificate—was relegated to the fringes of conservative conversation even as it inflamed a certain type of anti-Obama activist. On Red State, the “birthers” were dismissed as a “bunch of jackass clowns” who were distracting attention from substantive issues like the administration’s health care proposals. The conservative author and activist David Horowitz called the birthers “embarrassing and destructive.” Ultimately, the birther story suffered the journalistic equivalent of dying in committee: It riled up a few zealots, but the allegations had almost no impact on Obama’s election or his subsequent policies. Even those stories that meet the approval of one side’s partisans must still win over the public at large before they can have political ramifications as serious as the ACORN videos, which got liberal stalwarts like Jon Stewart to admit that the organization was fraudulent.
As even Rosenblatt concedes, the full picture is much more nuanced. On both the left and the right, there is a “full range of opinion, from zealots to moderates who let evidence be their guide.” It might be added that the decline of journalistic standards attributed to the alternative media is not as steep as some suggest. “There has been some dumbing down of standards,” Wlady Pleszczynski says, “but overall the traditional requirements are still the same: how to do good political reporting, how to present material in a clear way.” Inevitably, partisanship, even strident partisanship, abounds, and civil, respectful debate is not as plentiful as some might wish. But in the high-stakes world of political debate, there may be no changing that.
Still, some things have changed. Where conservatives once saw themselves as outcasts in the media world, today they increasingly see themselves as participants, shapers of news as much as consumers of it. The recent run of media successes, from ACORN to Van Jones, has only strengthened that view. “It proves that journalism is a process and not an exclusive domain of mainstream news outlets,” says Ed Morrissey. Mike Flynn agrees. “I’ve been in D.C. a long time, and it is stunning to think of a political action taking place without the media playing a role. We used to live in a world where, if the media wouldn’t pay attention, the story would not be covered. Now it doesn’t matter.”
That may be overstating the case. Conservative blogs still rely on the mainstream media to reach a broader audience. But if it’s not quite accurate that conservatives can ignore the mainstream media, the more significant development is that the opposite also no longer holds true.
Indeed, no less a right-wing bugbear than the New York Times has started taking the conservative media seriously. After the Times was criticized for its delayed coverage of the ACORN story, the paper’s managing editor, Jill Abramson, admitted that it was “slow off the mark,” and blamed the lapse on the paper’s “insufficient tuned-in-ness to the issues that are dominating Fox News and talk radio.” In response, the Times assigned an editor to monitor opinion media and to brief the editors about emerging controversies. It’s doubtful that conservative muckrakers would put it quite this way, but perhaps the best compliment to their success is that the Times is now reading their coverage.
Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page magazine.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Jacob Hayutin