The Washington Post building in Washington, Friday, November 3, 2006. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)
It is no secret to anyone that conservatives have conducted a remarkably successful, decades-long campaign to undermine the practice of honest, aggressive journalism with trumped-up accusations of liberal bias. They have made massive investments of time and money in groups and individuals devoted to “working the refs,” and these have yielded significant ideological dividends—which, as might be predicted, have only encouraged them to keep it up.
To the extent that conservatives face any difficulty achieving a hearing for their views in journalism (or in academia, for that matter), the phenomenon is less the result of purposeful exclusion than a function of a commitment to maintaining professional standards. To be a good journalist or scholar, one must be willing to follow one’s research wherever it may lead. This is one reason, among many, that conservatives have so far proven almost completely unsuccessful in nurturing and training actual journalists—i.e., those who put evidence before ideology in determining the truth of a given story before explaining it to readers and viewers. Thus, while no newspaper or television news program is without a bevy of right-wing commentators, conservatives remain rare in the nation’s newsrooms. Their absence is evident in the conservative media as well. Take a look at almost any conservative website, TV or radio program, or print publication and you will likely find a mix of ideological cheerleading for its own team and invective aimed at its perceived opponents, glued together by an avalanche of frequently unsubstantiated, tabloid-style gossip and purposeful political rumor-mongering. This has been the formula for almost every one of Rupert Murdoch’s publications (along with some illegal phone tapping and official bribery) as well as the most successful right-wing media personalities, among them Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and Andrew Breitbart. It is also undoubtedly the key reason why their consumers are so misinformed. For instance, against all imaginable evidence, 63 percent of Republican respondents polled in late April and early May 2012 continue to believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, while approximately the same number say they think President Obama was born outside the United States.
As the newspaper of the nation’s capital—and, hence, the capital of conservative power—the Washington Post has been more susceptible to political pressure than most media institutions. In the past, the paper sought to purchase peace with far-right critics by occasionally kowtowing to conservative narrative structures in its news stories and, far more significant, by providing space on its op-ed page to a plethora of right-wing pundits. Indeed, with George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Kathleen Parker, Mike Gerson, Marc Thiessen, Robert Kagan and the like, there’s clearly no shortage of right-wing voices in the Post’s opinion pages. Nor is there any shortage of right-wing misinformation, as in the case of Will’s widely derided arguments for climate-change denialism or Thiessen’s fervid romance with Bush-era torture.
But with the advent of blogging as a key component of contemporary journalism, the paper faced a new problem. It goes without saying that the Post should employ a conservative blogger. On the liberal side, it boasts Greg Sargent, a hard-working professional journalist who advances news stories regardless of whether they critique or flatter his own side. But the liberal blogosphere is filled with many such reporters, trained at places like The American Prospect (where Sargent previously worked), The Nation, Think Progress, Talking Points Memo, the Huffington Post and so forth. On the right, however, such journalistic bona fides are rare indeed. Here, the conservative lack of emphasis on—or interest in—the independent investigation of facts ran up against the Post’s need to maintain its traditional reporting standards. As Andrew Ferguson of the neoconservative Weekly Standard admits, “The great missing element in conservative opinion journalism has been reporters.”