We can pinpoint the moment that foretold the arrival of combat journalism. At 11:59 p.m. on September 8, 2004, a pseudonymous blogger on FreeRepublic.com accused 60 Minutes of publicizing forged documents to cast suspicion on President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s. The charge was publicized by conservative new media and soon proved correct: CBS was flaunting materials that had been produced using technology unavailable during the twilight of the Vietnam War. The ensuing backlash claimed the jobs of four at CBS and pushed anchor Dan Rather into early retirement. Conservatives had used the techniques of investigative journalism—documentary research, interviews, detailed reporting on the minutiae of typography and word processing—to debunk a media smear and force CBS and the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry into a defensive crouch.
Antipathy between the right and the establishment press was of course not new. The animosity has deep roots. The decades after World War II had seen journalism transformed from a blue-collar to a white-collar profession. A college degree soon became required for employment at the country’s most prestigious newspapers and magazines and broadcast networks. Graduate programs in journalism proliferated. The postwar journalists who came of age in the late ’60s or early ’70s saw themselves not only as reporters but also as devoted servants of truth and adversaries of authority. Happy coincidence for them that the country’s president at the time was a Texas Democrat overseeing a liberal establishment which was losing confidence in itself and in its country. The striving and conniving moderate Republican Richard Nixon was no more likely than Johnson to win the journalists’ affections. The media campaign against the Vietnam War and the presidency of Nixon was relentless—and successful.
Conservatives responded to the assault in two ways. First they developed a critique of media bias that persists to this day. Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew delivered a series of speeches, written by Patrick Buchanan and William Safire, that slammed the press using a variety of colorful and alliterative phrases. Conservative journals such as the Alternative, later known as the American Spectator, poked fun at the latest examples of "current wisdom" that passed for consensus in media circles. Pointing out bias became a hardy perennial of conservative discourse, and for good reason. Media critics would have plenty to gripe about as long as the educated class, which saw the world through a distinctly left-of-center lens, dominated journalism. An entire think tank, the Media Research Center, was founded in 1987 to identify and analyze instances of malpractice. Fourteen years later, former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg’s tell-all Bias became an instant bestseller. Last year, UCLA political scientist Tim Groseclose published the indispensable Left Turn, which uses sophisticated empirical methods to prove the fact of liberal bias, and its distorting effects on our politics, beyond a reasonable doubt.
The second dimension of the conservative response was more ambitious and, truth be told, more interesting. If the news pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal were closed to conservatives, the thinking went, why not create counter-institutions to report the news more conservatively, or at least more objectively? The New York Post, which Rupert Murdoch bought in 1976, covered the news with a populist edge. In 1982 the Washington Times was founded as a rejoinder to the liberal establishmentarianism of the Washington Post. A decade later the phenomenon that is Rush Limbaugh rose to national prominence with a pair of bestselling books, a popular and nationally syndicated talk radio program, and even (briefly) a syndicated television show. Millions got their news from listening to Limbaugh and his many imitators. And then, most famously, in 1996 cable providers began airing Fox News Channel. What Fox News did, in the words of Charles Krauthammer, was create nothing less than an "alternate reality" from the dominant liberal media. Naturally, the network became insanely popular.
The New York Sun (2002-2008), the San Francisco Examiner (2003), and the Washington Examiner (2005) also attempted to counter biased news with something approaching objectivity and balance. News Corp.’s purchase of the Wall Street Journal in 2007 led to editorial improvements. The conservative blogs also did their part. But in the end there was no way for a handful of papers and a single television network to nullify or even sublimate the loud, constant, coherent progressive roar of: NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, NPR, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC; the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, and others; the left blogosphere, Hollywood, and practically every magazine editor in the country.
Try as they might, conservatives could not command anything that approached the cultural power of the progressives. The reigning trends and theories and opinions in New York and Washington set the standard and tone of news coverage and political debate throughout the country. There was simply no way for the right to correct a misimpression or caricature once it set like concrete in the public mind. The lens through which the liberals who manned the highest positions in media saw the world was rock-solid and impenetrable. As the 2004 presidential campaign approached, the Bush administration found itself in the unenviable position of having to defend a bloody war in Iraq, a shallow economic recovery whose worst features were constantly in the news, and positions on social and cultural issues at odds with those of the elite. And then things got ugly.
THE WOLF PACK
Since at least 1986, when Sidney Blumenthal published the first edition of The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, the American left and its political vehicle, the Democratic Party, have suffered from what one might call right-wing-organ envy. Blumenthal ascribed the origins of the Reagan Revolution to the decades-long construction of a conservative intellectual, policy, and political infrastructure. "At the heart of conservatism," he wrote, "is an intellectual elite, motivated mainly by ideology, and attached to the foundations and journals, think tanks, and institutes of what I call the Counter-Establishment." According to Blumenthal, the ideas of a few isolated eccentrics like Albert Nock and Frank Chodorov had gestated, over time, to influence philanthropic organizations, small magazines, institutions such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and eventually the Reagan and Bush administrations. The liberal establishment, Blumenthal wrote, was weak and defenseless.
The idea that conservatives possessed anything like the cultural sway of liberals was obviously absurd. Yet Blumenthal’s just-so story became an integral part of the liberal mythos. Democratic Party losses, in this view, were not the fault of bad policies or obnoxious candidates but of superior conservative organization and Republican dirty tricks. The Clinton years only fortified this belief. Here was a middle-of-the-road southern Democrat, who signed welfare reform, deregulated telecoms and finance, and cut the capital gains tax rate, who oversaw in his second term a huge and widespread economic boom, and yet the Republicans successfully tarred, feathered, and impeached him for perjury and obstruction of justice. The Counter-Establishment—it had struck again! Imagine what the conservatives might do if an unapologetic northern liberal were to become commander-in-chief.
What was necessary, a few powerful and wealthy individuals in the Democratic Party agreed, was a Counter-Counter-Establishment. The focal point of these attempts to fight the conservatives would be the Center for American Progress and its political arm, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, which John Podesta created in 2003 with the help of George Soros and other left-wing millionaires and billionaires like Herb and Marion Sandler and Peter Lewis. That same year MoveOn.org, which had been founded in the heat of the Clinton scandals, took on a new identity as the vanguard of the anti-war movement. Media Matters for America, a Media Research Center of the left that lacked the original’s sense of humor, was created in 2004. The now-defunct Air America started broadcasting progressive hosts in 2004, providing a platform for Al Franken’s eventual Senate run and launching Rachel Maddow’s career as a talk show host. The Democracy Alliance, a sort of venture capital firm for Soros-affiliated groups, came online in 2005.
As Byron York explained in his important book, The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy, these groups may have excelled at rallying the small but ferocious left-wing base of the Democratic Party, but they were unable to accomplish their foremost goal: defeating George W. Bush. What to do? Stung by defeat, the Counter-Counter-Establishment shifted its focus to the Democratic Party itself.
The reason for Republican dominance of the presidency and Congress, the newly energized progressives said, was not only conservative organization and Republican perfidy, but also Democratic squishiness. The Democrats were not anti-Bush, anti-Republican, and anti-war enough. With the help of the far-left bloggers who called themselves the "Netroots," and a host of young people who had soured on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the liberal groups purged Sen. Joseph Lieberman from the Democratic Party and began electing aggressive liberals in primaries. The Soros and Sandler and Lewis money kept rolling in. The Counter-Counter-Establishment metastasized.
The political tide began to change in a liberal direction, as well. Bush’s second term was a disaster from start to finish, with the botched Social Security gamble, Hurricane Katrina, Harriet Miers, Dubai Ports, the vice president’s hunting accident, failed immigration reforms, ethno-sectarian war in Iraq, congressional corruption and the Mark Foley pageboy scandal, national security leaks that compromised the war on terror, and a recession and financial crisis as the proverbial poison cherry on top of it all.
The Democrats who took their cues from the Center for American Progress, its Action Fund, the Netroots, and Moveon.org overran Congress in 2006 and prepared to sink their teeth in the presidency in 2008. The vaunted conservative Counter-Establishment that Blumenthal had raved about in the ’80s and ’90s was shown to be saggy and toothless in the ’00s. Republicans were routinely outspent, divided, and distracted by the messes they had made for themselves. They lacked, too, the means by which the progressives had so effectively identified, frozen, personalized, and polarized their targets: the wolf pack.
Tony Blair, in a 2007 speech, described the press as a "feral beast" that tore "people and reputations to bits." But the feral beast is not a solitary creature. Hunting in a pack, he surrounds his targets and devours them in swarms. The Counter-Counter-Establishment’s greatest achievement was in serving as the wolf pack’s sleigh driver. The left-wing groups, in concert with the Democratic Party, would select the Republican politicians, institutions, and media figures on which the beast would feed.
Whether the victim was George Bush, Joseph Lieberman, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Charles and David Koch, the Chamber of Commerce, Fox News Channel, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, or Mitt Romney, the technique was the same. The left blogosphere would manufacture a smear or distortion or line of attack. Larger blogs and liberal news sites like Huffington Post or Talking Points Memo would pick it up and publicize it. From there the critique would jump to liberal radio and MSNBC and Comedy Central’s news parody shows. Before long, the mainstream media would be reporting the misinformation as news that was fit to print. By the time the wolf pack reached that point in their meal, the prey had little hope of survival.
What happened to Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation last week was a classic example. On Tuesday, January 31, the organization, which raises money for breast cancer awareness and prevention, announced that it was no longer going to donate $700,000 a year to Planned Parenthood. The reaction was swift. The pro-choice lobby swung into action, tweeting and blogging furiously, slamming Komen’s decision as a blow to women’s health. Democratic supporters of abortion rights took to the airwaves to denounce the news. MSNBC personality Andrea Mitchell personally thanked California Democrat Barbara Boxer for "all you’ve done on this issue." The New York Times wrote that the outcry "showed the power of social media to harness protest," as though the controversy amounted to some sort of abortion spring.
By Friday, February 3, Komen for the Cure had decided to restore the grant. And yet throughout the controversy no one ever stopped to point out that in a free society a private foundation has every right to decide where it puts is money. Few stopped to point out that, rather than provide mammograms, Planned Parenthood provides referrals; and that it was not Susan G. Komen for the Cure but Planned Parenthood and its supporters who were "politicizing women’s health." The Komen foundation’s crime was to undermine the conceit that abortion rights and women’s health are somehow synonymous. For that, it suffered a week of embarrassment and vitriol and saw its funding threatened.
Savagery and the media have a longstanding relationship. The two main papers in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop are The Daily Beast and The Daily Brute. Tom Wolfe, in The Right Stuff, noticed that:
It was as if the press in America, for all its vaunted independence, were a great colonial animal, an animal made up of countless clustered organisms responding to a single nervous system. … The animal seemed determined that in all matters of national importance the proper emotion, the seemly sentiment, the fitting moral tone should be established and should prevail; and all information that muddied the tone and weakened the feeling should simply be thrown down the memory hole. … The animal’s fundamental concern remained the same: the public, the populace, the citizenry, must be provided with the correct feelings!
The feral beast, moreover, would supply the public not only with the correct feelings, but also with the correct attitudes toward cultural, political, and even religious matters. Dissonant voices would be mocked, marginalized, and maltreated. The biographies, business connections, investments, relationships, and ideologies of unfashionable characters would be seen always through a conspiratorial and judgmental lens. The default approach of the wolf pack toward the right was: guilty until proven innocent.
By the time of the 2008 election, the media no longer made any pretense that they were unaffiliated with or unsympathetic to Barack Obama’s presidential ambitions. As one wag put it, they were so in the tank they needed scuba gear. Obama’s life and record were treated with nothing that approached the scrutiny accorded to John McCain’s friendship with lobbyists and to Sarah Palin’s life story. There was hardly any change once Obama was situated in the Oval Office. The press was far more interested in the supposedly depraved origins of the Tea Party and the endless and insanely boring GOP presidential sweepstakes than in examining the record, policies, and personnel of the Obama administration.
The desolate playing field was littered with the political detritus of conservatives and Republicans who had been unprepared for the blitz. Yet a few on the right looked around at the carnage, scratched their heads, and wondered: What if we returned fire?
New media led the conservative counterattack. Exposing the CBS forgeries provided a model: Scrutinize the left’s claims with the same adversarial techniques that the left uses to cover the right. Don’t back down from confrontation. Stick to the facts and avoid the cul-de-sac of conspiracy theory.
Andrew Breitbart pioneered the new approach. His websites were dedicated, impassioned, and broke news. Glenn Beck exposed White House czar Van Jones’s radical, 9/11-Truth past. Guerilla journalist James O’Keefe performed sting operations that led to ACORN, Planned Parenthood, and NPR having very bad days. Tucker Carlson’s website, The Daily Caller, published excerpts from the Journolist, which showed liberal writers coordinating their party line. Peter Schweizer’s blogs and book, Throw Them All Out, exposed rampant insider trading in the halls of Congress and cronyism in the Obama administration.
There was a time when media were so concentrated and opinion so monolithic that the morning news gave only conservatives and Republicans headaches. But that has been changing, rapidly, and today we face a new reality: As the mainstream press has become unabashed in its partisanship and knee-jerk in its liberalism, to the point where the distinctions between "news," "analysis," and "opinion" have all but disappeared, conservatives have more outlets and opportunities to perform fact checks and to speak their mind and to report.
Much more remains to be done, however. The last three years have given us a government that funnels money and special favors to its client groups under the guise of "stimulus," "green jobs," and health and banking "reform," while forever seeking additional industries and constituents to co-opt and politicize. An overwhelming number of Americans still get their news from a mainstream media that spends practically all of its time portraying the right as a collection of corrupt and hypocritical lunatics. The ideological, partisan, and cultural biases of most journalists prevent them from seeing the executive office of the president, the House and Senate Democratic caucuses, and the professional left through exactly the same lens.
After hours listening to the drone of Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer, or Scott Pelley, one might conclude that America is a one-party state ruled by the GOP. But in fact the Republicans have controlled just one chamber of Congress for just one year, have been outspent by Democrats in the two most recent election cycles and are likely to be outspent in the current cycle, have drawn the ire and opposition of the 10 richest zip codes in the country, and have been so inept at shaping public opinion that one of America’s premier anti-cancer organizations had to backtrack when it decided to part ways with the country’s largest abortion provider.
Meanwhile, rather than tease out the connections between the big banks, unions, alternative energy companies, entrenched market incumbents, institutions such as the Center for American Progress and its Action Fund, and the policy apparatus of the Democratic Party, the press is far happier to mock Republicans as rubes and incompetents and to cover with relish Mitt Romney’s latest gaffe.
What would happen, though, if a website covered the left in the same way that the left covers the right? What picture of the world would one have in mind if the morning paper read like the New York Times—but with the subjects of the stories and the assumptions built into the text changed to reflect a conservative, not liberal, worldview? What would happen if the media wolf pack suddenly had to worry about an aerial hunting operation?
You are about to find out. The Washington Free Beacon is here to enter the arena of combat journalism. Our talented staff will add to the chorus of enterprising conservative reporters, publishing original stories, seeking out scoops, and focusing on the myriad connections between money and power in the progressive movement and Obama’s Washington. Our research and war room divisions will supplement that reporting with context, additional materials, and breaking video. At the Beacon, you will find the other half of the story, the half that the elite media have taken such pains to ignore: the inside deals, cronyism cloaked in the public interest, and far-out nostrums of contemporary progressivism and the Democratic Party. At the Beacon, all friends of freedom will find an alternative to the hackneyed spin, routine misstatements, paranoid hyperbole, and insipid folderol of Democratic officials and the liberal gasbags on MSNBC and talk radio. At the Beacon, we follow only one commandment: Do unto them.