New Republic Owner and Former Obama Employee Chris Hughes Denies Performing Advocacy Journalism

While speaking to liberal advocacy organization, Democracy Alliance member criticizes ‘advocacy journalism’

Chris Hughes / Wikimedia Commons
July 18, 2013

New Republic owner and editor-in-chief Chris Hughes criticized "advocacy journalism," and said the century-old magazine does not engage in that type of reporting, while addressing a gathering of young progressives on Wednesday.

The 29-year-old Facebook multi-millionaire, who purchased the New Republic and appointed himself editor-in-chief after working on President Barack Obama’s campaign, did not take audience questions. He also did not discuss the potential congressional candidacy of his husband, Sean Eldridge, which was the subject of an unflattering New York Times story earlier this month.

Hughes, who is reportedly a member of a dark-money group of left-leaning donors called the Democracy Alliance, told the Generation Progress audience that the New Republic does not engage in advocacy journalism.

"We don’t think about what we do at all as advocacy journalism," he said. He did not mention that the Democracy Alliance funds progressive advocacy journalism by providing money to ThinkProgress and Media Matters for America.

"If you’re talking about the advocacy kind of journalism where you have an opinion going into it and it guides all your research and your writing, not only is that not really, I think, that above board, transparent or truthful ... it’s just not that interesting for the reader to read," said Hughes during an onstage interview with a student journalist at the event held by Generation Progress, an arm of the Center for American Progress.

"As soon as you know that the writer is in somebody’s camp, whether it’s a camp that you agree with or a camp that you don’t necessarily agree with, then the journalism becomes predictable," Hughes continued.

Hughes took his first stab at journalism in January when he, along with editor Frank Foer, interviewed Obama for the cover of the New Republic’s relaunch issue. Hughes was the coordinator of online organizing for Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.

He quizzed Obama on whether he had "made headway" in "potentially breaking the fever of the Republicans" and asked how the president "personally, morally, wrestle[s] with the ongoing violence" in Syria.

The editor-in-chief was criticized for what many viewed as a softball interview, with Jack Schafer writing that Hughes "places his bland questions on a T-ball stand and hands Obama a fat wiffle bat to swing."

Hughes reportedly bumped his Obama interview onto the front cover of the relaunch issue after promising that slot to reporter Steven Brill, who had written a sweeping exposé of the medical industry and rising healthcare costs. Brill took his article to Time instead, where it was published to widespread praise and was a hit with social media.

Hughes disclosed his work and contributions to the Obama campaign in the TNR article, which journalistic experts say is important when doing advocacy reporting.

"In general, I don’t have a problem with advocacy journalism, as long as there’s an open acknowledgement of intent," said Lois A. Boynton, associate professor at UNC Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. "I think what [Hughes] has to do is be as transparent as possible about his views and his past life and his current life ... and then we can all make educated decisions."

A TNR spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

Hughes also swiped at BuzzFeed-style journalism while defending TNR’s business model and journalistic approach.

"Our uniques aren’t as high as others in the field. We’re about 2 million monthly uniques as a company," Hughes said Wednesday. "But on average, people spend two-and-a-half minutes on a New Republic article. That’s a long time, if you think about it, on the web—two-and-a-half minutes reading an article.

"It may not be as large as an audience as the one that is clicking on, you know, the most viral cat video of the day on BuzzFeed or somewhere else," Hughes continued. "But it’s some of the most influential people in our country and across the globe ... our whole business model is focused on serving a smaller audience but serving them extremely well."

Hughes' efforts have hit a few speed bumps. The Washington Free Beacon reported in March about Hughes’ revamped TNR iPad app, which was blasted by angry users who called it a "mess."

Hughes said TNR is not trying to compete for page-clicks with outlets like BuzzFeed.

"It’s not the scale of clicks that something super-juicy—like, you know, ‘The top 30 Reasons You Know You’re Turning 30,’—which I’m 29 now, it makes me feel old in this room. But that’s always going to get more clicks," said Hughes.

Hughes and Eldridge earlier this year purchased a home in the Hudson Valley, their second, located in a district where Eldridge may run for a U.S. congressional seat.

A New York Times cover story earlier this month suggested that Hughes was a district-shopper and quoted residents of the area who were critical of his potential run. SKDKnickerbocker, a Democratic-leaning public relations firm that is reportedly representing Eldridge, did not respond to request for comment.

Published under: Chris Hughes , Media