Today’s ‘Conservative Journalism’ — What Would Bill Buckley Say?

Eric Boehlert

by Eric Boehlert

Between the embarrassing New Orleans caper where self-described "journalist" James O’Keefe was arrested after helping infiltrate the office of Sen. Mary Landrieu, Jackass-style, to the unhinged State of the Union response from elite members of the right-wing punditocracy (i.e. Obama’s an "arrogant," "fake" "jerk"), a disturbing portrait emerged last week that helped confirm the sad state of "conservative journalism" in America today.

And yes, I prefer to put the oxymoronic phrase "conservative journalism" in quotation marks since it seems to exist more as an idea than a functioning entity. Instead of being in the news gathering or analysis business, "conservative journalism" today appears to be more akin to propaganda/name-calling — or, thanks to O’Keefe’s Keystone Kops routine, more like dirty tricks/propaganda/name-calling.

It’s political warfare (or pseudo-journalism) being waged by people who want the protection and prestige that comes with being called a journalist, even though few of them actually practice the craft. It’s fueled by thoughtless defamation. And yes, the lack of adult supervision has become glaringly obvious, which is why I can’t help wondering what William F. Buckley would make of all this.

Buckley died in 2008, and, of course, is credited with revitalizing modern-day American conservatism. With his magazine, National Review, as well as his three-decade run as the host of the wonky Firing Line on PBS, Buckley also served as the father of conservative journalism in this country, as he worked to cultivate a space where partisan reporters, pundits, and essayists could join the media landscape and influence the public debate. (Ronald Reagan often credited National Review for inspiring him.)

But would Buckley even recognize "conservative journalism" today, where pundits rush to be the first to broadcast their childish Obama taunts? And where sloppy P.T. Barnums like Andrew Breitbart seem to encourage a new generation of "journalists" to skirt the law in the name of vilifying Democrats?

If Buckley had lived to see the right-wing media’s unhinged, Obama’s-a-Nazi/communist/racist rhetoric of today, as well as the O’Keefe-style, let’s-pretend-we’re-above-the-law brand of "conservative journalism," what would Buckley’s reaction have been? Would he have remained silent or called it out for what it is? Sort of like how, decades ago, Buckley’s National Review finally worked up enough nerve to call out the radical right’s John Birch Society and its fringe activity.

As Buckley used to say, the pyrotechnicians and noisemakers have always been there on the right. But that didn’t mean he condoned or legitimized them. And I doubt he would today.

Don’t worry, I’m not trying to suddenly turn Buckley into some kind of saint, or pretend that, for decades, National Review was some sort of beacon of impeccable journalism. We all know Buckley wasn’t above lobbing cheap shots. And truth be told, National Review under Buckley leaned a lot more toward (lazy) pontification than it did gumshoe reporting. But it seemed that most of the time, it strived toward being a serious endeavor and to carry the flag for conservative journalism. For instance, during the Clinton years, National Review left "Troopergate" and other conspiracy foolishness to The American Spectator, which ended up taking many spectacular falls. Editorially wrong-headed? Sure. But serious, or at least pretending to strive for seriousness and intellectual honesty? I would say yes, Buckley’s brand of conservative journalism did that.

But today? Ugh. One of National Review‘s high-profile editors now teams up with Glenn Beck to push the wholly discredited nonsense about how liberals were to blame for Hitler’s atrocities. And yes, it’s the same National Review editor who defended Beck when he claimed that the president of the United States (i.e. "this guy") has a deep-seated hatred for white people, the white culture, and is in fact a "racist."

Since Buckley’s passing in 2008, there’s probably been more damage done to the cause of "conservative journalism" — more steps have been taken backwards — than in the many decades Buckley ran the National Review.

It was telling, for instance, that when the White House Correspondents’ Association last year expanded its roster of eligible reporters for in-town pool reports and accepted representatives from online sites, not a single conservative outlet was represented. Instead,, Huffington Post, and Talking Points Memo got the nod. Conservatives were locked out because there wasn’t a single site in operation on the right side of the Internet that consistently produced original and dependable journalism. Not one. And why is that? Because conservatives appear to have given up. They don’t respect journalism and they don’t have the foggiest idea how to produce it. They’re clueless.

In a piece last week at Daily Beast, and in the wake of the O’Keefe arrest, Benjamin Sarlin detailed the chronic failure of conservatives, especially online, to produce good, ethical journalism. He noted:

It’s difficult to build up newsmaking capabilities while a huge chunk of the right’s base believes that mainstream news reporting is itself a left-wing practice.

I don’t think Sarlin got it quite right. I would have phrased it this way: "It’s difficult to build up newsmaking capabilities when a huge chunk of the right’s base hates journalists and journalism."

And it’s that guttural hatred that taints everything about today’s "conservative journalism." Part of it is the new, instant-reaction media landscape and the way it seems to reward crude behavior. I have no doubt, for instance, that years ago some partisan National Review writers and editors watching Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton address joint sessions of Congress, likely muttered "jerk" under their breath. But the scribes weren’t juvenile enough to publish any sophomoric slams.

Now it’s a point of pride. Last Wednesday night, National Review staffers and contributors, as well as other high-profile "conservative journalists," seemed to race online to see who could insult and denigrate the president first.

For those who weren’t scoring at home, the president was a "flippant," "snitty," "self-serving," "thin-skinned," "cocky," "patronizing," "arrogant," "fake" "jerk." Although, back in the real world, President Obama received very high marks from State of the Union viewers, according to most of the media’s instant polling that night.

It’s the same immoral, right-wing reward system that creates unintentional comedies like O’Keefe’s Louisiana mishap. According to his recounting, O’Keefe’s intent was to see if Sen. Landrieu’s office phones weren’t being answered and to make a hidden video in the process; a video designed, of course, to make her, or her staff, look bad. Meaning, O’Keefe and his Jackass pals set out to embarrass a Democrat. Period. There was no "journalism" being practiced inside Landrieu’s office. It was a Donald Segretti-like dirty trick.

Still, O’Keefe fancies himself as the GOP Bob Woodward. Because what did O’Keefe learn from last year’s ACORN controversy, in which he starred as an undercover videographer? He learned that even if he appears to break some laws in the process of an undercover sting (privacy laws he later claimed he knew nothing about), it doesn’t matter because the right-wing media don’t care. They rewarded his unethical behavior. And yes, the ends clearly justified the means.

Thirty-one Republican members of Congress co-sponsored a resolution in October 2009 honoring O’Keefe and partner Hannah Giles for "display(ing) exemplary actions as government watchdogs and young journalists uncovering wasteful government spending." Nobody inside the right-wing world cared if O’Keefe and Breitbart allegedly edited out exculpatory portions before releasing the tapes. They don’t care that he and Breitbart refuse to this day to release all of the unedited videotapes so independent observers can determine just how manipulated they were before posting them online.

So the moral is obvious: To get on Fox News, you concoct a video that makes Democrats look bad. End of story. But of course, that’s not journalism.

Don’t just take my word for it. In the wake of the ACORN videos story last year, a few voices within conservative media actually pointed out the obvious. James Taranto, a member of the far-right Wall Street Journal editorial board, included this boulder-sized caveat in his otherwise fawning interview with O’Keefe’s mentor and employer, Andrew Breitbart, last year:

The approach Mr. O’Keefe and Ms. [Hannah] Giles used — lying to prospective sources or subjects — is grossly unethical by the standards of institutional journalism. Almost all major news organizations, including the Journal, strictly prohibit it.

Fox Business’ Rebecca Diamond made a similar point during an interview with O’Keefe last November:

But, James, if you want to be considered a real journalist and not just a conservative activist — just doing stuff on behalf of your conservative agenda — you can’t pretend you’re somebody you’re not. … If I did that, Roger Ailes would probably fire me because it’s unethical as a journalist, as a real journalist.

Which brings me back to Buckley. If you rewind to the time of the National Review’s founding in the 1950s, Buckley had to decide how to treat the emerging right-wing influence of the radical John Birch Society, which at the time was convinced Dwight Eisenhower was a communist agent, that most of the U.S. government was run by communists, as were the health care and education industries. As Buckley biographer Sam Tanenhaus explained to Bill Moyers on PBS last year, at first the National Review indulged the John Birch Society because it was fanatically anti-communist, which bolstered the conservative movement.

Then, finally, in the mid-1960s (and yes, it took way too long), Buckley said "Enough." As Tanenhaus recounted last year:

And he said, "We can’t allow ourselves to be discredited by our own fringe." So, he turned over his own magazine to a denunciation of the John Birch Society. More important, the columns he wrote denouncing what he called its "drivel" were circulated in advance to three of the great conservative Republicans of the day, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, Senator John Tower, from your home state of Texas, and Tower read them on the floor of Congress into the Congressional record. In other words, the intellectual and political leaders of the right drew a line.

"We can’t allow ourselves to be discredited by our own fringe," said Buckley, referring to the conservative movement as a whole. Today, however, rife with would-be lawbreakers and committed name-callers, "conservative journalism" faces the same fringe conundrum.

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