The Outrage Machine is a weekly opinion column by voices from the left and right on Washington. Want to write for us? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Want to really understand the conservative furor over George Stephanopoulos’ failure to disclose $75,000 in donations to the Clinton Foundation? It wasn’t just because Stephanopoulos grilled “Clinton Cash” author Peter Schweizer without mentioning the obvious conflict of interest. The outrage reflects an even more deep-seated frustration: Stephanopoulos personifies a sort of media selection bias that has been irking conservatives for generations.
He was a paid political operative and Democratic staffer who almost seamlessly segued into nonpartisan journalism. It’s unfathomable to imagine a Republican of equal stature reinventing himself in such a manner. (Sure, conservatives are invited on roundtable discussions on network Sunday Morning shows to talk Washington politics – but almost always with their ideological status defined as “guest.” They are never granted the moral authority or credibility to frame the discussion that comes with the label “moderator.”)
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From where I sit, the truth is it’s much easier for a liberal to make this transition. Conservatives tend to get pigeonholed; liberals tend to get second acts. The ultimate example of this phenomenon was Tim Russert, the appropriately revered moderator of “Meet the Press,” who was a high-profile Democratic staffer before jumping into the media world.
This double standard isn’t exclusive to TV talent — or even individual reporters who attempt mid-career leaps from politics to journalism. If you ever see a reference to the Huffington Post next to one about “the conservative blog The Daily Caller,” you’ll know this also applies to entire media outlets. It’s a subtle and pervasive framing that serves as a sort of “trigger warning” to readers. (And to frustrated conservatives, this need to constantly label us feels like an ideological microaggression).
But the bigger problem isn’t how this makes us feel, but rather, how the framing prejudices readers’ perceptions. For example, The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin has a blog called “The Right Turn,” while Ezra Klein, who came to the Post as a blogger at the liberal American Prospect, wrote at the philosophically neutral-sounding Wonkblog. This isn’t to knock Rubin or Klein, but while there are plenty of very good liberal writers at mainstream outlets, rarely are they assigned a space called ‘The Left Hook.’
I frequently talk to aspiring young center-right journalists, and my advice is always the same: Avoid being trapped in this conservative ghetto. My suggestion is to seize control of your brand. As an admittedly conservative writer, I’ve found this to be both a challenge and a necessity. That’s part of the reason I write for diverse outlets, including The Daily Beast and The Week. And it’s part of the reason I’m writing this here. The best way to do this is to be intellectually honest, and to avoid the epistemic closure and perverse incentives that writers on both sides of the political aisle confront.
Of course, not everyone agrees. The conservative media world is divided over whether to influence public opinion from the safe confines of the ghetto, or to leave it and join mainstream publications. The question is whether conservatives want to change the game or play the game. If your goal is to become an opinion leader who wants to reach people who don’t already agree with you, I would advocate the latter. Young conservative writers should resist the urge to throw needless red meat, and should think carefully before signing on with the wrong outlet.
So how can conservative journalists avoid this fate? For a minute, let’s consider a parallel: The world of Christian music. Few self-described “Christian rock bands” have made as big an impact as ‘U2,’ a rock band that happens to consist of Christians. I would similarly argue that a writer who happens to have conservative instincts is more likely to make a larger impact than a “conservative writer.” Writers like Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace and Flannery O’Connor penned some of the best, most conservative (with a small “c”), essays I’ve read. What is more, because they haven’t been tarnished as ideologues, their ideas are more likely to find receptive eyes and ears. Furthermore, not everything conservatives write has to be overtly political. Politics is downstream from culture, and there’s no reason people with conservative views shouldn’t tackle entertainment and culture – and not just from a prudish and perfunctory schoolmarm standpoint, either.
For a long time, this was a hard maneuver to pull off. Not everyone has the talent (and/or luck) of a Didion or a Bono. Self-labeling is a career selling point in the digital age – a last refuge for marketing a niche product (or, at least, one that couldn’t break through the mainstream media filter). It’s why people branded themselves “conservative comedians” – or why people kept trying to pitch me to write about their organization as (“the conservative MoveOn”) or their new company (“the conservative YouTube”). Being a conservative columnist has served me well, but it also means I probably won’t ever get to write for Rolling Stone or Esquire. The good news is self-labeling gets you in the door; the bad news is it closes other doors.
Today, these once-locked doors are starting to swing open. It has gone largely unnoticed, but this breakthrough has been years in the making. And, it turns out, at least some of the problem was with the ghetto itself. It used to be that conservative outlets focused almost exclusively on opinion, but recent years have given rise to outlets like The Daily Caller, the Washington Free Beacon, and The Federalist, which have focused on investigative reporting and cultural commentary. The rise of alternative new media outlets has lowered the barrier of entry for young writers.
Consider the transitions made by some of my young colleagues who worked for the Daily Caller during its inception. Many of them have since switched jobs, but their initial transition was to mainstream or even liberal publications: Chris Moody went to Yahoo; Jon Ward went to the Huffington Post; Will Rahn went to The Daily Beast; and Alexis Levinson and Jonathan Strong went to Roll Call. In doing so, they were merely following the trail blazed for them by so many young liberal writers who started at left-of-center publications like The New Republic, before seamlessly being promoted into the big leagues.
And they’re not alone. In 2013, Robert Costa left National Review for The Post. And just this past week, it was reported that CJ Ciaramella, also formerly of The Daily Caller, went from the Washington Free Beacon to BuzzFeed. Back in 2013, BuzzFeed poached the WFB’s Katherine Miller.
Damn the man. Fight the power. Get out of the ghetto.
Matt Lewis is the author of “Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Won Elections by Sacrificing Its Ideas (And How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots)” and also serves as a senior contributor for The Daily Caller, a contributing editor for The Week, and a regular columnist for The Daily Beast and The Telegraph.