Breaking into Journalism from the Right
Megan McArdle is always worth reading, and she says a lot that is true in this post on the closing of the conservative mind, but I think she is mistaken about a couple of points that are of particular interest to me.
It is not impossible to go from conservative ideological media to the elite mainstream press, and indeed people have done it. But the people I know who have managed are noticeably moderate. They also tend to be absolutely brilliant, rather than merely solid reporters who really know their stuff–particularly if they are something other than the house conservative on an otherwise liberal opinion page. The political and technical standards for graduates of the Washington Monthly or Harpers do not seem to be quite that high.
When it comes to conservatives who’ve become commentators on predominantly liberal sites, Bill Kristol’s stint at the New York Times, Erick Erickson on CNN, and the factually challenged Marc Thiessen’s ascent to the Washington Post op-ed page are but a few examples that show how possible it is to transition from the conservative ideological media to the elite mainstream press.
These particular conservatives managed the feat despite their well documented indifference to intellectual honesty, but don’t be discouraged, aspiring conservative writers, there are plenty of better journalists who’ve made the transition too: Jonah Goldberg has a column at the Los Angeles Times, David Brooks went from The Weekly Standard to The New York Times, Peggy Noonan began in the Reagan White House and wound up at The Wall Street Journal, Rod Dreher wrote at National Review before going to the Dallas Morning News, David Frum worked on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page and at National Review, and now publishes in all sorts of mainstream outlets, Bill Bennett is a regular commentator on CNN, Malcolm Gladwell went from The American Spectator to The Washington Post to The New Yorker. Quibble with any three of these folks and the overall point still stands, bolstered by many folks I haven’t mentioned: lots of people, including many who aren’t particularly moderate, make the transition from conservative ideological media to mainstream outlets, and if anything this is becoming ever easier to accomplish, or so I gather based on stories of the bad old days.
In my personal experience, mainstream outlets are actually eager to hire conservatives so long as they subscribe to basic professional standards, and I am not alone in thinking so. As I reported in a Doublethink essay awhile back:
In August 2007, veteran conservative journalist Robert Novak appeared on the Diane Rehm Show, where he advised young, right-leaning aspirants in his field to “go into the closet” if they want to succeed. “Don’t tell anybody you’re a conservative, because you’re not going to get the job,” he said, “and you’re not going to get the advance.”
Better advice is offered by Dr. Stephen Bird, academic director for the National Journalism Center, a nonprofit that places mostly conservative journalists in numerous mainstream media internships every year, hoping to bring more depth and balance to American reporting. “Here’s what I tell interns going into the media,” he says. “Pursue excellence in everything. Everyone admires excellence and gravitates toward it.”
Bird notes that though the proportion of conservatives among journalists is incrementally higher relative to the early 1980s, the right remains outnumbered. “I would think it would make them more marketable—any time you’re in the minority you become more desirable in the marketplace,” he says. “I just think that’s a true statement. I’ve told them that at different times, just as I’ve told people of different minority groups that they have a better marketing position. They need to know that when it comes time to negotiate a salary.”
J.P. Freire, an editor at the Washington Examiner, is one young conservative journalist for whom this rings true. “I think it’s kind of an ace in the hole,” he says. “As a conservative in a liberal field, you come up with angles other people don’t consider, get stories no one else thinks of doing.” Freire wrote for a movement publication in college, worked as managing editor of the American Spectator (where he is now a contributing editor), and before that at the New York Times, where he served as an assistant to former op-ed columnist John Tierney. Later, he was offered a job heading up the team of Times newsroom assistants, which he’s long regretted having turned down. “I liked the environment. I thought everyone was fine, and I was openly conservative,” he says. “The reporters I talked to seemed very fair. I think most of them knew they were to the left and tried to control for it.”
Eddie Barrera has had a slightly different experience. He’s an editor at Adotas, a Web magazine devoted to media and technology. A onetime New York Post reporter who later worked for The Los Angeles Newspaper Group, rising from staff reporter to desk editor, Barrera says that though it may have once been true that conservatives had a tough time getting a fair shake, it’s no longer the case. “As far as the bosses I’ve had, I’ve been treated very well in my career,” he says. “I’m pretty outspoken, and I haven’t always been treated well by all of my colleagues. But it hasn’t hurt my advancement.” Asked how he’d advise a young person starting out in the field, Barrera says that one rises in accordance with one’s talent and work ethic.
That’s been my experience in journalism, though I was warned against entering the field as student at Pomona College. I remember attending a lecture-dinner at Claremont McKenna College where talk at my table turned to the Los Angeles riots. A fellow student argued that inner-city blacks were justified in lashing out at police, given the prejudice they endure. A conservative dining companion was vehement in his rebuttal. Even a black person treated unfairly by a white cop hasn’t any right to lash out against other people, he insisted. As for improving minority success in the job market, he argued that anyone who finished school and worked hard would be a valued employee, excel regardless of societal racism, and find himself better off. But when I made an offhand comment about pursuing journalism after graduation, the same conservative student was aghast. “Why go into that liberal media?” he asked.
He insisted that I’d be foolish to enter a field where my fate would be controlled by leftists who’d treat me unfairly, even if only behind my back. “It may be just one liberal boss who messes with you,” he said, “but you won’t have anyone on your side to back you up. Little things can make a big difference in your career. And if you want to rise to the top know they’ll never let a conservative get there. The New York Times will always be edited by a liberal.” So much for working hard and assuming I’d be treated fairly absent clear contrary evidence.
Fortunately, I ignored his advice. I took a job at a major newspaper chain, where ideology never once impeded my rise, though I never concealed my beliefs and vocally supported the recall of Democratic California Governor Gray Davis. When I left that newspaper, I was offered a scholarship to a graduate program in journalism, where my professors were almost entirely left of center. As it turned out, they weren’t merely fair instructors, but exceptional ones who were willing to help me improve whatever writing I submitted, even if they disagreed with the arguments therein. Theirs was a pedagogical and journalistic project, not a political one. They’d treat anyone fairly who was also there to do good journalism, and editors at most publications employ the same litmus test in my experience.
What about folks hoping to transition from conservative outlets to reporting positions? Ms. McArdle says they’re required to meet higher standards than someone at The Washington Monthly or Harpers, but I don’t think that’s right. It’s been some years since I read Harper’s regularly, but Robert Boynton and Jack Hitt are the two alumni of that magazine who I can think of off the top of my head, and they’re damn talented guys whose work is far more reported and narrative than it is ideological. The Washington Monthly is famous for its alumni going on to great posts in journalism — and again, the lifetime output of James Fallows, James Bennett, Nick Lemann, Mickey Kaus, among many others, handily demonstrate that its staffers are exceptionally talented, and that they’re often doing challenging reported pieces that aren’t particularly ideological, though all are obviously liberals. Even taking The Washington Monthly today, it is difficult to think of a conservative outlet where people are doing reporting or narrative journalism of the same quality — and individual writerly talents like Ramesh Ponnuru at National Review and Matt Labash and Matt Continetti at The Weekly Standard are perfectly capable of getting MSM gigs if they want them. (Reason magazine is a hotbed of journalistic talent too — and far more consistently rigorous in its intellectual standards than NR or The Weekly Standard — but I am omitting it from this discussion on the assumption that it’s a solidly libertarian magazine. As MSM publications aren’t sensitive to having “enough libertarians” in the same way that they seek token conservatives, I actually think talents like Radley Balko and others suffer — they’d certainly be better choices than a lot of the conservatives hired at prestigious publications.)
There are plenty of talented journalists at conservative publications, but their numbers don’t even come close to the number of talented journalists at left-leaning publications, as the results of the Best Journalism of 2009 makes perfectly clear. Conservative journalists should be killing on stories like this one or this one or this one — or to cite a newer example, especially this one — but even on many subjects where ideological predispositions would seem to give them an advantage they seem to get beat, perhaps because on the left there are journalists who happen to be liberal, whereas on the right it’s as often people who think of themselves as conservatives first, and journalists second.
I realize that some of this actually reinforces Ms. McArdle’s arguments, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise, or that I completely disagree with her post — I merely disagree with the assessment that it’s significantly more difficult to move from conservative leaning publications to mainstream publications, so long as you’re doing work as good as your competitors — and I encourage any young person on the right considering a career in journalism to be unafraid of ideological discrimination when making your choice. Given the financial state of this field, that should be the least of your worries.