Is there a future for the right-wing press?

Authored by Anthony Hennen

A time-honored conservative pastime is to grouse about the media. Liberal bias is the perennial bugaboo of pundits, the dime-a-dozen commentators who read the news and then kvetch about it. As cathartic as it may be, the conservative outrage over the state of journalism needs to end.

Instead, what’s needed is a journalistic revival pursued by right-wing types, a return to civic responsibility to provide the public with news about what the government and businesses are doing.

Unfortunately, right-wingers have been content to just complain about the news. Now, they need to produce better news. Campaign operatives and politicians have gained as conservatives have given up on journalism, but local news and the public have lost out.

The absence of a right-wing equivalent to The New York Times has meant that local and state governments suffer less scrutiny than they deserve. People get hurt, money gets wasted, and officials fall short of their duty to the public.

Right-wing attention is overly focused on elections. Conservatives bet that partisan agitprop and ever-shifting PACs would deliver victory in the voting booth. That lack of interest has meant no institutional investment to cultivate strong writers. Would-be journalists leave for punditry, policy, or business.

The right has forfeited the fourth estate, only to act surprised at the results.

The revival of a right-wing press will not guarantee political victory. That’s not the point of a press. The goal of revival should not even be to influence elections. The purpose of restoring a watchdog press should be to defend the taxpayer, hold governments accountable, and promote human flourishing.

Luckily, the right-wing press is not extinct. Plenty of models already exist and thrive.

Aaron Sibarium’s reporting at the Washington Free Beacon led to the fall of Harvard President Claudine Gay. The John Locke Foundation’s Carolina Journal follows the money in North Carolina. The problem is not that the work doesn’t exist — The problem is that right-wingers don’t value journalism.

Right-wing donors who want to defend liberty in America should reconsider the importance of building journalistic institutions. Young people need a home to learn how to interview sources, find stories, make public record requests, cover committee hearings, and pour through budget reports.

And they need editorial independence from donors — even if traditionally right-wing industries or politicians get caught abusing the public, the long-term results will benefit American civic life.

This state of affairs isn’t new: Tucker Carlson was booed at CPAC in 2009 when he made a similar argument. “If you create a news organization whose primary objective is not to deliver accurate news, you will fail,” Carlson said. “The New York Times is a liberal paper, but it is also…a paper that actually cares about accuracy. Conservatives need to build institutions that mirror those institutions.”

Tucker Carlson with Argentinian President Javier Milei.

Carlson has changed his tune since then, but still produced some thought-provoking work here and there, like on rural America and its woes. His transformation from a much-praised young journalist to a nationally known pundit exemplifies a shifting media landscape: he followed the money.

Pundits have a role to play: they’re political agitators and they can amplify good journalism. Yet, by favoring the pundits over the press, donors let the vine wither and hope for a Pyrrhic election victory.

Perhaps the problem for right-wing journalism lies within its tendency toward individualism.

“Most of the arc of ideological center-right journalism has learned to focus more on individuals than institutions,” said Yael Ossowski, a journalist and deputy director at the Consumer Choice Center, an advocacy group. “They go through training programs at think tanks, internships in mainstream media, and cultivate skills from mentors who’ve built long careers.”

The reward system thrives for right-wing punditry — just as it does for the left-wing, he noted — but right-wing journalism rarely gains broader acceptance.

“Building center-right journalistic institutions from the ground-up is difficult, rare, and unfortunately tied to a lot of election cycles and campaigns,” Ossowski said.

Beyond even a right-wing version of The New York Times, there isn’t a right-wing ProPublica building partnerships with mainstream publications and gaining credibility.

Without those sorts of institutions, and precious few journalism fellowships to develop young writers, the long-run effect is that right-wing journalists get locked out of mainstream outlets. 

The pragmatism of right-wingers makes journalism “a hard sell,” said Jack Butler, submissions editor at National Review.

“Other fields are more lucrative, especially for the sort of person who on the left would be likelier to enter the profession: well-credentialed and well-connected recent college graduates,” Butler said. “It’s easy to imagine a smart, young conservative, even someone who writes for his or her school’s paper (or even its explicitly right-of-center publication) deciding after that experience to go into consulting, finance, law school, etc.”

That problem isn’t limited to the conservative press, either.

“It’s similar to the struggle the conservative movement as a whole has: namely, to get people whose politics is often, at least in part, dedicated to limiting or constraining the political to become full-time enthusiasts for that project,” Butler said. “There can be an asymmetry between that and people who both have a worldview and are passionate about expanding the state to implement it.”

The ever-expand-the-state mindset of many journalists, he noted, is the success of the left in “colonizing these institutions,” which repels conservatives as well. But the current situation isn’t guaranteed forever.

A close up of the front page of the The New York Times newspaper dated June 9, 1968. The NYT covering Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral.”

“A huge source of optimism I have comes from the failures of journalistic institutions dominated by the left, which discredit themselves further daily,” Butler said. “Their defects present a huge opportunity for right-wing journalism. But that opportunity can easily be squandered. Conservative journalists won’t get anything by default; they will have to earn the public trust those other institutions have dissipated by doing actual, good work.”

That work will require conservative journalists “to shape public discourse with facts, not just opinions,” Butler said, and “not to let Twitter or clicks destroy their brains.”

“It can be a tremendously worthwhile pursuit, but its shoals are littered with the wrecks of promising young talent destroyed by the profession’s worst elements and incentives,” Butler said. “To continue with this perhaps ungainly nautical metaphor, young or aspiring journalists setting sail on their careers ought to study those wrecks carefully, lest they find themselves in their company someday.”

Avoiding that siren song could be tough. The challenge for right-wing journalism will be to capture the attention of the public and build trust. Without veteran journalists to temper youthful excess, rebuilding trust among the public may be difficult.

The long, gruesome death of journalism is routinely celebrated by terminally online conservatives. It’s easy to gloat over activist journalists getting canned, but journalism still has a public service role. The death of Buzzfeed News and layoffs at The Washington Post or Los Angeles Times doesn’t make the media better — it only shrinks the industry.

The public needs construction more than destruction of the press. And the press has to earn loyalty — and funding — from the public instead of berating their decisions to cancel a subscription.

The recent massacre of the Los Angeles Times showed that no publication is safe, but it also showed the wages of demanding that readers read what writers want to write. Eviscerating the newsroom’s coverage of local government, crime, and what readers want to know — in favor of obsessive identity and climate coverage — is little more than hubris. After hubris, death.

The celebration of the chopping block doesn’t do the job of attending the county commissioners meeting. It’s not reading over the municipal budget to know if taxpayers are getting hit with a property tax increase. The near future is one where towns and counties across America have no one watching what their governments are up to. This is a crisis for self-governance that very few political crusaders seem to worry about.

But it’s also an opportunity. As with the coming of AI, low-value journalism may get automated, freeing journalists to concentrate on what’s high-value.

“The challenge is to ensure that you, as a journalist, are above ‘robot-level’ in your work product, because if you’re not, there’s a good chance a robot is coming for you,” Butler said. “But the opportunity, if this all does happen, is that journalists will be liberated to do reporting and commentary that actually matters, and that isn’t just chasing the trending news headlines of the day.”

Conservatives could seize the opportunity to report on what’s so important to people that they’ll pay for it. It may be with a partisan bent or a more-muted ideological undertone. But the rare attempts for conservatives to pursue reporting, and hold leaders of all stripes accountable to the public, shows the failure of conservatism as a movement — and reveals an opportunity to build for the future.

Anthony Hennen is a reporter for The Center Square news wire service covering Pennsylvania and co-host of Pennsylvania in Focus. He is also a 2023-24 Robert Novak Fellow. Previously, he worked for Philadelphia Weekly and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He is managing editor of Expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region.

Authored by:Anthony Hennen


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