Barack Obama had just taken office, but the right-wing media gathered at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference a year ago felt pretty good about the state of their industry. It had been a decade of dominance: Fox News Channel emerged as the king of cable, anti-Obama commentators were finding their voice on the radio, and The Weekly Standard had effectively rewritten American foreign policy for George W Bush from its magazine pages.
But journalist Tucker Carlson, a refugee of both Fox and the Standard, told conservatives they shouldn’t be so pleased with the state of their media. The right’s outlets may have mastered the art of commentary but failed actually to deliver the news, he argued, and selected a provocative example to prove the point. “The New York Times is a liberal newspaper,” Carlson told the crowd, but “they go out, and they get the facts.”
Tomorrow morning, Carlson’s effort to show that the right can produce solid journalism – a Washington-based online newspaper called The Daily Caller – will go live. “We just think there’s not enough reporting,” says Carlson, recounting a list of buyouts and layoffs that weakened major newspapers and helped him assemble a staff of about 20. “That’s happening coincidentally at the same moment that government is expanding and doing more than it’s done in 60 years.”
Even as Fox News thrives, the American right is seeing one of its most durable news organs, The Washington Times, implode. The daily founded in 1982 by the Rev Sun-Myung Moon’s Unification Church – to give the Korean a foothold in the capital, and to challenge the dominant, left-leaning Washington Post – preached anti-Communism and a cultural moralism so heartily that it became Ronald Reagan’s favourite newspaper. At various points, the Times delivered major national security scoops and the capital’s best local news. But its political agenda, which for decades required that articles never use the word “gay,” only the clinical term “homosexual” – seemed to often get in the way of its news instincts.
By the time of the Iraq war, the Times’s Cold War marriage of convenience broke down, and the paper couldn’t even get its agenda straight. The church, which advocated a UN-centred pan-national utopianism, had little use for the neoconservative nation-building embraced by the Bush-friendly editors who assigned stories and wrote editorials. A 2008 experiment to bring journalistic heft to the Times failed after a year, when newly hired editor John Solomon (a veteran of the Post and Associated Press), along with nearly all his hires, quit over the course of a few months. Last month, the paper cut almost half its staff and is now reportedly looking to abandon its headquarters too.
Unlike The Washington Times, the Daily Caller is founded with the goal of fighting the White House rather than finding a fan there. During last year’s presidential campaign, says Carlson, the major American media engaged in “fully out-of-the-closet cheerleading” for Obama’s candidacy and now “gives every benefit of the doubt to the administration”. The antidote, he argues, will be rigorous coverage of government’s workings, but with a lively voice. Stories about Obama’s use of regulatory agencies to restrict carbon emissions can be a lively read, he promises. “I don’t think we can take anybody for granted,” says Carlson. “I think we need to sell every story.”
If Carlson has learned one thing from The New York Times (and perhaps from The Washington Times’s failures), it may be that the fastest way to win journalistic credibility in the US is to avoid declaring loyalties even if they exist. His business partner was an aide to Dick Cheney, and his new White House correspondent worked at The Washington Times, but Carlson seems proudest that his executive editor comes from the Guardian. (“You know the Guardian?” he cackles. “That socialist newspaper?”) “I don’t describe it in ideological terms,” Carlson says of his promise to expose the inner workings of an expanded government. “If that’s right-wing, the world’s gone crazy.”