Right vs. Write

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FEBRUARY 22, 2012

Right vs. Write

When a new right-wing website, The Washington Free Beacon, launched in February, Matthew Continetti, its 30-year-old editor-in-chief, kicked off the proceedings with an aggressive manifesto titled “Combat Journalism.” The essay laid out the history of conservative alienation from the mainstream media, which Continetti referred to as the “wolf pack” or, borrowing a line from Tony Blair, “the feral beast.” Conservatives, Continetti argued, had been outplayed by a host of institutions on the left, like the Center for American Progress (CAP) and MoveOn, which are better at promoting their views to the press: “The left-wing groups, in concert with the Democratic Party, would select the Republican politicians, institutions, and media figures on which the beast would feed.”

Now, Continetti was vowing to take on the left at its own game—by producing hard-hitting reporting from a conservative perspective. “What picture of the world would one have in mind if the morning paper read like the New York Times—but with the subjects of the stories and the assumptions built into the text changed to reflect a conservative, not liberal, worldview?”

The Beacon’s mission, according to its website, is “uncovering the stories that the professional left hopes will never see the light of day.” It is published by the Center for American Freedom (CAF), a Republican advocacy organization loosely modeled on CAP, and which will have a budget of “several million dollars,” according to Politico. To spearhead its investigations, Continetti recruited journalists with solid reporting chops, such as Bill Gertz of The Washington Times.

But there are some striking differences between the Beacon and mainstream news organizations. The Beacon will feature, according to Politico, a “campaign-style war room,” directed by Drew Florio, who worked for Meg Whitman’s gubernatorial campaign and was an opposition researcher for Jon Huntsman. Tim Killeen, a former Republican National Committee staffer, will lead a research team. In an odd arrangement, the former oppo researchers will assist the journalists with fact-checking, research, and media monitoring. “At the Beacon,” Continetti wrote, “all friends of freedom will find an alternative to the hackneyed spin, routine misstatements, paranoid hyperbole, and insipid folderol of Democratic officials and the liberal gasbags on MSNBC and talk radio.”

The chairman of CAF’s board, Michael Goldfarb, is a former communications aide to the McCain campaign and a consultant who has worked for Sarah Palin and the Koch brothers. Continetti and Goldfarb became friends when they were both young writers at The Weekly Standard, but they have cultivated very different reputations in Washington. Goldfarb is known as a ruthless operative: One conservative journalist said of him, “I mean no disrespect, and I like him personally, but he is the single shadiest person on the right.”

Continetti, however, has long had aspirations of being something different: a reporter’s reporter. When he arrived in Washington after college in 2003, he was an earnest journalist with romantic notions about writing and ideas. After nearly ten years in conservative media, that version of Continetti seems to have vanished—and his transformation says as much about Washington as it does about him.

 

AT 30 YEARS OLD, Continetti still looks like a little boy wearing a suit. He was raised in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, where his father worked in the car business and his mother was a teacher. Both are independents. (His mother voted for Barack Obama in 2008.)

Continetti became a conservative while in college at Columbia—a leaning that intensified after September 11. But he didn’t want to be defined by his politics. “He was sensitive to being marginalized as a conservative,” one college friend told me. An acquaintance said: “He went to great lengths to cast himself as an honest conservative. He hated leftism on campus not because he was a hack but because he didn’t like the hacks. He was reasonable. That was very important to him.” His journalistic models, the acquaintance says, were Christopher Caldwell, a conservative who sometimes writes for The New York Times Magazine; Andrew Ferguson of The Weekly Standard; and The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell.

After graduating in 2003, Continetti moved to Washington to work at The Weekly Standard. He was eager to report, not to opine, and this goal set him apart from most of his peers. “If your ambition is to write for some prestigious magazine, that is very different from the aspiration, ‘I want my team to succeed,’” explains Reihan Salam, a writer for National Review.

Traditionally, conservative magazines have placed little emphasis on reporting. “The great missing element in conservative opinion journalism has been reporters,” says Andrew Ferguson. “I’ve seen interns rotating through the office. You say, ‘So what do you want to be?’ And they say, ‘I want to be George Will.’ ... When you come across someone like Matt who will make phone calls and go through boring government documents to find information, it’s a rare thing.”

During his first few years at the Standard, Continetti produced an insightful and scene-rich profile of General Wesley Clark and a narrative of Aaron Burr’s descendants’ hatred for Andrew Hamilton. Eager to learn the craft of reporting, he sought advice from other writers, such as Ryan Lizza, then The New Republic’s White House correspondent. (Lizza remembers him as “a smart, earnest reporter.”) And he was determined to preserve his independence. Libertarian blogger Julian Sanchez recalls Continetti telling him about a House Republican staffer who called to complain about a story. Continetti asked the staffer to tell him where the story had erred. “It’s not that you got something wrong; it’s just that it’s not helping,” said the staffer, according to Sanchez. Continetti replied, “Well, it’s not my job to help.”

In 2005, at the age of 23, Continetti got a Doubleday contract to write a book about Jack Abramoff and his associates, called The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine. It was seen as a bold move, although the project may not actually have been that risky: The New York Observer reported that Continetti’s boss, Bill Kristol, had steered the contract in Continetti’s direction.

Courageous or not, Continetti genuinely wanted to take a critical look at his own side. Appearing on “The Daily Show,” he talked about the pitfalls of confirmation bias: “If we are a Democrat, we filter out facts that are inconvenient to the Democratic Party. If we’re Republican, we filter out facts that are inconvenient to the Republican Party. ... This is a book filled with inconvenient facts.” Take his summary of the relationship between Tom DeLay’s House and K Street: “Lawmakers, DeLay was basically saying, relied on paid lobbyists to get bills passed, not the other way around. ... And DeLay, because of his ‘ideology,’ was happy to play along.”

The book made Continetti a conservative star. He penned columns for The New York Times (the first when he was only 24) and became a regular commentator on NPR. At the Standard, he started writing editorials, eventually becoming the magazine’s opinion editor. “I think I even remember him saying years ago that he’d be quite happy writing Gladwell-style pieces for the New Yorker,” his colleague and friend Matt Labash wrote in an e-mail. “But the more he wet his beak in pure polemics for their own sake, the more I think his opinions started piling up and his worldview started really taking shape.” Ferguson thought it was a shame to see Continetti write less of the narrative journalism he’d done so well: “They were very good editorials, but he was abandoning his unique asset, [the] ability to report and dig into things.”

Continetti’s second book, which was published in 2009, marked a significant departure. The Persecution of Sarah Palin was a full-throated defense of John McCain’s vice presidential nominee. In the book, Continetti levels some legitimate criticisms of media coverage of Palin. He finds that she was at times the victim of sloppy reporting—such as when The New York Times wrote that Palin had been a member of the controversial Alaska Independence Party “for two years,” when she hadn’t. (Her husband Todd had once been a member.) And he points out examples of sexism from mainstream commentators—such as CNN’s John Roberts, who questioned whether Palin could be vice president because she had a child with special needs.

But the book discounts all of Palin’s critics in Alaska as vindictive opponents of her crusading reforms, revealing the same confirmation bias that Continetti once disparaged. One of the most frequently cited sources is Continetti’s friend-and Palin adviser—Michael Goldfarb.

The Palin book signaled that Continetti had thrown in his lot with the Republican team. “Defending Sarah Palin at book-length is a very effective way to not get your calls returned by mainstream editors,” Labash told me via e-mail. “Matt’s a smart guy and he knows that. So recklessness or bravery, take your pick.” When I wrote Sanchez to request an interview about Continetti, he replied: “Ah yes; my annual ‘WTF happened to Matt Continetti’ moment arrived early this year.”

 

I MET CONTINETTI for coffee in January, a few weeks before he was due to marry Anne Kristol (daughter of Bill). He insisted on taping the interview himself, although, as he did not have any batteries for his recorder, I gave him some. I started to ask how his anger toward the media had developed since college, but, before I could finish, he laughed theatrically, for an awkwardly long time. “Do I seem angry to you?” he asked.

I asked if anything had changed his point of view since he graduated from college. “I stopped caring what liberals think about me,” he said. “When you’re young, you want to be friends with everybody. I’d run into people all around and everyone acts nicely. Eventually, you realize you are always going to be a conservative, and therefore flawed if not malevolent in the worldview of liberals. You might as well accept that.”

I was interested in the role the former oppo researchers would play at the Beacon. “I have five journalists, and then I have teams of people who are going to be helping those journalists. We will have more than twenty [people],” he said. “One problem with reporting on the right has been that a lot of young reporters don’t know where to turn. They don’t know what the techniques are to find facts, they don’t know how to search databases, they don’t know how to clip videos—so what we’ve done is, we’ve found people with [backgrounds] in those things.” The researchers would not have bylines, he said. I asked what sorts of methods they would employ, and Continetti replied, “I mean, you can ask the friends of The New Republic—the same thing for the Democratic Party.” The comparison, though, is a flawed one: Reporters at liberal magazines and mainstream newspapers call Democratic operatives as sources, but they do not employ them to help produce stories.

When I reached Goldfarb, he parried many of my questions with defensive comparisons to CAP and its reporting arm, ThinkProgress. For instance, when I asked why the Beacon has refused to disclose its donors, he said: “Like CAP, we will not disclose our donors. To the extent this lack of transparency raises concerns on the left, now they know how we’ve felt about CAP for the last ten years.”

Continetti’s march toward outright partisanship is not unusual in Washington. In the conservative media world in particular, there are significant rewards for helping out the movement—that is, for putting political objectives above journalistic ones. “If you are working for a conservative publication, you are kind of rewarded for not deviating,” says Sanchez. “The thing that is rewarded is, in some sense, the easiest, laziest thing. It is sort of hard [to] think, ‘I’m going to do the more difficult thing and win the prize of being less successful.’” Writers like David Brooks or David Frum—who criticize conservatives in mainstream publications—have been shunned by the right and are never fully accepted by the left.

So far, the Beacon’s coverage illustrates the tension between Continetti’s aspirations to produce serious journalism and its identity as an attack dog for the right. After it launched, the Beacon ran a solid story about New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to close a nuclear plant, which would benefit a competitor that had donated to his campaign. But other stories have missed the mark. For instance, a story by Adam Kredo attacked NPR for running “a series” reflecting the same view vis-à-vis nuclear weapons policy as one of its supposed donors, the Ploughshares Fund. But Kredo provided only two examples of this “series”—and the main one was an article from Foreign Policy magazine that had simply been re-posted on NPR’s website. A Beacon post by Andrew Stiles purported to have caught Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner admitting that the president’s 2013 budget is “unsustainable.” However, in the accompanying video, the secretary said the budget included adequate savings and that it was Medicare and Medicaid commitments, decades in the future, which would be “unsustainable.”

Meanwhile, unsigned posts by the “Washington Free Beacon Staff” have included items about a Democratic city councilman in Hartford getting a DUI, a former Democratic councilman in Nashville soliciting a prostitute, and Russell Simmons possibly hooking up in a bathroom at a party (apparently relevant because he has raised money for Obama). Sanchez observed that such items are “at odds with the ethos you need for good reporting, which is that there is something interesting that folks need to know, not something that is going to hit whatever pleasure center is stroked by learning a bad thing about a Democrat.” For Continetti, though, it seems that, under the tenets of “combat journalism,” no target is too small. Or, as he put it in his pugnacious manifesto, “At the Beacon, we follow only one commandment: Do unto them.”

Eliza Gray is an assistant editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 15, 2012 edition of the magazine.

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posted in: washington, caf, msnbc, the new republic, the new york times, the washington times, the weekly standard, andrew ferguson, barack obama, bill gertz, christopher caldwell, drew florio, julian sanchez, malcolm gladwell, matt continetti, matt labash, matthew continetti, meg whitman, michael goldfarb, sarah palin, tim killeen, tony blair, democratic party, virginia

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