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Conservative Media Struggles For Credibility, Amid Coverage Of Hookers, Hamas And Hagel

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Daily Caller editor-in-chief Tucker Carlson appeared on Fox News'
Daily Caller editor-in-chief Tucker Carlson appeared on Fox News' "Hannity" on Oct. 2, 2012.

WASHINGTON –- On Thursday evening atop the capital city's posh W hotel, National Review editor Rich Lowry toasted Robert Costa on becoming the magazine's Washington editor. The 27-year-old journalist, Lowry declared, deserved praise for moving the long-running conservative outlet into a future that depended on original, online reporting.

"When National Review Online first started down here in Washington under the tutelage of Jonah Goldberg, working the phones meant Jonah calling the local Chinese restaurant to inquire about what had happened to his order of General Tso's Chicken," Lowry joked before the crowd of prominent National Review writers -- including Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru -- and attendees such as columnist George Will and former Dick Cheney aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

The National Review, a leading voice in the conservative movement since 1955, isn't cutting back on opinion writing or strong editorial stands. But Costa and his team of three reporters are gaining recognition inside Republican circles and among the Washington media establishment for actually making calls, staking out the Capitol and breaking news. Costa recently reported the inside story of the attempted House GOP "coup" against Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and scooped that former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will speak at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference.

It's the type of shoe-leather reporting that many political observers and even some prominent conservatives claim is sorely lacking on the right. Their critiques seemed confirmed this past month as several conservative media-driven stories fell flat, from speculation that Chuck Hagel wouldn’t be confirmed as defense secretary to reports that he’d spoken to a shadowy (and fictitious) group called "Friends of Hamas." On Friday, a prominent conservative writer and commentator was found to have been heavily involved in a paid propaganda operation funded by the Malaysian government. And over the past 24 hours, both The Washington Post and ABC News have called into question an explosive Daily Caller story alleging that Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) slept with prostitutes in the Dominican Republic.

And so, while outlets like The Daily Caller, Breitbart News and the Washington Free Beacon have sprouted and, in some cases, prospered during President Barack Obama's administration, concern is mounting that they and others in the conservative media universe are shedding their credibility by focusing more on supposed scandals than reporting the basics of who, what, when, where, why and how.

"There's absolutely no pretense from any of these publications of giving a policy a sort of objective hearing,” Daniel McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative, told The Huffington Post. "It's very clear that it comes from the same mindset as talk radio and Fox News. This is something that's by and for a particular kind of conservative." McCarthy hesitated before asking, "It’s a circle jerk, isn’t it?"

RedState editor Erick Erickson argued last week that conservative outlets have been "failing to advance ideas and stories" beyond their ideological borders. "The echo in the chamber has gotten so loud it is not well understood outside the echo chamber in the mainstream press and in the public," Erickson wrote. "It translates only as anger and noise, neither of which are conducive to the art of persuasion."

It was, in many respects, a remarkable admission. Erickson, whose site is known more for conservative activism than reporting, is not seen as someone with deep journalistic roots. But he's hardly the only one who has concluded that one of the Republican Party's major failures in the past election cycle was the inability of the conservative press to shape the conversation.

Conservative media made noise during the 2012 election but had little impact on the news cycle. Both The Daily Caller and Breitbart News hyped old videos of Obama, which despite being amplified on The Drudge Report and Fox News, received more mockery from the national press than follow-up. In response to Romney’s infamous "47 percent video" –- a clearly newsworthy recording –- Fox News attempted to equate his remarks with a 14-year-old Obama quote about wealth "redistribution." The out-of-context clip had little resonance beyond those cable viewers still convinced that Obama is a socialist.

The conservative media drumbeat did drive attention to the Fast & Furious scandal and the administration's response to the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. But while the national media covered those topics, it didn't obsess over them. It some cases, mainstream reporters poked holes in the scandals.

Perhaps the most defining feature of the conservative media's election coverage, however, was just how wildly off base it was in predicting the outcome. Paid for their political analysis, several prominent conservative pundits predicted a landslide Romney victory. On election night, Karl Rove, speaking as an analyst for Fox News, practically begged the network to hold off on calling Ohio, and therefore the election, for Obama.

The election results should have served as a sobering point of introspection. But in recent weeks, as Obama’s second term got underway, the hits kept coming. Conservative outlets like the Weekly Standard and Washington Free Beacon, along with high-profile writers such as Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, failed to derail Hagel’s nomination after producing a flood of stories focusing on the former Republican senator’s past criticism of the pro-Israel lobby and the Iraq war.

The anti-Hagel pile-on also produced notable missteps, such as when Breitbart’s Ben Shapiro relayed word from an anonymous Senate aide that Hagel may have once been paid to speak before the group "Friends of Hamas." It was an easily debunked rumor that nonetheless got picked up, with some caveats, by the Washington Times, National Review and Fox Business Network. While all news outlets make mistakes, what stood out was Shapiro's unwillingness to admit that he pushed a bogus rumor.

Conor Friedersdorf, a right-leaning blogger at The Atlantic who previously criticized Rubin's 2012 coverage for not being fact-based, recently pointed to the Hagel stories as evidence of"conservatism's information disadvantage." Writing on the same morning as Erickson's post, Friedersdorf argued that conservative writers, including Rubin, had willfully ignored the political realities surrounding the likelihood of Hagel's confirmation.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Rubin said she wasn't familiar with Friedersdorf's writing; nor, she added, was she bothered that Erickson had criticized her for doing Romney's "dirty work" from her perch at the Post. She defended her work, saying that she regularly breaks news, interviews major candidates and covers foreign policy.

"That I do not adhere to a straight-line, far-right agenda is going to upset some people," she said, with regard to her conservative detractors.

FROM MALAYSIA TO MENENDEZ

Conservative media has suffered more bumps and bruises post-Hagel. BuzzFeed revealed Friday that the Malaysian government had paid nearly $400,000 to conservative writer Josh Treviño –- who in turn hired other conservative writers –- as part of a paid propaganda campaign. Government-funded columns and blog posts ran on several conservative sites and The Huffington Post, which has since removed Treviño s work.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported Monday that a female escort in the Dominican Republic admitted to lying when she claimed to The Daily Caller that she had had sex with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). ABC News joined the chorus Tuesday morning, revealing that Republican operatives had pushed them to cover the Menendez story as well, including helping to "arrange the woman's appearance, along with two additional women, in back-to-back, on-line interviews." Unlike the Caller, ABC passed, concerned about the veracity of the information. During a Tuesday afternoon interview on CNN, the Caller's executive editor David Martosko said he couldn't confirm whether the two women who spoke to his publication on video were paid as well.

The Caller, nevertheless, stood by its story, saying that the prostitute identified by the Post was not one of the two it had previously tied to Menendez. Matthew Boyle, who reported the story for the Caller, also pushed back early Tuesday morning against the Post story in a piece for Breitbart, his current employer.

"As for the Menendez story, my original pieces focused on both the travel and the prostitution allegations," Boyle told The Huffington Post in an email Monday night. "Breitbart News has chosen to focus on the influence peddling, crony capitalism, and corruption issues. Senator Menendez is a Democrat, and he is being protected by what Andrew Breitbart used to call the Democrat Media Complex. If Senator Menendez were a Republican, the mainstream media would have been all over the story day one."

In addition to discussing the Menendez saga, Boyle also responded to several questions about the place conservative reporters occupy in the broader media universe. HuffPost agreed to include his responses in full, as per his request:

To your first question, yes. I believe you and I had a similar discussion when we talked about Operation Fast and Furious last summer when you interviewed me. How many times does new media need to beat the mainstream establishment media to stories before they realize that the new media is better than they are? Fast and Furious. Solyndra. Weinergate. Occupy. Congressional insider trading. Crony Capitalism. Obamacare waivers in Pelosi’s district. JournoList. ACORN. Monica Lewinsky. Shall I go on?

As for why, first off, reporters are often lazy. Second, reporters naturally lean left politically. Which is fine – everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But they should be open about their politics and how it affects their work, rather than hiding it from their readers and their viewers. Everything from story selection to source building to how stories are framed are shaped by reporters’ personal politics. The mainstream media claims to be objective while pushing a liberal agenda as writ.

As for Erickson's critique of conservative reporting, Boyle said, "I think his criticisms do not apply to Breitbart News." He continued:

More generally, the conservative media's reporting is like any other media's reporting -- there is good and bad. But singling out conservative media for reportorial standards is self-serving at best, especially if and when done by the mainstream media, which has consistently downplayed stories harmful to its political interests, and played up stories that help its favored candidates. Their claims to be the representatives of journalistic integrity are absurd, to say the least.

I do agree with Erickson to the extent that some conservative media have too often kissed the ring of power in the GOP establishment in exchange for access, and quick scoops, rather than focusing on telling the truth. That needs to change and that's what we at Breitbart are on the forefront of doing. I can’t think of any place actually doing what Erickson called for better than Breitbart News.

“I'm a big fan of Breitbart's reporting and uncovering stories,” Erickson said in an email to The Huffington Post. “But the right still needs an Associated Press of its own writing about the day to day news.”

'IT’S A SHIPWRECK'

Some conservatives say the problem isn’t that the national media is covering up for Democrats, but that attention-grabbing, right-leaning outlets aren't producing credible journalism that can stand up alongside reporting from nonpartisan and left-of-center outlets.

When The Huffington Post visited the offices of The American Conservative on Thursday morning, McCarthy didn’t mince words when describing the current state of conservative media: "It's a shipwreck."

McCarthy praised reporting by Costa and the Washington Examiner's Tim Carney, but had a less positive take on newer outlets that, to him, appear more focused on sensationalism than legitimate scoops. While McCarthy described The Daily Caller as "somewhat qualitatively better" than Breitbart or the Washington Free Beacon, he said all three appear to be trying to mimic the hyper-activity of BuzzFeed while wanting to be "hyper-partisan."

Three days later, MSNBC's Chris Hayes brought together four conservative writers and strategists to weigh in the state of conservative media, and more specifically, Erickson’s critique. Bloomberg View columnist Josh Barro, like McCarthy, cited Costa's "outstanding work," while saying The Daily Caller does both good and "really bad" journalism and that "everything that Breitbart runs is stupid."

"Part of the problem though for the right trying to develop these media outlets is that they haven't realized, in some cases, when you do bad reporting, its not just not useful, it's actually brand damaging," Barro said.

One Republican communications strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, given ongoing dealings with reporters, complained to The Huffington Post that quality reporting on the right often gets overshadowed by work that lacks basic journalistic standards and professionalism. For that reason, the strategist said, Republican sources were inclined to approach mainstream or left-of-center news outlets, more trusted for getting facts straight, when trying to move an item.

"It ends up in this echo chamber because of a lack of credibility, perceived or not, when one of these conservative outlets breaks a story," the strategist said. "It stays in the conservative echo chamber until that information is verified.”

‘I’M NOT HIRING WINE STEWARDS’

The complaints are hardly new. Four years ago, on stage at CPAC, Tucker Carlson told the conservative faithful that right-leaning journalists need to do reporting that meets the standards of The New York Times. "Conservatives need to build institutions that mirror those institutions,” Carlson said. “That's the truth."

The truth didn’t go over too well. Some attendees heckled Carlson for suggesting that conservative media, in any way, should follow the Gray Lady’s example.

"I wasn't talking about thematic accuracy, which the Times lacks," Carlson said recently at a midtown Manhattan hotel bar, a few hours after finishing guest-hosting duties on "Fox & Friends Weekend." "I meant, strictly speaking, grammatical accuracy, strictly speaking, factual accuracy."

Reflecting on his remarks four years earlier, Carlson said that the "essential problem remains."

"It's really expensive to cover the news and it's much cheaper to opine on the news," explained Carlson, who launched The Daily Caller in 2010 and serves as its editor-in-chief. For that reason, he said, "people’s tendency will always be to do the latter, just for economic reasons."

The Daily Caller has had some successes in its three-year history, including its coverage of the waste and abuse within the Republican National Committee. It also obtained leaked discussions from Journolist, a private listserv of liberal bloggers, policy wonks and political journalists which this reporter first profiled in 2009. The Daily Caller reported last year that now former Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) hadn’t lived in the state for over 30 years and, just last month, that Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) will get a primary challenger.

But such reporting has been overshadowed by The Daily Caller’s more sensational stories over the past year, such as one featuring a cache of tweets from Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teenager shot dead while walking home from a convenience store. MSNBC host and former Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough blasted conservative media at the time for trolling Martin’s social media history "to find ominous looking pictures" of the dead teenager.

In October, The Daily Caller published a 2007 video of then-Sen. Obama giving a rousing speech at Hampton University, a historically black college, in which he criticized the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. The Drudge Report teased the story and Carlson appeared the same night on Fox News' "Hannity" to discuss what was promoted as a racially charged speech finally unearthed.

But while the entire speech was never published online or aired in full during the 2008 presidential campaign, numerous media outlets -– including Carlson’s former MSNBC program -– had covered excerpts of it, which led to ample mockery of The Daily Caller’s story as old news. Andrew Sullivan went a step further, calling Carlson a "racist demagogue" for hyping the speech anew.

"No one had seen it before because it had never aired before. Period," Carlson told The Huffington Post. "We were attacked by Sam Feist, the Washington bureau chief of CNN, immediately attacked us for running this video."

"I was kind of surprised by it," Carlson said of the media's reaction. "The now-president is calling the Congress racist and saying they’re shafting New Orleans because it’s majority black. That’s a pretty stout claim. No evidence to back it up. I thought that was interesting as hell, talking in a way he doesn’t normally talk. I was denounced as racist for pointing that out. Whatever."

Carlson said he wouldn’t expect conservative media's reporting to get significant pick-up in the national media, which he considers "liberal." But he deflected questions about whether a right-wing echo chamber was doing a disservice to conservatives and Republicans.

"I would flip it around and say, what's the total population of people who read Rick Hertzberg's editorials in the New Yorker and read The New York Times every day and watch CBS News at night?" Carlson asked. "That’s a smaller universe than watch Fox and read The Daily Caller. It's not just right-wing world. It's left-wing world [that] is also talking to itself."

Carlson argued that The Daily Caller, now profitable and with a staff around 50, is "practicing traditional journalism," while other outlets, like The New York Times and Washington Post, are cheerleading for the administration. He insists that Washington reporters are overly defensive of Obama –- noting the criticism Daily Caller reporter Neil Munro received for interrupting the president in the Rose Garden last June –- and too deferential to the administration.

"I look for aggression," Carlson said of his hiring process. "I'm not hiring wine stewards. I'm hiring journalists. I'm looking for someone who is single-mindedly focused on getting information." Carlson said he wanted drive "more than anything."

"I want that more than experience," he added. "I want that more than pedigree. I don't care if you've graduated from college or not. I've hired a number of people who didn’t graduate from college. I don't care. Why would a degree mean anything to me? It doesn’t. Trust me."

GROWING PAINS

The history of journalism is filled with brilliant reporters who never bothered with college and scoffed at those who hyper-professionalized the craft.

Carney and Costa aren't those reporters. Each received significant training before being thrown into the deep end of political journalism and heading to cable news studios.

Carney headed after college to Human Events, the favorite publication of former President Ronald Reagan, which last week announced plans to kill its print edition. In an interview with The Huffington Post, he said he received his "graduate school" education while working for three years under the late Robert Novak, a legendary columnist whose conservative views were grounded in shoe-leather reporting.

While some segments of conservative media cling to the notion that Obama is anti-business, Carney said he never shared "the view that Obama was waging war on business and lobbyists." For that reason, he's aggressively covered lobbying and influence during the Obama years. "Increasingly, conservatives are realizing that Obama's willingness to play special interest politics in big business is a line of attack and Solyndra isn't the only case of crony capitalism that’s ever occurred," he said.

Carney singled out New York Times reporter Nick Confessore -- who recently reported on an arrangement with the group Organizing For America that allows individuals giving or raising $500,000 to attend meetings with the president –- for doing good work covering money, politics and special interests. More conservative and mainstream media reporters, he argued, need to dig into the topic.

Costa interned in conservative media (The Wall Street Journal editorial page) and establishment media outlets (PBS's "Charlie Rose" show and ABC News' "This Week with George Stephanopoulos"). He joined The National Review straight after finishing graduate school at the University of Cambridge, and worked as a magazine fellow, Capitol Hill correspondent and presidential campaign reporter.

During last year’s CPAC gathering, Costa offered a college-aged audience a piece of advice he had received about the need to learn the basics of reporting, rather than trying to become the next George Will or Charles Krauthammer overnight.

"You can't just stay in the conservative bubble," Costa said. "If you want to compete with all kind of journalists -- especially the liberal journalists -- you've got to be able to play their game and do things how they do it."

Costa certainly gets outside the conservative bubble. His party Thursday was attended not only by right-of-center scribes, but reporters from The New York Times, Politico, ABC News and USA Today. Costa has made hundreds of appearances on CNBC, for which he is an analyst, and MSNBC, where he regularly appears on "Morning Joe," "The Daily Rundown" and "Hardball." Since signing with CNBC in 2011, Costa hasn’t appeared on Fox News. He did, however, stop by NPR’s "On Point" the morning after the National Review party.

Held up as an example of the conservative reporter with mainstream cred, Costa argues that it's a matter of time and experience before others break through. The 2012 election was "baptism through fire" for the conservative media, he said, especially since some outlets didn't even exist the first time Obama ran.

"What I took away was, the 2012 campaign was a great learning experience for many conservative media reporters, across the spectrum on the right," Costa said. "I think the news judgment in many organizations -- a lot of stories that were floated or thought were hot never really stuck. It wasn't just because of bias on the left or bias in the media."

"Conservative journalists are recognizing that they have to offer more to readers beyond talking points and columns," Costa added. "I think that's the evolution right now -- moving toward narrative journalism, investigative journalism. It’s a growing process. There will be some growing pains."

This story appears in Issue 41 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, March 22.

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