A Proposal to Start a Responsible, Reliable, Reasonable Conservative News Organization
America needs a new, fact-based, journalistic, and intelligent conservative news outlet to report (and not merely comment upon) the nation and the world from the worldview of the right. This is a solid business opportunity. And the timing is right.
Yes, I am serious; I want to see this happen. And mind you, I say this as an entrenched member of the Eastern liberal media establishment. My rationale:
Establishment mainstream media are liberal. The vast majority of journalists are liberal. Journalism schools are liberal. Our failure to be honest and open about that is a key cause of the distrust that has overtaken news media, particularly from the right.
Starting 45 years ago, the media establishment set out to destroy a Republican presidency and succeeded. That could be happening again now. The complete collapse of trust in news media may be bookended by the Nixon and Trump presidencies. What then? Where does journalism stand when it cannot meet its most fundamental goal of informing debate?
We in liberal media left a vacuum that was eagerly filled first on radio by Rush Limbaugh et al, then on cable TV by Fox News, and then on the net by Breitbart, Infowars and worse. (Is The Wall Street Journal the antidote? I say no because it focuses on business, it is too expensive for most Americans, and it is owned by the man who has single-handedly wrought so much damage on American media and political discourse, Rupert Murdoch). These media outlets set out to utterly discredit mainstream, liberal media and they succeeded. They gave a hearing and a voice to the frustration of much of America that mainstream media could not hear, would not empathize with, and did not reflect. They also skewed the news and degraded the public conversation, fueling polarization and exploiting hostility.
The way to fix that is not to tweak the current news product. The right wing will never trust The New York Times and its ilk. It is not enough to hire another conservative columnist or to helicopter in to report one more good, empathetic story from the heartland. It is good, it is absolutely necessary for mainstream newsrooms to cultivate and support diversity of background and worldview to improve their journalism. But especially in the internet age, it is also vital that we expand the diversity of the entire media ecosystem, giving voice, empathy, and reporting to many underserved communities: African-Americans, Latinos, the LGBTQ, the disabled, and on and on.
In that ecosystem, I see room for and a need for a quality conservative outlet. In this time of moral panic around fake news and manipulation, I also believe it is important that we pay attention not just to tamping down the bad stuff but also to encouraging, developing, and supporting quality in every quarter.
I also believe disciplined, well-reported conservative journalism will improve the game of liberal media through competition. See how The New York Times and The Washington Post are improving each other now; imagine how an organization covering the nation from new angles would improve them both.
The time is right because the nation needs quality news to inform a half of America that is now under the thrall of Fox News. The time is right because Fox News is, thanks to its many scandals, vulnerable to new competition. And the time is right because there are many smart, reasonable, responsible conservatives who are gathering around their disgust with Donald Trump and around their fear of what is happening to their party and their movement.
Even the definition of conservatism is at peril. For the purposes of this venture, what does it mean to be conservative? I would return to basics: a belief in fiscal conservatism, smaller government, support for business, support for trade, and a strong military. Leave the culture wars aside as an invention of the divisive edge.
It does the nation no good to debate to walls: conservatives yelling one way and liberals the other, each hearing only the other’s volume. We need civil, intelligent, well-informed debate for democracy to function, face-to-face. That is why I want to see the launch of a quality conservative news organization. That is why I believe even liberal media and funders should support such a venture.
It is not hard to name the conservative media figures who could be at home there: David Frum, Nicolle Wallace, J.D. Vance, Ana Navarro, Charlie Sykes, Jennifer Rubin, Michael Gerson, Steve Schmidt…. Where are they heard now? Mostly on liberal media outlets: MSNBC, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and so on, for balance. Where is their American Telegraph to the Guardian that is U.S. mainstream media? Where is their platform? Where is their place to denounce those who are ruining their movement? How do they inform and bring a reasonable voice to their own? It is not hard to imagine they would be enthusiastic. I have spoken to a few. They are.
One such conservative told me it would be impossible to compete on cable news against Fox. I think I agree. I would hate to see this venture dragged into the corrupting ratingsbait gutter of that medium. And I believe the target audience for this outlet shouldn’t be the old and older Fox News viewers (like my relatives and I’m sure a few of yours, who are long-since brainwashed and lost). Instead, it should serve the next generations of citizens who want to see reporting and perspective from a conservative point of view.
I will confess that my own liberal reflex makes me want to say, “Shhhh. If we don’t tell them about these things, they’ll vote my way.” But we now know from experience how foolhardy that is. Ignoring that worldview only opens up opportunities for exploitation of it. And, again, what we most need in our democracy today is real and rigorous debate based on fact.
So what is the venture? I would make it a model of a net-age media outlet unfettered by legacy expectations. It should bring its news to the people where they are having their conversations, on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, countering lies and assorted idiocies there. It should speak in the contexts of many platforms; short videos and memes are fine so long as they carry facts. I think there are many sponsorship opportunities but I would want to avoid the temptations of volume-based advertising and clickbait. I see many opportunities for membership and patronage but would avoid pay walls because the point of this is not to serve a tiny, isolated elite but instead to serve the broader debate. I would accept money from foundations and philanthropists but under strict and transparent rules to assure that no rich guy’s ideology hijacks it from its journalistic mission.
I would hire a smart and responsible editor with assured independence. As for the journalists — the reporters, damnit, not columnists — I would not impose an impossible ideological litmus test. Instead, I would insist that candidates go listen deeply to the people this venture aims to serve — the unemployed factory worker who is not touched by the good news of today’s low unemployment rates; the families who worry about the quality of their children’s education; the business executives who want to expand and hire ; the victims of America’s opioid epidemic— bringing back evidence of their needs, a cogent expression of their goals, and a sense of the journalism that will help them.
When I started Entertainment Weekly, former Time and Sports Illustrated Managing Editor Ray Cave warned me that my toughest job in starting a magazine based on criticism would be finding good critics. I doubted him but he was right. The hardest part of starting this new venture will be to find enough good journalists who are also conservative. This exposes a weakness of journalism schools, which we must address by recruiting more candidates from those parts of the American mindset, to feed into this newsroom and liberal newsrooms, too.
I imagine starting small with maybe a dozen journalists whose job it is to report — report, damnit! — on key policy issues: health care, jobs, trade, the economy, education, the environment, justice, foreign affairs, equality. Yes, there will be some coverage of politics. But the aim is not to capture the dramatic narrative of conflict nor is it to predict the future — that is precisely how mainstream news media have failed the nation. No, the aim is to inform the nation and be informed by it, to gain the trust of those who lost trust so as to have intellectually honest conversations based on sometimes uncomfortable truths. The aim is to help reclaim democracy.