The rise of left-leaning news sites has inspired conservative-backed online investigative reporting.
For the first few years of George W. Bush’s presidency, Mark Tapscott was a journalist without a newsroom, shouting from the sidelines about his industry’s swift decline. Tapscott ran the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Media and Public Policy, and trained reporters in the use of technology for research and crunching numbers. When he considered how few conservatives, libertarians, or real skeptics of federal power were working in newsrooms, he saw a problem that was making the growth of government possible.
“The [Freedom of Information Act],” Tapscott wrote in a 2004 commentary, “has been subverted from its original intent – shining light in all corners of the federal establishment – and used instead by the bureaucrats, special interests and politicians who live off the Nanny State, especially those hiding behind closed doors in places like Health and Human Services, the Education Department and Housing and Urban Development.”
Sitting up straight in his office at the Washington Examiner, where Tapscott has been the editorial page editor for three years, he repeats the point. “There are 57 people in the Freedom of Information Hall of Fame,” he says. “Three of them are conservatives — two of them, if you don’t count me. Now, that’s a problem.”
Since its launch in 2005, the second daily metro newspaper owned by conservative billionaire Phillip Anschutz (the first was the San Francisco Examiner) has struggled for an identity in a city crawling with political journalists. But since the November 2008 election, the Examiner has beefed up its staff and pulled prominent right-leaning reporters and pundits away from publications like The American Spectator and National Review. Tapscott and a growing staff of political and opinion writers are carving out an identity as the conservative version of the left-leaning opinion and investigative journalism sites that — in the view of many conservatives — have used reporting to embarrass conservatives and the Republican Party.
It wasn’t always this way. In 2004, Tapscott and many other conservatives looked at the reporting and fallout of a badly flawed CBS News report on President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard as a watershed moment, the arrival of a form of citizen journalism that could do distributed research and bring down media titans. Tapscott was awed by the “reporting power demonstrated by the blog leaders in Rathergate such as Littlegreenfootballs.com and [Powerlineblog.com],” he wrote at the time. And in 2006, Tapscott joined forces with conservative and liberal bloggers to uncover the identity of a senator who put a hold on anti-earmark legislation. But conservatives point to that period as the tipping point when liberal-leaning sites like Talking Points Memo, whose Muckraker blog chased the “secret hold” story, overtook conservative sites. By the time that voters went to the polls to elect Barack Obama, conservatives saw sites such as TPM, The Huffington Post, Media Matters, Pro Publica, and the Center for American Progress as part of a new left-wing conspiracy. The Examiner has beaten other outlets to the punch in putting together a right-leaning answer to that.
“I don’t think TPM has any special claim to the type of reporting we do,” said Josh Marshall, the editor of TPM. “If the Examiner wants to get reporters down into the weeds holding the administration and Congress to account with tough, by-the-books reporting, I think that’s not only possible but a great thing.”
If a number of other conservative publishers have their way, the Examiner will get more competition. PajamasMedia, the blog conglomerate that grew out of the “Rathergate” story, is talking to potential reporters for an investigative journalism site. Jennifer Rubin, the site’s Washington editor, declined to discuss the plans but pointed to the site’s coverage of anti-tax “Tea Parties” as proof that “the old model of elite journalists peddling liberal opinion as ‘objective reporting’ is dying.” NewMajority.com, an opinion-heavy site launched by conservative writer David Frum on Inauguration Day, employed former Republican National Committee staffer Moira Bagley as an investigative reporter, but published only 11 of her stories before letting her move on in mid-February. Journalist and commentator Tucker Carlson is currently interviewing conservative journalists for a new site tentatively called The Daily Caller, although he declined to discuss it with TWI, explaining that he had “launched too many ventures that were heavily publicized before they were prepared for scrutiny.”
But Tapscott’s paper has gotten there first. After Anschutz’s Baltimore Examiner newspaper was closed in February, more resources were allocated to the Washington paper. They’ve been used to scoop up talent from other conservative media. Tim Carney wrote a column about the lobbying industry while still editing the Evans-Novak Political Report; when founder Robert Novak decided to shutter it in January, Carney moved to the Examiner full-time. One week later, the paper hired Byron York away from a nine-year stint National Review, where he’d been the magazine’s lead political reporter. At the start of June it poached David Freddoso also of National Review, the reporter who’d written the bestselling “The Case Against Barack Obama” for Regnery, and it hired J.P. Freire, who had recently left The American Spectator, to be the managing editor of the editorial pages.
In his modest office, a short walk away from the Examiner’s newsroom, Tapscott can’t pour enough praise on the new hires or on the columnists that have been added to the paper’s lineup, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt, and political encyclopedia Michael Barone, hired away from U.S. News and World Report. Scott Ott, a political satirist who won fame in the conservative blogosphere for his site “Scrappleface,” now puts his satire in a weekly column. In a 2004 blog post, Tapscott had mulled over what could happen if a newspaper grabbed fresh political commentary and put it in one place. “If The Washington Post were to sign on Powerline not merely for weekly op-eds and/or the reprint rights but as members of the reporting team,” he speculated, “the Posties would have the collective talents, experience and insight of Hindrocket, The Big Trunk and Deacon to help shape the paper’s reporting agenda, assist in developing major stories and generate new sources for the reporting staff.” Five years later, he’s doing just that.
According to Chris Stirewalt, the paper’s bow-tie**-**wearing political editor, that lineup has brought attention to the paper that’s also boosted the political coverage. “Two years ago,” says Stirewalt, “people were saying ‘Gosh, if only if there was a vertically integrated place where I could get all this stuff.’ I promise you that two years ago, nobody said ‘You know, if you have Barone and York and Carney and this kid in a bow tie writing columns in a newspaper it would be really cool. That was serendipity. Sometimes if the people are available and the money is there, things come together.”
The results so far: increased Web traffic (up 300 percent since January, according to Web editor Matthew Sheffield) and more attempts to shame federal agencies, members of Congress, and the White House. Some of it has gone largely unnoticed so far. The editorial page’s Kevin Mooney reports a feature called “Dirty Money,” in which he digs through databases to find out which officers or members of unions have been convicted of crimes and how much those unions have given to members of Congress, then calls up the members’ office to ask whether they’ll give the money back. To date, none of them have even given Mooney an on-the-record response; Tapscott hopes to tie that up into a scolding editorial.
York’s political reporting has had a greater calculable impact. In his columns and in his blog, York is given space to hound the White House about embarrassing stories that interest conservatives more than other newsroom’s editors. York wrote multiple pieces on a somewhat obscure complication that preceded Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) turning down an appointment as Commerce Secretary — whether or not the Census would be run from the Commerce Department or from the White House. Since last week, York has filed piece after piece on the firing of Gerald Walpin, an Americorps inspector general who has asked whether his investigation of the Democratic mayor of Sacramento was ended because the target is an ally of the president. Since the paper ran those first stories last week, the controversy has gone up the food chain to Fox News and The Wall Street Journal.
Over the next few months, Sheffield wants to update the Examiner’s site to “integrate social media” and build on what’s already bringing links to the site from RealClearPolitics, Fox Nation, and conservative blogs. And this week’s purchase of The Weekly Standard by Anschutz’s Clarity Media Group was welcomed by Tapscott, who might have an even larger pool of conservative talent to draw on for his long-term project. “I am ecstatic about the move,” he said, “and the prospect of working with Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes.”
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