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Washington Times Reaches Out to Tea Partiers

Solomon-conservatives.jpg
Solomon-conservatives.jpg

John Solomon (marquette.edu), TheConservatives.com

At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, way back in March, people who stopped by The Washington Times’ spacious booth could pick up red glossy business card-sized advertisements that just said: TheConservatives.com.

As the year went on, TheConservatives.com remained a mystery. In June, John Solomon, the editor of The Times, did not directly answer a question from TWI about a new Times-run conservative site. “When I came to the Times a year ago,” Solomon told TWI at the time, “I relinquished control of the editorial pages, which report directly to the publisher and a separate opinion editor. Our opinion pages, of course, have a center-right voice. But the decision I made created an important firewall between a newspaper’s opinion and news machines and one I encourage other editors to follow.”

[GOP1] Behind the scenes, the Website was slowly staffing up and getting ready for an official launch. This week, TheConservatives.com got an official rollout. Solomon appeared at a Heritage Foundation luncheon to introduce conservative bloggers to this new site. Sitting on his right was Brian Faughnan, a writer for RedState.com and The Weekly Standard who does most of the management of TheConservatives.com from The Times’ newsroom. Sitting on his left was Rob Bluey, the director of online strategy for the Heritage Foundation, an adviser to the site.

“We have a lot of excitement about this project,” said Solomon. “We think it does for the conservative side what Obama tried to create with his Blackberry tether, with all those people that he activated.”

Solomon sold the new site as a way to bring the energy and distributed reporting of conservative activists into the Washington mainstream. “We’re not trying to supplant or replace RedState or Townhall,” he said. “We love those sites–they play valuable, valuable roles every day. We want to create a new medium where things from Townhall and RedState and Twitter and Facebook are all aggregating up, and the most interesting ideas from grassroots, from the meritocracy of ideas, bubble up, using technology. And then we use our relationship with The Washington Times to marry the grassroots to the leadership every day.”

The launch of this new site, coming from a newspaper with extensive access to Congress and the White House, is only the latest example of a traditionally conservative news organization putting a premium on web outreach to conservative activists. Seven months ago Fox News debuted FoxNation.com, an opinion site that’s become a home for sensationalist articles and roiling, Democrat-bashing comment sections. The network even promoted the Website by asking Republicans like Mitt Romney and Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.) to endorse it. TheConservatives.com is relatively late to the party. But Solomon’s vision puts the site in a key role for conservative media, as an aggregator and amplifier for stories that might come from conservative organizations or from the activist base. In one way, it is crowding out long-standing conservative groups like Accuracy in Media — a forty-year old press-watching group that dogs mainstream reporters and networks. But in another way, it is doing what many liberals attack Fox News for doing–making sure that stories don’t die at AIM or on Facebook, instead making it into the mainstream.

In his pitch at the Heritage Foundation, Solomon made all of this explicit. The Times, he explained, played an important role in pushing stories that the White House didn’t like. “Before Andrew Breitbart did the ACORN series,” he said, “we did 47 stories about ACORN.” He explained how TheConservatives.com could run the news cycle by arguing that its “Right People” aggregator, which collects tweets and news from a small group of influential conservatives, changed the debate over Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The site was in demo mode, available to Times reporters.

“When we were demoing this, we were running Newt Gingrich as a personality,” explained Solomon. “Everything Newt Gingrich did on the social media space–on Facebook, on Twitter–was aggregating through the technology. We were sitting there–[seasoned Times reporter] Ralph Hallow was sitting alongside of me–and all of a sudden this little Twitter burst comes up from Newt, saying Sotomayor was racist. We jumped on it, we put that out there. That created, as you remember, days and days of a firestorm about whether her personal views about race and gender were biasing her views from the bench.”

Taking note on all of this was Don Irvine, the chairman of Accuracy in Media, and a regular attendee of the luncheons that Bluey organizes for conservative bloggers. A week earlier, Irvine had presided over AIM’s 40th anniversary conference. The group was founded by Irvine’s father, the economist Reed Irvine, as a dogged monitor of the press in the age when NBC, CBS and ABC defined the news for most of America. AIM’s targets shifted in the 1970s and 1980s, and during Bill Clinton’s presidency, it became best known for relentlessly pursuing theories that Vince Foster, the deputy White House counsel, was murdered. Its reputation has survived even as it has shrunken a bit. C-Span showed up to cover the entire conference, but as the day went on, most of the 80 chairs reserved for attendees emptied out. Tax forms from 2008 reveal that it took in less than $730,000 from donors that year, compared to the millions of dollars in donations that come in for the most prominent conservative press watchdog group, the Media Research Center. But its willingness to take on “fringe” topics gets AIM some attention.

“One day, in the Washington Post, when Clinton was in the White House, they had this whole diagram of the ‘right-wing media food chain,’” AIM President Don Irvine told TWI during the conference. (Reed Irvine passed away shortly after the 2004 election, and his son took the reins at AIM.) “I was surprised to see us on there, but that was because we annoyed the heck out of them. We were going after these stories that no one else would touch–Vince Foster, TWA 800. The problem was that no one was asking questions about those things.”

Jumping onto obscure or iffy causes is still what AIM does best. The organization has welcomed the Obama presidency by running multiple stories, almost all of them by AIM Report editor Cliff Kincaid, on the undying conspiracy theories about President Obama’s citizenship. And there’s some disappointment that AIM does not get more credit for jumping on stories like the past radicalism of Van Jones, the onetime green jobs czar who was pushed from his job after weeks of concentrated attacks from Fox News. But in the new media environment, what matters less is who gets credit than whether the stories break through. And thanks to Fox, they are breaking through.

“There’s a lot right with Fox News,” said Kincaid. “I think Reed Irvine’s efforts paved the way not only for talk radio, but for Fox News.”

Don Irvine concurred. “The landscape was very different before Fox,” he told TWI. “I can only imagine what would have happened had Fox been around during the Clinton years–back then, CNN and the other guys really did define the news.”

But AIM can succeed in pushing Fox to the right. In the speech that closed the conference, Kincaid claimed that he’d attended NewsCorp’s annual meeting on October 16, staring Rupert Murdoch down and telling him. “I’ve got a problem with one of your commentators, Marc Lamont Hill. I understand the need to be fair and balanced, but this man has a history of saluting cop killers.”

Hill, a professor of education and anthropology at Columbia University, moonlights as an expert on hip-hop. On Fox, said Kincaid, he was commenting on political issues “way beyond whatever expertise he might have had on rap music and breakdancing.” Kincaid found that Hill’s his Twitter page was “plastered with photos” of Assata Shakur, a former Black Panther who had gone to jail for the murder of a New Jersey police officer. “We called him the Van Jones of Fox News.” In Kincaid’s telling, the campaign and the confrontation with Murdoch got results.

“Mr. Kincaid,” he said, “I want to say that I appreciate the work that Accuracy in Media does. But that individual you mentioned, he was fired last week.”

The Washington Times op-ed page–which is completely separate from the news section–has never shied away from giving space to more extreme conservative views. With TheConservatives.com, however, it is opening up a news channel to a conservative movement still very much influenced by organizations like AIM. Asked by TWI whether he was ready for a White House or liberal backlash to the site, Solomon laughed and recalled that the Obama-Biden campaign had removed Washington Times reporters from its plane in the final stretch.

“There’ll be a site called www.TheProgressives.com as well,” said Solomon. “We’ll have it up and running in 2-3 weeks.”

According to the domain registration directory WhoIs.com, the domain name was purchased by Domain Asset Holdings of Maryland on January 25, and it is up for sale. TheConservatives.com is owned by The Washington Times. Solomon did not answer a follow-up e-mail about the new site.

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