If you were in Washington in the 1990s, you may recall that the left spent a considerable amount of time and energy focused on intellectual infrastructure. Progressives looked at the kind of operations conservatives had put together — think tanks, activist organizations, foundations, conferences, etc. — and realized the left needed to play catch-up.
And they did. Liberals got to work and created an incredibly impressive network of institutions and outlets. It didn’t happen overnight, of course, but in time, powerhouse outlets like Media Matters, MoveOn.org, TPM, and the Center for American Progress were not only up and running, but also having a major impact.
The great irony is, the left sought to duplicate the right’s intellectual infrastructure, and had so much success, the right now wants to duplicate the left’s intellectual infrastructure.
Impressed by the effectiveness of the liberal Center for American Progress, a group of conservative journalists and operatives are preparing to engage in their own sincerest form of flattery — launching an advocacy group with a similar name and mission but very different target.
Part assault on CAP and part homage, the Center for American Freedom’s goal is to wage a well-funded assault on the Obama White House and the liberal domination of partisan online media.
Based in Washington, it will have an annual budget of “several million dollars,” according to its chairman, Michael Goldfarb, and will house a new conservative online news outlet, the Washington Free Beacon, edited by former Weekly Standard writer Matthew Continetti. It will also include a campaign-style war room led by two former chiefs of the Republican National Committee’s vaunted research operation, and a media-monitoring shop that aims to do to MSNBC what Media Matters has done to Fox News.
I don’t doubt Goldfarb will have plenty of access to financial support from plenty of right-wing fat cats.
But it’s worth pausing to note that the “Center for American Freedom” — no credit for creativity, guys — isn’t the first stab at duplicating the left’s recent institutional success. Consider this list: Freedom’s Watch, FreedomWorks, the Coalition for a Conservative Majority, National Council for a New America, The Vanguard, Move America Forward, Resurgent Republic, Renewing American Leadership, and the American Action Network. Do these names sound familiar? Probably not, but they were all conservative groups that popped up in recent years, some to great fanfare and with big budgets, each intending to bolster the right’s infrastructure. They all flopped.
We’ll see if CAF has more success, but I have my doubts.
Also note, this new initiative intends to try its hand at something the right is generally awful at: investigative journalism.
The Beacon won’t cover the Republican presidential campaign currently consuming much of the nation’s media attention, Goldfarb said.
“We want to break news, we want to do investigative reporting, and that’s a big reason why we’re investing so heavily in the research component of this thing,” he said.
For all I know, Goldfarb will do fine investigative journalism. I suppose we’ll see soon enough.
But let’s just say the right’s track record in this area is abysmal. Remember the “sting” targeting NPR last year? It was pretty pathetic. The Planned Parenthood expose fell apart a month earlier. The Shirley Sherrod video, intended to be a sterling example of the right’s investigative reporting, became a notorious example of new-media deception. The entire ACORN controversy was built around a series of misleading and heavily-edited videos.
Looking back over the last several decades, most of the time, quality investigative journalism has come from mainstream news organizations and left-leaning outlets like The Nation and Mother Jones. The right, historically, has avoided this kind of work, preferring to create outlets like Fox News, National Review, and the Weekly Standard.
Whether you find those conservative outlets valuable or not, it’s fair to say investigative journalism isn’t part of their m.o. The Republican-friendly outlets just don’t do in-depth, shoe-leather journalism to break major news stories.
Over the last couple of years, conservatives have begun taking steps to change this, bolstered by far-right financial backing. What’s wrong with this? In theory, nothing. Investigative journalism can play a valuable role in holding officials accountable and ensuring transparency. If folks on the right want to do some digging and turn up malfeasance, more power to them.
But they’ve proven to be very bad at it. Laura McGann had a great piece in the Monthly a while back, noting that “conservative investigative journalism tends to produce reports that are wrong,” a problem compounded by the fact that while their efforts are ostensibly about improving transparency, the far-right activism is nearly always shrouded in secrecy.
The Center for American Freedom may excel where others have faltered, but I wouldn’t count on it.