e have no right to be boring or irrelevant,” Tucker Carlson says. “The Washington Post already has that covered.” Beneath the bluster, Carlson, the conservative pundit and former Crossfire co-host, has reason to brag: The Daily Caller, the news site he founded in 2010, has defied insider snickering to become a major news source for the right. “What I despise most about the legacy media isn’t just that they’re mindlessly liberal, though they are,” Carlson says, “but that they’re conventional and boring and unwilling to report unfashionable truths. That’s death.”
The Caller will never be called boring. Carlson and his staff of 50 draw visitors to the site with a blend of high-energy reporting (especially on anything having to do with the Obama administration), right-leaning opinion columns and a hearty dose of semi-SFW slideshows of the female form. “We care about traffic,” Carlson told me unapologetically.
The Caller is more than click-bait, though: It’s a gamble that right-leaning readers hunger not only for opinion pieces written by their own—the bread and butter of established conservative magazines like the Weekly Standard and National Review and the Wall Street Journal opinion page—but that they’re looking for news reported by their own as well. In recent years, a whole new media ecosystem has sprung up around this premise, bringing new energy and digital savvy (and a lot more busty slideshows) to compete with the occasionally stodgy old outlets of the right.
The energy behind the moment, without question, is the hardening opposition to President Obama and the glimpse of life beyond his second term. As the Obama era slouches wearily into its sixth year, conservatives see the chance—the mandate, even—to torment, debunk and distract from his agenda, even to effect its failure. That might feel familiar. As Ben Domenech, who co-founded RedState and, more recently, a new conservative site called the Federalist, pointed out to me, it’s “kind of the same way there was a proliferation of folks on the left starting up places” like the Huffington Post and Think Progress at a similar point in President George W. Bush’s tenure. In the eyes of the left, the media herd had fatally discredited itself by accepting the Bush administration’s Iraq intelligence. The time seemed right for a more activist era of journalism, and the new liberal blogs—back before blogs were declared over—took as a founding principle the notion that they could be both opinionated and purveyors of news.
That philosophy has since been enthusiastically embraced by media entrepreneurs on the right, who see in what Sarah Palin famously called “the lame-stream media” an establishment hopelessly biased against their cause. The new outlets range widely in size, scope and bent. Smaller, more targeted sites like the Washington Free Beacon and Domenech’s Federalistseek to go deep on the issues and sway the conversation in Washington. The Blaze, founded by Glenn Beck in 2010, sees enormous traffic—more than 20 million unique visitors over the last month, dwarfing its competitors—and is far more omnivorous, almost as if Yahoo! were reimagined by a fierce conservative. (The site’s “About” page concludes: “We answer to God and you.”) The elder statesman of the group, Breitbart.com, which was founded in 2007 by the late provocateur Andrew Breitbart, seems to be the outlet of choice for Tea Party activists. “If you’re going to be carrying a ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag outside the Capitol building, you’re probably going to Breitbart first,” a Republican press strategist told me. The Daily Caller, for its part, sits somewhere in the middle, playing both the inside and outside game.
All together, these outlets add up to a movement with sufficient mass to make a measurable difference in how politics is reported. “Our coverage of proposed immigration reform/amnesty, the attack on gun rights, and the Obamacare debacle shaped both the debate and the outcome,” Alex Marlow, Breitbart’s editor in chief boasted in an email. “We also fought back, successfully, against various media outlets that are hostile to those with Judeo-Christian and conservative values.”
As another conservative put it: “You could spend $5 million on a week of ads, and what do you get for that? For $5 million you can launch a newspaper and beat up the administration all year.”
Certainly Carlson, Domenech and the rest have done their share of beating up on Obama. But the idea is to go beyond landing punches and build an actual readership by getting people to stay on the page. So, hours after Obama announced that newly canceled health care plans would be un-canceled for a year, the Daily Caller led with a grabbily headlined news item: “If You Don’t Like My Plan, You Can Tweak It.” But also featured on the site that day were “Here’s the newest Playboy playmate” and a listicle touting “15 hottest moments from the Victoria’s Secret fashion show.” Carlson is unapologetic about the high-low vibe; he just hired gossip columnist Betsy Rothstein from the media water-cooler siteFishbowlDC, and he plans to add more sports coverage, too. As for the salacious stuff, Carlson defends the more titillating fare as “celebrating pulchritude in a way that’s edifying and uplifting”—before conceding the more relevant point: “In any case, readers love it.”
Apparently. According to Carlson, the Caller had more than 9 million unique visitors in October, rivaling websites like Slate and, well, Politico. He’s circumspect about the Caller’s financials but said the site has been making money for a little more than a year. “I’ll put it this way,” he said, “in contrast to virtually everyone else in Washington, we aren’t a nonprofit.”
The news organization that Carlson built reflects his own attributes—cavalier, colorful, at times impolitic—occasionally to a fault. In June of last year, Neil Munro, a Caller reporter, interrupted Obama during a Rose Garden speech on immigration, shouting, “Why’d you favor foreigners over Americans?” The outburst earned the Daily Caller a round of finger-wagging from the White House, and from frustrated competitors. Carlson stepped in to cover for his man, saying, “This is what reporters are supposed to do. They’re supposed to get their questions answered.” Then in March, the Caller found itself in hot water over a shaky story about two Dominican women who claimed that Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) had paid them for sex, which Menendez denied outright, satisfying most other outlets that there was no story. A lawyer for the women came forward to say that someone from the Caller had paid him to find prostitutes who would fabricate such a story. Carlson denied the lawyer’s charges.
“I think the Caller's work over the years has been decidedly mixed,” said Jon Ward, a former White House correspondent for the Daily Caller who now works at Huffington Post. “But I’m cheering for them to keep moving closer to the bar Tucker set in 2009, when he talked about a conservative outlet with the same kind of accuracy and depth and insight in reporting as the New York Times.” In an email, Ward credited Carlson with encouraging him to “swing for the fences more often, to punch hard (my emphasis to him was that I wanted my punches to connect), to not be so worried about angering a government official or a politician.” Carlson, Ward said, “taught me to give fewer fucks.”
Far smaller than the Caller but perhaps even more pugnacious is the Washington Free Beacon. The news site is the brainchild of Michael Goldfarb, a noted neoconservative and hardliner on Israel who rose through the ranks at the Weekly Standard and went on to serve as an aide to Sarah Palin and the Koch brothers. The Free Beacon, like its liberal opposite, Think Progress, is funded by a 501(c)4 nonprofit that is not required to disclose its donors. (Think Progress recently began disclosing its donors; Free Beacon does not.) The nonprofit model offers freedom from worry about traffic, enabling the Beacon “to focus very specifically on narrow things, especially in the foreign policy realm,” according to a friend of the publication. When the accord on Iran’s nuclear program was announced, for example, the Beacon devoted the entire upper half of its site to rolling reports about how awful some experts think the deal is.
Goldfarb and company make no bones about their agenda, which is to shred Democrats’ credibility, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. “We’re ideological,” he told me flat out—an admission you’re unlikely to hear from many editors or publishers around town. The Beacon’s editor in chief, Matthew Continetti, the former opinion editor at the Weekly Standard and son-in-law of that magazine’s patriarch, Bill Kristol, has reportedly used the term “weaponized journalism” to describe the Beacon’sapproach—meaning, from the looks of it, that every post should serve as a kind of pipe bomb in the hedges of Democratic officialdom and its liberal media abettors.
During the rocky confirmation process for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, for example, Beacon staffers were singularly focused on breaking unflattering stories about him—most notably when they uncovered a 2003 newspaper interview in which Hagel suggested that Israel kept “Palestinians caged up like animals.” The Beacon’s coverage often uses a winking, irreverent tone—what a New York Times profile of Goldfarb last February termed “gleeful evisceration.” A recent story about Democratic congressional candidate Sean Eldridge hedging on his support for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the Affordable Care Act identified Eldridge as “husband of New Republic editor and millionaire ‘poke’ button pioneer Chris Hughes”—wording that’s hard not to read as a smirking reference to Eldridge and Hughes’s same-sex marriage. (Disclosure: I have written freelance articles for the New Republic.)
“We’re true believers,” Goldfarb told the Times, “but we’re also troublemakers.”
Yet the Beacon is surprisingly newsy and straightforward to read. If the site’s primary agenda is messing with Obama, its secondary agenda is to professionalize right-leaning reporting. “We’re trying to develop an infrastructure that can help develop young conservative reporters,” Goldfarb said. “For a long time, every kid who wanted to be in conservative media wanted to be Charles Krauthammer or Rush Limbaugh. But we already have great opinion writers, and it’s clear that’s not really enough.” He raised the example of the Koch brothers’ exploration of purchasing the Tribune Company, the parent company of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. “What would happen if they bought Tribune?” he asked. “Who’s going to staff it? They’re going to turn the L.A. Times into a conservative paper? No way. And if you hire new people, they’re going to be liberals, too. There’s hope that someday you can have a real conservative newspaper, but you can’t do it until you have a critical mass of conservative reporters and editors.”
According to the Beacon’s masthead, Goldfarb and company now employ an editorial staff of 20—a fairly large roster for a startup. And in a sign of their success as an incubator, they’ve already seen the departure of at least one staffer for more mainstream terrain. In October, BuzzFeed hired away the Beacon’s digital managing editor, Katherine Miller; she’s now the traffic giant’s political editor. Miller began her career at the Student Free Press Association, a nonprofit that trains conservative college journalists and helps them land substantive internships—the slots more often snapped up by their liberal counterparts, who then become entrenched in the media ranks. BuzzFeed’seditor in chief, Ben Smith (a Politico alumnus), told me he didn’t see anything unusual in making such a hire. He said “the new energy and jobs” have for years been “pushing great young reporters and editors to partisan media,” but Smith sees sites like Buzzfeed and Politicoas “exerting a centripetal force,” pulling that talent back toward the nonpartisan center.
Others have followed the same course, including Chris Moody, a former Daily Caller writer who now covers politics at Yahoo! News, and Robert Costa, a consummately sourced writer at National Review, who recently announced a move to The Washington Post. “I hope that Bob Costa’s credibility doesn’t suffer as a result of moving to a less reputable publication,”National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru joked to me.
Even as the movement begins to cohere, it’s not all neighborliness and camaraderie. Over the course of numerous conversations, I heard the Daily Caller called “kind of a three-ring circus” and the Free Beacon, “a vanity site about Israel.” Breitbart and the Blaze get sniffed at as unserious.
Still, nearly all the conservatives I talked to said the new range of right-wing outlets is a good thing. “The only thing that I think is hurtful to the movement is if you didn’t have that kind of variety,” Domenech of the Federalist told me. During the Bush era, he said, the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina showed that partisan media’s failure to question its own leadership can lead to a collective lurch into the political wilderness. The remedy is an array of sites playing complementary roles—a “weaponized” hit piece here, a clicky slideshow there, anti-Obama video snippets nearly everywhere.
Over the holidays, that diversity was on typical display, with the Daily Caller featuring both the news about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor blocking Obamacare’s contraception-coverage mandate and a splash about the “huge” fight over “spandex, short skirts for teachers in West Va.” (This might help explain why education stories do well for the Caller.) At Breitbart, a headline cried, “Exclusive: OFA Obamacare ‘Success’ Stories Include Former Dem Candidate, Activist,” while in the comparatively bookish pages of the Federalist, a writer was taking time to explain “What Madison Meant By Self-Governance,” the second installment in a three-part series.
Just before Christmas, the Washington Free Beacon tweeted its “10 Last-Minute Gift Ideas for the Tea Partier in Your Life”—a slideshow of liberty-themed gifts like a Ron Paul ornament, Ted Cruz coloring book and vanilla-scented soap sculpture of Mitt Romney’s head. It was a perfect three-fer: irresistibly clicky, legitimately entertaining and a clever knock on Obama. (The list was a joking retort to Organizing for America’s Thanksgiving suggestion that liberals arm themselves with talking points to take on the “uncles everywhere [who] feel the need to spout off about Obamacare.”)
“I suspect that the conventional wisdom inside the beltway is that there simply cannot be a market for so many competing publications on the right,” said Drew Cline, the editorial page editor at the famously right-wing New Hampshire Union Leader, who recently drafted a column for the Federalist. “But anyone who is paying attention can see that the conservative movement is richly varied”—and so are its members’ reading preferences. “There is huge demand for news from a generally right-of-center point of view, and conservative-leaning publications are filling it,” Cline said. “It’s the free market at work.”