Welcome to the conservative ghetto

The Washington Post has launched a new section dubbed The Power Post, covering opinion on all matters political, with a subsection titled The Outrage Machine. (Really?) Assuming that the navigation of this menu hasn’t already lost you, the inaugural entry for this feature was penned by our friend Matt Lewis, of the conservative blog The Daily Caller. (There’s a joke there which may or may not become funny a few paragraphs later.) The title of this offering is the somewhat clickbaitish sounding, Conservative journalists should get out of the ghetto.

The general thrust of this column deals with the long understood propensity of the mainstream press to divide political news and opinion into two categories: conservative stuff and everything else. Matt has some experience in this ideological segmentation and reveals some of the frustrations which conservative leaning writers can feel as a result.

This double standard isn’t exclusive to TV talent — or even individual reporters who attempt mid-career leaps from politics to journalism. If you ever see a reference to the Huffington Post next to one about “the conservative blog The Daily Caller,” you’ll know this also applies to entire media outlets. It’s a subtle and pervasive framing that serves as a sort of “trigger warning” to readers. (And to frustrated conservatives, this need to constantly label us feels like an ideological microaggression).

But the bigger problem isn’t how this makes us feel, but rather, how the framing prejudices readers’ perceptions. For example, The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin has a blog called “The Right Turn,” while Ezra Klein, who came to the Post as a blogger at the liberal American Prospect, wrote at the philosophically neutral-sounding Wonkblog. This isn’t to knock Rubin or Klein, but while there are plenty of very good liberal writers at mainstream outlets, rarely are they assigned a space called ‘The Left Hook.’

Matt is describing a dilemma for conservative political writers who may be looking to break into the mainstream.This binary choice, as he defines it, is to either avoid getting your hands too dirty with serious conservative commentary and join in with the big kids to influence more people, or to condemn yourself to a life in “the ghetto” where the right wing red meat roasts merrily on a spit.

I frequently talk to aspiring young center-right journalists, and my advice is always the same: Avoid being trapped in this conservative ghetto. My suggestion is to seize control of your brand. As an admittedly conservative writer, I’ve found this to be both a challenge and a necessity. That’s part of the reason I write for diverse outlets, including The Daily Beast and The Week. And it’s part of the reason I’m writing this here. The best way to do this is to be intellectually honest, and to avoid the epistemic closure and perverse incentives that writers on both sides of the political aisle confront.

Of course, not everyone agrees. The conservative media world is divided over whether to influence public opinion from the safe confines of the ghetto, or to leave it and join mainstream publications. The question is whether conservatives want to change the game or play the game. If your goal is to become an opinion leader who wants to reach people who don’t already agree with you, I would advocate the latter. Young conservative writers should resist the urge to throw needless red meat, and should think carefully before signing on with the wrong outlet.

First, a couple of notes on the author and his career. Matt isn’t talking about conservative literature from the perspective of an outsider. Anyone who has followed his work and read his many pieces on pro-life issues, religious liberty and a robust national defense will have no doubt that Matt is a conservative. The fact that he has expanded well beyond the confines of his “conservative blog” to write for outlets such as The Week and now The Washington Post are a credit to his excellent wordsmithing and his skill at crafting persuasive arguments. He richly deserves all the success he’s achieved and I wish him nothing but the best. Yet, with all that said, I find myself agreeing with his diagnosis of the patient (in this case the media) but perhaps not his prescription for a cure.

Matt talks about the comparative lack of success of most “Christian rock bands” as compared to U2, a rock band composed of Christians. This example leads to the following declarative.

I would similarly argue that a writer who happens to have conservative instincts is more likely to make a larger impact than a “conservative writer.”

Given how well Matt has done I’m not about to argue that this is a formula for success, but we also have to ask ourselves how success is being defined here. There may be some strategic advantage to be had by way of infiltrating the enemy camp, but you also don’t want to succeed so thoroughly that you forget that it’s still the enemy camp.

There is an inarguable psychological disconnect which Matt describes when he refers to the fact that Jennifer Rubin’s blog is called The Right Turn and Ezra Klein’s is known as the Wonkblog. (As opposed to, let’s say… The Left Ditch Marxist Manifesto.) And the Washington post is hardly an isolated example of this phenomenon. On the television front, Rachel Maddow, abetted by her handmaidens at Media Matters and other unofficial DNC outlets, has famously insisted – if not raged – that MSNBC is “not the liberal version of Fox News.” This is by design, and it speaks more bluntly to the examples which Matt Lewis cites. The Left controls the majority of the mainstream media and uses that leverage like a crowbar to move the message in the direction they prefer, and the crew reporting to Fred Hiatt doesn’t seem to be any exception for the majority of the time. They don’t refer to various media outlets as the conservative ones vs the liberal ones. They paint a constant picture of the news media as the conservative rage machine and the legitimate news media. In their minds, Rachel Maddow actually is a legitimate news source, but Bill O’Reilly is not. Talking about The Republican War on Women is simply news coverage, but “Religious Liberty” must always be encased in scare quotes. The First Amendment is sacrosanct, assuming you’re espousing liberal doctrine, but the Second Amendment was a mistake which was never intended to be interpreted as it is today. These are all things which are taken as a given in the world where there is no Left Hook in the Washington Post.

If you are willing to accept that labeling and those assumptions as part of the package when expanding the reach of your voice into the mainstream, you may be surrendering part of the field before the first shot is fired. And if you accept that outlets where such assumptions are publicly decried is the “conservative ghetto” which serves as the career equivalent of the La Brea Tar Pits, you may indeed go far. But you’ll want to keep your Google Maps app handy to be sure you know where you’re going and, perhaps more importantly, where you came from. Meanwhile, some of us will still be back here picking bitumen encrusted diplosaurus bones out of our hair.

Welcome to the conservative ghetto. Feel free to have a look around, but do mind the rats. They can be rather large.