“Serious” Conservative Media And The Recidivist Temptation

President Obama's reelection has prompted more than a few conservative pundits and journalists to look inward and contemplate the weaknesses of the right-wing media model that obsesses over partisan minutia, eagerly chases phantom scandals, nosedives down ideological rabbit holes, and excludes dissenting voices. It's an interesting discussion, but it's hampered by the fact that the same people calling for change are themselves backsliding into the behaviors they want to correct.

Commentary editor and columnist John Podhoretz offers a pure distillation of this recidivist phenomenon. “Time To Get Serious,” writes Podhoretz for the April issue of Commentary, arguing that after 6 years of treating Obama as alternately a “lightweight” political incompetent and a power-mad would-be dictator, and with nothing but two electoral drubbings to show for it, conservatives have to “come to grips” with Obama's political skill:

It's not just the comforting delusion that he's a golf-mad dilettante, but also the reverse-negative image of that delusion--that Obama is a not-so-secret Marxist Kenyan with dictatorial ambitions and a nearly limitless appetite for power. That caricature makes it far too easy for Obama to laugh off the legitimate criticisms of the kind of political leader he really is: a conventional post-1960s left-liberal with limited interest in the private sector and the gut sense that government must and should do more, whatever “more” might mean at any given moment.

Podhoretz's very next paragraph, however, shows that he's not quite ready to take his own advice, as he casts the Obama presidency as a vehicle for “disaster” at home and “nihilistic chaos” globally -- precisely the sort of extremist caricature he says isn't helpful for conservatives:

The notion that Obama is a dangerous extremist helps him, because it makes him seem reasonable and his critics foolish. It also helps those who peddle it, because it makes them notorious and helps them sell their wares. But it has done perhaps irreparable harm to the central conservative cause of the present moment -- making the case that Obama's social-democratic statism is setting the United States on a course for disaster and that his anti-exceptionalist foreign policy is setting the world on a course for nihilistic chaos. Those are serious arguments, befitting a serious antagonist. They may not sell gold coins as quickly and as well as excessive alarmism, but they have the inestimable advantage of being true.

Daniel Larison of the American Conservative observes:

Of course, warning about global “nihilistic chaos” being unleashed by an “anti-exceptionalist foreign policy” is just another example of excessive alarmism that produces the same effects as the attacks Podhoretz wants conservatives to reject. No one outside the bubble of movement conservatives and hard-liners believes that Obama's foreign policy is “anti-exceptionalist” in any sense, much less in the tendentious way that it is being applied here.

And then there's Erick Erickson, who raised some eyebrows in late February when he posted to RedState.com a reformist manifesto laying out his vision for conservative journalism going forward. “I think conservative media is failing to advance ideas and stories,” Erickson wrote. “Many conservatives are, instead of working doubly hard to overcome that bias [of the liberal media], just yelling louder about the same things. The echo in the chamber has gotten so loud it is not well understood outside the echo chamber in the mainstream press and in the public. It translates only as anger and noise, neither of which are conducive to the art of persuasion.”

Erickson declined to name names, but it's pretty clear what he was talking about: the Breitbart-Daily Caller-Matt Drudge strain of conservative journalism that spent 2012 futilely obsessed with overhyped non-scandals and failed gotchas. His solution was to hire RedState writers who would stick to the facts and stay focused on larger issues.

However, click over to RedState and you'll see that the site recently added Breitbart exile and one-time CNN contributor Dana Loesch to their stable of “front page writers.” Loesch is about as extreme and demagogic as they come, and she thrives on a steady diet of overblown nonsense. One of her latest RedState contributions chronicles a Twitter fight she got into with actor Jim Carrey over guns.

As for Erickson, his professed disdain for “trying so hard to highlight controversies, no matter how trivial” is tough to take seriously given that he was an enthusiastic promoter of the New Black Panther “controversy” -- the gold standard for trumped-up Obama scandals -- and even went so far as to encourage Republicans in 2010 to make New Black Panther member King Samir Shabazz the “21st century Willie Horton.”  If more recent behavior is any guide, he doesn't seem too committed to breaking the cycle of “anger and noise” he sees plaguing conservatism. The Supreme Court oral arguments on marriage equality prompted Erickson to tweet about how gay people are going to hell.

When the people calling for change are the ones falling off the wagon, one starts to see how difficult a time conservatives will have in saving the movement from themselves.