Standing Athwart Breitbart, Yelling Stop
Conservative journalism, which in many ways is stronger and better than it has ever been, is nonetheless missing something crucial. It is missing a literary voice.
This became clear when I was reading Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations, a William F. Buckley omnibus that collects some of the late conservative icon's best writing. Reconnecting with Buckley's wonderful prose revealed something quite clearly: conservative journalism has plenty of pit bulls, but it lacks show dogs. It needs some graceful writers.
Conservative journalists at places like Breitbart, the Weekly Standard and National Review -- the magazine Buckley founded -- are skilled at lawyerly argument, at performing surgery on the bias of the mainstream media. But they haven't developed their muscles for artistic long form journalism. S.E. Cupp is not Joan Didion, and Rich Lowry is not Tom Wolfe. Since the deaths of William F. Buckley, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Richard John Neuhaus, the conservative media is in desperate need of a journalistic poet -- an experienced Jonathan Franzen or a young Christopher Hitchens. Or another Whittaker Chambers, whose journalism ranks with some of the best of the 20th century.
The lack of good literary conservative journalism is a product of the success the right has had in creating its own media over the last ten years. Because liberals controlled the media for so many decades, the digital revolution was an intoxicating rush for many on the right. All of a sudden, if a liberal journalist told a lie, it could be instantly rebutted on the web. Suddenly, we could interview our own heroes, and write our own stories.
Yet because there was more money and hits to be had in boxing with the left rather than producing artful long form journalism, we had a glut of right-wing books and media attacking the left. Stars were made out of young right-wingers because of their success in humiliating the left, not necessarily for their writing skill.
Liberals are for higher taxes, identity politics, abortion, gun control, and sexual decadence. These are things that should be opposed, but at some point the conservative media is going to have to offer more. We're going to have to celebrate what we are for, and produce some memorable long form journalism. And I'm sorry, but Andrew Ferguson going on for 5,000 words in the Weekly Standard trying to decide whether he loves or hates George Harrison doesn't cut it. Who would you rather read -- John Podhoretz or James Wolcott?
In Athwart History, Buckley writes about politics, of course. But he also writes about sailing, Beethoven, "what to do about sloppy dress," the role of beauty in politics, skiing, rock and roll, and Catholicism. He did profiles of Malcolm Muggeridge, David Niven, John Dos Passos, Evelyn Waugh, Churchill, and Princess Grace, among others. Buckley could also push back agains his own side, as when he criticizes Ann Coulter for what he saw as her excessive defense of Joseph McCarthy.
Let me give a specific example of the price I think the right pays for not fostering talent that can produce honest and poetic long form journalism of the type that Buckley practiced. This summer is World Youth Day, the semi-annual gathering of hundreds of thousands of Catholic youth from around the world. With a new pope and the Church at a particularly interesting point in its history, it is an event that cries out for a competent, literate and soulful journalist to tell the story. The event takes place this year in Rio, a dynamic city that lends itself well to journalism.
But for the Weekly Standard or Breitbart to send such a journalist would mean an investment in the future, like a record company executive putting resources into a talented but not famous band. And the conservative media has no interest in such an investment when Ben Shapiro kneecapping Piers Morgan is where the action is. Who wants the next Hunter S. Thompson when Hannity's ratings are so good?
So here is what will happen with World Youth Day. Major media like the Washington Post and New York Times will cover the event, but the reporters doing the coverage will view the event through the prism of liberal orthodoxy. Conservatives will then react to the liberal coverage, and complain about there not being enough conservatives in the media. They will then find the next Michelle Malkin, and promptly make her a star on Fox.
For a fraction of the price of creating a new conservative star, you could send an actual writer to Rio to do the story that the New Yorker will not. But then, for many conservatives it's more fun, not to mention lucrative, to throw tantrums.