A lot of people were likely shocked to learn in early October last year that the technology company behind the abominable design and performance of Healthcare.gov was the U.S. subsidiary of a Canadian outfit that appeared to have received special treatment in being selected.
Two days later, it was learned that the same firm had performed so poorly a few years before the Healthcare.gov fiasco in designing a healthcare information system for a Canadian provincial government that officials there terminated the contract.
Both were important stories appearing amid intense public interest in the deeply troubled launch of the web portal for President Obama’s signature domestic program.
But neither story appeared in the New York Times or the Washington Post. The name on the byline was that of Washington Examiner senior investigative reporter Richard Pollock.
It wasn’t an isolated example, either. Not long after, a multi-part series by another Examiner investigative reporter, Luke Rosiak, exposed a culture of wasteful spending and mismanagement at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service that was extreme, even by Washington standards. The series prompted a congressional investigation and the resignation of the man Obama appointed to head the agency.
Then just last week, Mark Flatten, a third Examiner investigative reporter, identified hundreds of highly paid federal bureaucrats drawing huge salaries and extraordinarily generous benefits but mostly doing work for their government employee unions instead of the taxpayers. And it was entirely legal under the “Official Time” program launched by President Carter in 1978.
Flatten’s reporting on Official Time came in a four-part series called “Too Big to Manage,” so named because many of the 17 federal agencies involved took as much as a year to compile the information. Some of the big ones, including the defense and justice departments, either couldn’t or wouldn’t.
A Remarkable Transformation
I cite these three examples from the Examiner’s Watchdog investigative reporting team not because Pollock, Rosiak and Flatten are colleagues, but because I am most familiar with their work and know its value.
The more important point is that they are far from alone because in recent years there has been a remarkable transformation in a segment of the national media that not so long ago was populated solely by National Review and Human Events, both of which were considered mere opinion outlets.
This contemporary transformation parallels momentous changes in what was once America’s dominant news source, the liberal mainstream media. That dominance is diluted now, thanks to newsroom insularity and market entry and business model changes sparked mainly by the Internet.
News consumers value timeliness, accuracy, balance and fairness, but public opinion surveys made clear during the 1980s that most Americans had come to view the mainstream media as predominantly liberal in the way it reported the news. They didn’t like it, either, but in the Reagan era they didn’t have anywhere else to go other than the Washington Times.
As public skepticism of the mainstream media’s objectivity grew, however, it encouraged the rise of Talk Radio during the Clinton era and prefigured what became under the second Bush presidency an explosion of bloggers across the ideological spectrum who distrusted the mainstream media and exulted in the freedom to publish and the instant access to millions of eyeballs afforded by the Internet.
A CNN vice president dismissed the bloggers early on as “some guy in his pajamas sitting in the living room.” But, while most blogging was indeed opinion-based, there was also factual reporting being done by some of the bloggers, too.
So, folks who were paying attention weren’t surprised in 2004 when this pajamas media’s potential power became obvious as bloggers, led by Little Green Footballs and Powerline, exposed as fake the documents behind a “60 Minutes” report by CBS News’ Dan Rather.
The documents purported to prove that Bush had benefitted from his daddy’s political connections to avoid combat duty by joining the Texas Air National Guard. Rather’s career abruptly ended because, as Dan Gilmore would explain a few years later in a landmark book entitled “We, the Media,” bloggers “can fact-check your ass and we will.” In the Rather case, that’s exactly what they had done.
A Movement Matures
A decade later, what is now emerging might be described as a Right-stream journalism that is fostering digital hybrids of various descriptions featuring both news and analysis. This is happening as the liberal mainstream media titans are redefining themselves, some more successfully than others, around evolving combinations of old and new elements.
These developments are far from fully matured, but there is little room to doubt the growing strength of Right-stream journalism. Besides the previously mentioned Examiner scribes, reporters for Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller and Matthew Continetti’s Washington Free Beacon are also routinely breaking significant national political and public policy news stories that a decade ago would have been presented very differently, if at all, by liberal mainstream media newsrooms.
The DC’s Alexis Levinson, for example, reported Feb. 13 that more than 80 percent of the contributions received – mostly in amounts of $200 or less each – by two new super PACs associated with the Tea Party movement in 2013 went to salaries, consultants and operations rather than to independent expenditures aimed at electing candidates.
Levinson also noted that 2013 was an off-year, so there were few campaigns with candidates for the two groups to support and that in 2012 when there were droves of candidates, another, similar Tea Party group, Freedomworks, spent 93 percent of its contributions on independent expenditures.
Still, the significance of the Levinson story went far beyond the two Tea Party groups because it put professional campaign consultants and fund raisers, especially those on the Right, on notice that they are not immune from critical reporting about their activities by Right-stream journalists.
Similarly, Rosiak’s “Enrichment at the Public Till” series last November focused on the U.S. Enrichment Corporation, “a chronically failing nuclear energy company using a technique one-twentieth as efficient as its competitors’ has wrangled billions of dollars in cash, materials and research from the Department of Energy in deals that dwarf the Solyndra loan scandal.”
But this wasn’t just another federal boondoggle benefitting Obama donors. Among the most prominent backers of USEC are congressional Republican leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner.
It’s this emphasis on credible daily news reporting without regard for whose toes are stepped on that sets the Examiner, Daily Caller and WFB apart from the opinion-oriented outlets that have long been the dominant genre around the conservative neighborhood of the national media.
The Examiner is easily the most traditional of the trio, with news and opinion sections that are clearly delineated. In vivid contrast to the opinion staff, which is distinctly conservative, it would be quite difficult to adduce the personal views of the people on the news staff based on their reporting.
By contrast, the Daily Caller is best understood as the Right’s digital equivalent of a Fleet Street tabloid, with lots of copy and BuzzFeedish photography about topics such as what Kate Upton looks like in zero gravity liberally mixed among the news stories.
Headlines like “Kathlyin’ Sebelius” do give strong hints about the editors’ views, but, following the Examiner’s lead, the Daily Caller has also put emphasis on investigative reporting, led by the very capable James V. Antle III.
The Washington Free Beacon is perhaps the most blog-like of the three, but Continetti has assembled a talented reporting stable that includes Washington Times veteran Bill Gertz, who is still routinely breaking significant defense and foreign policy stories, C.J. Ciaramella, who does a super job on transparency and Freedom of Information Act issues, and Lachlan Markay, a young but increasingly formidable investigative journalist.
Depending on who is counting and how, this trio commands somewhere around 10 million monthly unique visitors, far shy of Left-stream outlets like the Huffington Post to be sure, but more than sufficient to give them tangible influence on the daily news narrative.
The Disappointing, If Predictable, Response
It can be amusing – and often frustrating as well – to observe how some in the liberal mainstream media react to these developments. To describe it as “dismissive” is to understate things, as is illustrated by the response to a scoop last week by the Washington Free Beacon’s Alana Goodman.
Goodman did what none of the mainstreamers covering Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospects in 2016 had yet bothered to do, which was to actually read some heretofore unreported but publicly available documents from somebody in the Clinton inner circle.
The documents were the recollections of Diane Blair, a political science professor Clinton once described as her closest friend. Blair died in 2000 but her papers became available in 2010.
Goodman was the first journalist of any description to read and report on them. And what she reported was explosive, so much so that her story and the Washington Free Beacon were prominent in the Washington/New York buzz for several days.
As Goodman explained, the Blair papers “paint a complex portrait of Hillary Clinton, revealing her to be a loyal friend, devoted mother, and a cutthroat strategist who relished revenge against her adversaries and complained in private that nobody in the White House was ‘tough and mean enough.’”
Goodman’s description was unflattering, but undeniable. Yet, as Continetti observed in a subsequent column, the reaction of many mainstream figures to Goodman’s reporting was “a tortured and dramatic breakdown” endured while “schizophrenically downplaying its importance.”
The schizophrenia, Continetti said, “prompted journalists to append elaborate, silly, and inaccurate qualifiers to their reporting on our findings. In various outlets, the Washington Free Beacon was called ‘relatively obscure,’ ‘conservative,’ ‘ultra-conservative,’ and an ‘anti-Clinton website,’ in order to make it easier for liberals to dismiss the story altogether.”
Continetti was especially perturbed by CNN: “The network wrote that a ‘conservative website’— guilty as charged — was ‘claiming’ to have found documents shedding new light on Hillary Clinton’s years as first lady. ‘Claim’ was an unusual choice of words, since the documents in the story were all on FreeBeacon.com.
“Then CNN reduced the fascinating and novelistic details contained in our 3,408-word article to a slug-line: Clinton once called Monica Lewinsky a ‘narcissistic loony toon.’ Later CNN ‘authenticated’ the Washington Free Beacon story, giving it, one assumes, a stamp of approval—which CNN is free to have back.”
With or without CNN’s stamp, Goodman’s story was solid journalism that could not be ignored.
Opinion blog sites still command huge audiences on the right side of the blogosphere – Town Hall, Hot Air, Instapundit, Powerline come quickly to mind – and will for years to come.
And the old-standby traditional opinion-driven publications, National Review, the American Spectator and the Weekly Standard have been joined by the American Conservative, as well as a host of web-based opinion journals like The Federalist, National Affairs and the American Thinker. There has never before been so much high-quality opinion writing on the Right.
But the Examiner, Daily Caller and Washington Free Beacon represent something different on the Right, publications that are committed, each in their own way, to original, credible reporting and analysis as their fundamental reason for being. And from the looks of things, they are going to be around for a long time.
Mark Tapscott is executive editor of the Washington Examiner. He was inducted into the National Freedom of Information Act Hall of Fame in 2006.