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The Boundless Grift of Right-Wing Media Watchdogs

A new effort to "target" journalists has earned its conservative founders $2 million in seed money, which is probably why it exists in the first place.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Over the past week, a number of journalists and politicians have expressed indignation as details of a new conservative media venture, which aims to personally attack journalists by unearthing their offensive social media posts, have leaked out. The New York Times first revealed the existence of this “loose network” of conservatives who were combing through the Twitter feeds of journalists from prominent outlets (including the Times). On Monday, Axios reported that its backers were aiming to raise $2 million for the project, whose mission would be to “[target] the people producing the news” and presumably discredit the organizations that employ them.

Their efforts have received quite a bit of attention—with a number of people gravely tweeting that this was yet another sign of the president’s authoritarianism. Given the president’s own rhetoric about the media being the “enemy of the people,” it’s not hard to imagine how “targeting the people producing the news” could put journalists in danger. But what’s more likely to happen is that these Republican operatives will simply collect a couple million dollars from donors while promising to do real reporting and then turn their project into yet another hacky right-wing clickbait farm, something that has happened again and again over the past decade. Along the way, the project may expose the occasional bad tweet. But what it’s more likely to expose is the paltriness of right-wing journalism.

The project’s maiden foray into policing the press has not sufficiently proven that it’s earned all of this attention. Earlier this month, the nascent cabal made a stink over a couple of anti-Semitic tweets written by a New York Times political editor when he was in college; that editor has since deleted them and apologized. Steve Bannon ally Arthur Schwartz, one of the leaders of the project, has pointed out that other members of the media have written ugly and stupid things online before, which is understandable given that members of the media are human beings and thus prone to doing ugly and stupid things from time to time.

People with knowledge of the operation told The New York Times “it has compiled dossiers of potentially embarrassing social media posts and other public statements by hundreds of people who work at some of the country’s most prominent news organizations.” If true, it’s puzzling that they kicked things off by targeting a Times editor of little renown, instead of staking their claim with a big-name takedown.

Those who have reported on Schwartz’s venture compare his effort to the mission of Media Matters for America (MMFA), the well-known liberal media watchdog. It’s not hard to see why. That David Brock–founded media organization has long-sifted through the radio and television appearances, as well as social media posts, to expose the hypocrisies and lies of prominent conservatives, from Rush Limbaugh to Tucker Carlson.

The idea is straightforward. The left has MMFA, which exposes offensive appearances and social media posts, and this new organization would serve as a counterbalance. In its idealized form, one could see this new project resembling a right-wing version of MMFA or CNN’s KFile, which has a similar, albeit nonpartisan, pedigree. Schwartz’s venture has pledged to cast a wide net; a list of “primary targets” on the group’s pitch deck includes “CNN, MSNBC, all broadcast networks, NY Times, Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, and all others that routinely incorporate bias and misinformation in to their coverage.” They add that they “will also track the reporters and editors of these organizations.”

As Jack Shafer and Hamilton Nolan wrote about the first wave of outrage following the Times’ story on this project, there is nothing wrong with doing media criticism and reporting. Journalists should be scrutinized; it is, after all, newsworthy, if an editor at The New York Times uses anti-Semitic language (though perhaps less so if they did so when they were still in college).

Of course, even in the ongoing journalism apocalypse, media reporting is hardly dead. If reporters and editors at major news outlets were regularly tweeting anti-Semitic jokes, for instance, one could expect it to appear in a number of outlets. There is always room for more scrutiny, but it’s not clear that a vacuum currently exists.

Instead, this new outlet will likely join a teeming crowd of right-wing outlets, many of which grow more vehemently pro-Trump with each passing week. As Columbia Journalism Review’s Howard Polskin wrote last month, “there are currently about 15 to 20 conservative websites which attract at least one million unique visitors per month. Some are venerable right-wing reliables like National Review, The Washington Times, or Newsmax. Others, like Infowars, The Gateway Pundit, Big League Politics, and Breitbart, mine the far fringes of the right.” Fox News, meanwhile, has exploded in popularity, thanks in part to a symbiotic relationship with a president who spends most mornings and evenings live-tweeting its programming.

Many anti-Trump conservative outlets have faltered during his presidency, most notably The Weekly Standard, which ceased operations last December. (Many of its former employees now labor at The Bulwark, which is trying to become the go-to news outlet for the seven or so remaining anti-Trump conservatives.) Some of the conservative media organizations that were defiantly against Trump during the 2016 election, most notably the National Review, have come to take what could be called an anti-anti-Trump position. Others are trying to reinvent themselves in a shifting media and political landscape. On Wednesday, BuzzFeed reported that the Washington Free Beacon was hiring Politico reporter Eliana Johnson as its editor-in-chief, a sign that it will be a rarity in conservative media, an outlet that invests in real reporting.

There would be little to fear from a good-faith media accountability organization on the right. A recent disastrous story from Bloomberg—in which a right-wing functionary at the Department of Labor lost his job after a reporter at the outlet mistook a sarcastic Facebook post criticizing far-right candidate Paul Nehlen for a sincere endorsement of Nehlen’s anti-Semitism—shows that such an effort might even be necessary. Of course, the current right-wing media infrastructure proved to be fully up to the task of exposing Bloomberg’s errors without the help of this new venture.

And that’s the rub, really: There is little appetite for more good-faith accountability in right-wing circles. Instead, much of the path to relevance and profitability in conservative media revolves around reflexively defending the president from attacks and attacking his enemies, not in doing by-the-books journalism. The ancient cries of media bias have morphed into something more sinister. It’s no longer enough to make vague, impossible-to-prove assertions about bias at The New York Times or CNN. Rather, something akin to an arms race has been touched off; Schwartz’s willingness to personally target journalists is a reflection of a conservative movement that has grown much more hostile toward journalism itself. Relevance and influence in this world come from outlets dogmatically hewing to the president’s diktat and embracing his enemies as their own. There is tolerance for reporting—but only if it confirms preconceived ideas about, say, illegal immigration and violence.

It’s possible, of course, that there are troves of embarrassing radio appearances and tweets out there waiting to be discovered by an intrepid group of conservative journalists. But if right-wingers are looking for content about how prominent journalists are anti-Trump hacks, they can already find that at any number of thriving sites like Big League Politics and Gateway Pundit, both of which regularly target figures like CNN’s Jim Acosta with their opprobrium. The real danger with a quasi-media accountability outlet is that it will invent anti-Trump bias where none exists, leading to the sort of trickery that James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas has regularly employed, with mixed results.

But the likely result of this $2 million escapade is that another unreadable outlet, lazily catering to a base that is hungry to have its biases confirmed several times an hour, will be birthed into the world. If they can’t bring in an audience by digging through tweets (something that the already established right-wing site Twitchy does), they’ll find another way—probably by becoming yet another conservative blog that churns out posts owning the libs. There is a lot of hunger for honest stories about how journalists and liberals are failing the country. Judging from the right-wing news ecosystem right now, there isn’t much hunger for actually getting those stories, or much of anything else.