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Red Herring

The real problem with the PostRed Herring's conservative blog

Shortly before George W. Bush's second inauguration, The Washington Post sent one of its best reporters into the heart of America to explore the "Red Sea"--that uncharted territory populated with those great unknowns who had recently voted to reelect the president. "[W]e were tired of hearing pundits tell us about 'Red America' and wanted a firsthand look," the paper's explorer declared. Here is what he discovered: "I found ordinary people with various motivations, sundry stories, personal beliefs, custom-made decisions. I suppose there are no great surprises there--these views represent many of the strands that have been collected over the past generation into the political camp we call 'conservative.'" In short, the Post uncovered what much of the United States has already known for some time: Middle America is filled with normal people with normal jobs who think rationally--and still vote Republican. So much for the blue-state media's red-state stereotypes.

Actually, not quite. Last week, the Post breathed new life into those old stereotypes by launching Red America, a blog dedicated to offering "a daily mix of commentary, analysis, and cultural criticism" from a right-wing perspective. The liberal blogosphere did not think this was such a good idea; when the Post announced it had hired Ben Domenech, a 24-year-old editor with Regnery Publishing and co-founder of the popular conservative blog, liberal pundits met the news with full-blown hyperventilation. Josh Marshall wrote that if the editors at the Post "want to make a blogger 'Crossfire' with a firebreather on the left and on the right, they should do it. It might even be interesting. But here they've just been played by bullies and played for fools." Criticism soon turned to scrutiny, and liberal bloggers gleefully discovered that, in the past, Domenech has had a penchant for plagiarism. Three days after publishing his first post, the Post's conservative blogger had stepped down.

Domenech deserved to be let go; but in the course of celebrating his demise, liberals have missed the real lesson of this entire episode. Instead of hiring a conservative, the Post hired a caricature of one; Domenech's blog would have been less a product of red America and more a product of what blue America understands red America to be. More than anything else, the sad saga of Ben Domenech reveals just how simplistic blue-state elites have become in their understanding of American conservatism.

Before signing on with the Post, Domenech had written for publications like the New York Press, National Review Online, and The Washington Times. He was not known for producing thoughtful conservative think-pieces, or even for intrepid reporting. On the contrary, he was better known for his vitriol. Domenech, in his blog posts, wrote that Teresa Heinz Kerry looks like an "oddly shaped egotistical ketchup-colored muppet," former TNR Editor Andrew Sullivan needs "a woman to give him some stability," and cartoonist Ted Rall is a "steaming bag of pus." He used words like "environuts." His posts often began with profound statements such as "That's ridiculous," "Yeesh, that's sad," and "That's bullcrap." He accused Los Angeles Times columnist Joel Stein of using cocaine. He described Coretta Scott King as a "Communist." He wrote that federal judges are "worse than the KKK."

What, exactly, did Brady see in Domenech? Certainly not a principled conservative journalist. Either Brady didn't read Domenech's blog posts, or he did, and they fit the ticket. If the former is true, well, shame on Brady. But the latter seems more likely. In other words, as far as Brady was concerned, Domenech--an angry, bigoted bloviator--was the face of true conservatism.

Brady isn't alone, of course. Ever since the 2004 election, liberals have been eager to confirm their stereotypes of conservatives as narrow-minded, self-righteous folk. It was only days after the election that the popular Jesusland map spread over the Internet; then came this strongly worded critique of the South. Similar, if more refined, sentiments popped up in print publications as well. The editors of Seattle's popular newsweekly, The Stranger, wrote:

Citizens of the Urban Archipelago reject heartland "values" like xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia, as well as the more intolerant strains of Christianity that have taken root in this country. And we are the real Americans. They--rural, red-state voters, the denizens of the exurbs--are not real Americans. They are rubes, fools, and hate-mongers.

In its January 2005 issue, The American Prospect ran a list titled, "Red-State Values: What really goes on in the morally elite states?" Here are some of the statistics from the list (emphases in original):

In red states in 2001, there were 572,000 divorces ... Blue states recorded 340,000

As of 2000, 37 states had statewide policies or procedures to address domestic violence ... All 13 that didn't were red states

The 5 states with the highest rates of alcohol dependence or abuse among 12- to 17-year-olds are also red states

Residents of the all-red Mountain States are the most likely to have had 3 or more sexual partners in the previous year ... Residents of all-blue New England are the least likely to have had more than 1 partner in that span

The per capita rate of gonorrhea in red states was 140 per 100,000 ... In blue states, it was 99 per 100,000

Take that, you divorced, wife-beating, gonorrhea-stricken drunks.

To be sure, after the 2004 election, liberals needed to blow off steam. That's understandable. And there are some legitimate reasons why liberals stereotype conservatives the way they do. The right has its share of bigots and xenophobes. And vitriolic right-wing pundits like Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin always seem to shout the loudest. But just because these strains of conservatism exist doesn't mean that this is what conservatism is reducible to. If the Post really wants to add a meaningful voice to the political debate, it should know better than to simply turn to Ann Coulter's male counterpart.

One question still remains: Who will Brady pick as Domenech's replacement? He might want to take a look at these lists (here and here), compiled by Slate's Jack Shafer when The New York Times was looking for columnists to replace William Safire. For the most part, Shafer's suggestions include respected, or at least respectable, conservatives: Heather Mac Donald, Steve Chapman, John Ellis, Stuart Taylor Jr., Jonah Goldberg, Mark Steyn, and James Lileks. Then again, the Post will probably pass on all of them: Not one conforms to a liberal's caricature of what a conservative should be.

Rob Anderson is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.