“If you’re looking for something, you might not find it,” says Lachlan Markay. “If you’re looking for anything, then, who knows?”
It’s the middle of November, early morning, and Markay is perched in a chair right outside the biennial meeting of the Democracy Alliance. He is not allowed inside. He is never allowed inside. As a reporter for the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website founded in 2012, Markay’s assignment is to sit in a lobby café of the Mandarin Oriental hotel for three days, acquiring news about the meeting the way a shipwrecked sailor might acquire driftwood.
Five months earlier, when the Democracy Alliance met in Chicago, it distributed the photos of 20 reporters to prevent attendees from leaking anything by accident. Eleven of the profiled reporters worked for the Washington Free Beacon.
“If this is anything like Chicago,” says Markay, knocking back a cup of coffee, “they have my picture. I went downstairs to use one of the computers, in the business center, and somebody followed me until I left.”
The tender attention did not stop Markay from reporting. As the conference got underway, he published a story based on the memos he’d obtained. It had everything from a paranoid guidance to hotel staff to a PowerPoint presentation about how the progressive Committee on States moved $45 million to Democratic causes in 2014, illustrated by arrows traversing the supposed firewall between PACS and campaigns. In a follow-up story, Markay contrasted some hit-and-run coverage of the conference with more facts, pulled from the documents.
It had been a good year for the WFB. In February, reporter Alana Goodman (also on the illustrated DA watchlist) published the first in a series of scoops about Hillary Clinton drawn from the archives a friend had given to the University of Arkansas. “By being the first to report on the papers,” wrote founder and editor-in-chief Matt Continetti, “the Free Beacon exposed the inanity and irrelevance of the mainstream media.” Throughout the midterms, the WFB published stories about incumbent Democrats that ended up being cited in attack ads, like the tale of how North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan skipped a meeting about ISIS to hit a fundraiser. These stories unquestionably helped elect Republicans. In August, the Free Beacon went private, leaving the non-profit Center for American Freedom—an explicit parody of the liberal Center for American Progress—that it was founded under. This news was announced, as is WFB custom, with a picture of supermodel Kate Upton.
That combination of irreverence, scoops and spite is creating something new on the right. Conservative media, never somnolent, is in a new and different boom period, led by millennial writers who are striking out against fresh targets. The Independent Journal Review, an aggregation-heavy site launched by a veteran of Republican campaigns, has made a steady profit and generated eight-figure numbers of Facebook shares for its content. The Federalist, launched last year as the latest of 32-year old Ben Domenech’s publications, got Cosmos host Neil DeGrasse Tyson to reluctantly admit he’d fabricated a George W. Bush quote that had been delighting his like-minded audiences. And that was after a National Review cover story by Charles Cooke, a 2007 graduate of Oxford University, labeling DeGrasse Tyson as the icon of a cult of nerds whose faux expertise was wrecking America.
“A century ago, Woodrow Wilson complained that the checks and balances instituted by the Founders were outdated because they had been contrived before the telephone was invented,” wrote Cooke. “Now, we are to be liberated by the microchip and the Large Hadron Collider, and we are to have our progress assured by ostensibly disinterested analysts.”
What’s the connection between Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the wealthy liberals at a Democracy Alliance conference? Culture—which is to say, everything. A previous generation of conservatives trained their guns on Dan Rather and the network news that Americans used to watch. The newer generation does not fear the mainstream media. It pities the media, and understands, after a generation of Matt Drudge and Fox News, that manipulating it is child’s play. On the new sites, a little reporting and a little snark can expose that the government, and its defenders in the press, are puffing up their expertise to hide their incompetence.
The more proximate enemy of this new generation of conservatives is the left’s nerd cult. Jon Stewart, John Oliver, and “explanatory” journalism of the Vox.com variety—it all has wild fun with the “derp” of cable news and fringe conservatism. The most influential writers in this sphere, like Ezra Klein and Matt Taibbi, eventually carved out roles at the mainstream media, changing its hoarier institutions from the inside.
The reader and consumer of explainer media, or the donor to the Democracy Alliance, believes that expertise can correct misinformation and fix policy. This is the context for wildly popular news, wildly share-able on social media. The Awl, no conservative news site, even mocked “the Content industry” by tracking how many Facebook interactions liberal sites got from embedding John Oliver’s monologues into blog posts.
Jon Stewart’s show embodies plenty of the problems the newer right has with the press. “Dutiful reporters for websites like Salon, Huffington Post and the like simply write down whatever Stewart said,” wrote the WFB’s David Rutz by way of introducing a compilation of Stewart’s mugging, “and declare his target utterly annihilated.” The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, whose media criticism career dates back most of a decade to the blog Get Religion (motto: “The press just doesn’t get religion”), has held up Stewart as an example of a smug left that pretends the real news is just one explainer or eye-roll away. “Adults should not watch the Daily Show,” wrote Hemingway in 2012. Two years later, she added that she had “such a hard time taking adult Jon Stewart fans seriously.”
The Federalist “did not have a game plan to criticize explainer journalism,” says David Harsanyi, a longtime Denver Post columnist who came to the new site after a stint at Human Events. It was, and is, a source of original interviews and real-time arguments between conservatives and libertarians. Rand Paul and Mike Lee gave the site news-making looks at their agendas for foreign policy and Congress, respectively.
But some of The Federalist’s most popular content is directed at the rest of the media. Politifact is a source of “ridiculous and non-fact-based” cover-ups for the Democrats. A Vox.com story that errantly referred to a bridge between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank—which does not exist—might have been “a Mossad operation to forever discredit everything Vox ever writes on Israel for all time.” (This was a joke.)
“I really do want to know if he tires of being embarrassingly wrong about everything, but I think I already know the answer,” wrote Hemingway, in a piece about Vox co-founder (and my former Slate.com colleague) Matthew Yglesias. “Being a wrong liberal means never having to say you’re sorry, and having no shame means you never have to feel embarrassed.”
That tone is common in the new right media. The left, sure, can get away with murder with its own readership. What’s that worth in the long run? “Liberal discourse is insular, sophomoric, divorced from everyday life,” wrote the Free Beacon’s Continetti in an October column. “What liberals say about race and gender and climate change is designed not to persuade the unconvinced but to rally the base. MSNBC is imploding. Vox.com is a laughingstock.”
Domenech doesn’t think that the young right’s targets need to be driven out of the industry. “We’re trying to give voice to some critiques that some people have long had of journalism, whether it’s of news or of culture,” says Domenech. “We’re not trying to drive anyone out of business. To a certain degree, when we critique a journalist or a public figure like Tyson, we’re not doing so out of animosity toward that person. We’re doing so because we want them to stop saying that thing that isn’t true.”
The Free Beacon has an explicitly generational message when it comes to Democrats, and their presumed 2016 presidential candidate. It applies the clickable tag “trolling” to a burgeoning number of pieces, many of them by Andrew Stiles, who left National Review for the WFB after “burning out on politics.” Recent Stiles stories have worn headlines like “SHOCKING: Hillary Clinton Could Be the Youngest Democrat Running in 2016,” and “You Won’t Believe How Old the Democratic Party’s Leaders Really Are,” and “Hillary Clinton Has Mastered The Art of Turning Her New Grandchild Into a Stump Speech.”
“I think it's perfectly reasonable to look at the Democratic Party, which is supposed to represent younger generations, being run by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, both in their 70s, and thinking about nominating Hillary, who will be pushing 70, and think: Wait a minute? Is the best we can do?” says Stiles. He felt the same way in 2008, when he voted for Barack Obama. His turn to the right came, he says, when he started paying closer attention to politics. “It was easy to be a liberal in college and watch The Daily Show and feel good about myself but not really know anything.”
On Nov. 13, after Lachlan Markay was done staking out the Democracy Alliance, Continetti headed to the Republican Party’s Capitol Hill Club to accept a prize. The Young Conservatives Coalition was giving him the “Buckley Award,” named for National Review founder William F. Buckley, for his “significant contribution” to the movement. As fellow award-winners James O’Keefe and Dan Backer watched, Continetti asked his audience to reject the popular history of Buckley as a bloodless intellectual.
“The Buckley of the 1950s and 1960s was even more frightening to liberals than even Ted Cruz,” said Continetti. “He defended Joe McCarthy. If you want a controversial issue, defend Joe McCarthy!” Buckley, he said, launched “the conservative march through the institutions that continues to this day.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Lachlan Markay's last name.