Big Media’s Mere Cameo in a Tale of Conservatism’s Shift

Matthew Continetti’s book, “The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism,” is getting much respectful attention from mainstream media. It is deservedly praised for an encyclopedic narrative of what has evolved into a greatly populist—disparaged as Trumpian–force in American politics. My beef with the work is that it largely misses a key element in that evolution: the Right’s alienation from and animus toward that very mainstream media.

Continetti’s omission can be understood in terms of his perspective: He is a product of the thought industry that has grown up around policy tanks and the political journals that wholesale ideas in intellectual circles. (His seminal experience was at the late Weekly Standard in Washington.) He does not come out of the broader journalism world where notions and images are retailed to the American audience. He writes, “My focus is on the writers who set in motion the interplay of ideas and institutions, of ideology and politics…about the ways in which [intellectual] arguments responded and related to events.” So he looks at the significant tributaries but only passingly at the rivers that carry the waters to the electorate. I think this is an oversight. It matters enormously that Fox News and the New York Times are ideological poles in the increasingly cultural clash that Continetti describes—much more, arguably, than do many of the individual pointy-heads on whom he devotes most of his attention.

Of course, he knows the reach of the retailers—there are many citations of Fox, the Times and others in the national mix. But in nearly all cases they are momentary appearances, where others’ ideas surfaced or blared. Perhaps, from a pointy-head environment himself, Continetti would see these entities as just transoms to clear. But in the political maelstrom he is describing, they have become touchstones themselves, whether in digital text (forget print) or over what used to be called the airwaves. The people shaping that mass content deserve a deeper dive if the idea wars of our time are to be fully appreciated.

And that’s a fact going back decades, just as this book does. In some sense the Right’s distance from the elite media traces to the battle that “Mr. Republican” Robert Taft (on many pages here) had with the Eastern Establishment after World War II. Continetti usefully links Robert Welch—later the founder of the John Birch Society—to that fight, but skirts the significance of the Taft wing’s failure to gain acceptance from prestige press.  Conservatives long had a hold on most American publishers, but not in those precincts where the anointing of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 took place. There, a new breed of press and punditry lord was forming.

In the 1960s there was the personal pique of Richard Nixon toward reporters and editors, ultimately channeled through Spiro Agnew, but it was during the Barry Goldwater campaign that the deep-seated antagonism toward “the networks” and the biggest dailies began to set in. By 1969, Reed Irvine (not cited in the book) had founded Accuracy in Media to target CBS and the Washington Post, and Allan Drury (also no cite) was turning his political novels into attacks on the very media milieu from which he emerged to win the Pulitzer Prize for “Advise and Consent.” Watergate, naturally, had its polarizing effects, but when the Reagan Administration came to Washington in 1981, the gloves really came off. Combat between the Right’s cultural crowd and the journalism universe has not ceased since.  Roger Ailes sensed the opening thus created for Fox News, and the other side has responded in kind, both via cable and social media. No political or policy idea really has an open field anymore—it will be framed in one mass partisan context or the other.

So yes, I’d argue the grievance against “media bias” deserves more than occasional mention in at least a half century of Continetti’s “hundred year war.” But I have what is now called a lived experience in this. For 12 years, I was employed by Robert L. Bartley, the head of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages for a generation until his death in 2003. Bartley is mentioned a few times in the book, but in regard to the well-worn story of his staffer Jude Wanniski’s early promotion of supply-side economics, and the appearance of eminent neo-con Irving Kristol’s columns on his pages. Bartley had a much greater place in popularizing conservative beliefs on foreign and domestic policy than that—particularly to American business and finance—and at his own newspaper, was embroiled in an internal conflict with the mostly-liberal newsroom that continues to this day. For the last two decades, Bartley’s mantle has been carried by Paul A. Gigot (no citation, again), who before that had been the editorial pages’ face in Washington. Is something seminal being missed here? A handful of Bartley’s hires over the years are referenced by Continetti, though interestingly most had become strays from his ideological fold.

Now, one could argue—and I suspect the author, based on how he has framed his narrative, would do so—that the WSJ editorial line has lost its grip on a Right that is now hostile to trade, immigration, corporatism, alliances and globalism generally. There’s good reason for thinking that, just as for saying the same of many of the pioneering idea mongers that Continetti spends his chapters on. Maybe carve out another, then? The big-media stage is the Broadway of U.S. politics. It is why Rupert Murdoch held not only the Weekly Standard, but the New York Post, Fox and (after Bartley’s death) the Wall Street Journal. If in the age of Donald Trump a wave has transformed conservatism, the directors and players in the grandest theaters are due more than cameos in the show. Did their long media fray get reshaped and in some respects made more bitter (try giving a Bartley or Gigot their Pulitzers in today’s climate) by the animating—consuming–passions of this new moment? Who will remain standing, on either side?

Matthew Continetti early on credits other histories of the Right and seeks to differentiate his own aims. If he has chosen to leave the retail media aspect of the story for another day, someone should seize it. –May 8, 2022

Published by timwferguson

Longtime writer-editor, focusing on topics of business and policy, global and local.

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