Mediator: The Weekly Standard’s Arsenal to Fight Falsehoods: ‘Facts, Logic and Reason’
For the purposes of this column, I’m starting the count in 1955 when William F. Buckley Jr., founded National Review, declaring it an outsider’s antidote to the controlling influence of “the United Nations and the League of Women Voters and The New York Times.”
Mr. Buckley designed National Review to win the larger argument through “logic and superior command of the subject,” as his biographer Sam Tanenhaus (a former writer for The New York Times) told me last week — through facts. And it inspired successive generations of conservative journalists to get in the game, too.
One of them was Stephen F. Hayes, who, as a conservative Gen X-er growing up in Wauwatosa, Wis., got ideological ammunition from National Review for the Friday night political fights he and his friends waged over Pabst Blue Ribbons and hot wings.
Mr. Hayes wanted to be a journalist. But he had solid conservative beliefs and viewed the mainstream news media as a liberal monolith that wasn’t for him.
So in 1995, when William Kristol, Fred Barnes and John Podhoretz, with money from Rupert Murdoch, started The Weekly Standard as a new conservative competitor to National Review — and an answer to the left-leaning Nation and New Republic — Mr. Hayes set about trying to get a job there.
After graduating from Columbia University’s journalism school and reporting for the political tip sheet “The Hotline,” he succeeded in 2001.
Sixteen years later, just a few weeks shy of Mr. Trump’s inauguration, Mr. Hayes, 46, became The Weekly Standard’s editor in chief.
The Weekly Standard had been associated with the #NeverTrump movement throughout the campaign, just as the Trump movement had been anti-Standard, given the magazine’s support of free trade and support for the interventionist Republican foreign policy that helped lead to the Iraq war.
With Mr. Kristol moving to an at-large role in December, it fell to Mr. Hayes to navigate Trumpian politics as editor in chief while leading the magazine into the next era. When he looked around the conservative news media landscape and assessed The Weekly Standard’s place in it, he made a determination.
The movement he joined had succeeded in breaking the mainstream news media’s informational hegemony (something the mainstream media had a hand in, too, he said). But as it evolved, grew and splintered, something else broke: any universal sense of truth.
“That’s a problem for our democracy,” he told me last week.
He determined to make The Weekly Standard part of the solution. The solution was more real journalism.
And The Weekly Standard was going to need a bigger newsroom.
When I caught up with Mr. Hayes last week he was in the process of staffing up. He had poached The Wall Street Journal’s books editor, Robert Messenger, to be an executive editor alongside Mr. Barnes. He had hired Rachael Larimore, a former managing editor of the left-leaning Slate (though her politics lean to the right), and recruited a former deputy business editor of The Charlotte Observer, Tony Mecia.
He said he was on the verge of hiring five additional journalists, having gotten the go-ahead from The Weekly Standard’s billionaire owner, Philip Anschutz, to grow his team by a third.
Mr. Hayes said he made a simple case to Mr. Anschutz, who bought The Weekly Standard from Mr. Murdoch in 2009: “Let’s add more resources and make sure that we’re basing our arguments on facts, logic and reason.”
Mr. Hayes shares the viewpoint of another prominent Wisconsin conservative, Charlie Sykes, the #NeverTrump talk radio host who declared last year that he and his fellow conservative media stalwarts had been too successful in delegitimizing the mainstream news media.
“We destroyed our own immunity to fake news while empowering the worst and most reckless voices on the right,” Mr. Sykes wrote in The Times last year.
Mr. Hayes said he put more of the onus for that on the mainstream news media than Mr. Sykes does (though Mr. Sykes certainly puts some there). It has undercut itself with conservative-leaning readers, he said, through “the questions that aren’t asked and aren’t covered” in a way that seems to favor liberal viewpoints.
Yet the effect remained: There are right-leaning voters who “don’t believe what they’re getting from the networks and the left-leaning cable outlets” and therefore may be open to false or unsubstantiated content that provides affirmation at the expense of true information, he said.
In some parts of the conservative news media sphere, winning the intellectual argument has been replaced with winning the war, by any means necessary.
That was the ethos the Breitbart News founder Andrew Breitbart seemed to promote for several years before his death in 2012. He had vowed to “weaponize the conservative movement’’ and to “rectify the generation-plus long problem that has been absolute media bias.”
This new media, he declared in Wired in 2010, “provides the tools.”
It certainly did for Breitbart News. Despite having “some good people,” Mr. Hayes said, it was generally “pushing a political line and taking shortcuts and taking shots.” (Some of those shots have been at Mr. Hayes.)
As Mr. Breitbart predicted, new media has also provided the tools for anyone to start a website. No commitment to truth is required. So now you have increased prominence for the conspiracy-laden “Gateway Pundits” and “InfoWars” of the world — the latter a promoter of the false Clinton-child-sex-trafficking conspiracy known as PizzaGate, which InfoWars’ chief, Alex Jones, apologized for late last week.
Mr. Hayes and I were speaking during a week in which the conservative news media was going through a push-pull between fact-based reporting and wild speculation and falsehoods.
Fox News temporarily sidelined Andrew Napolitano, the contributor who spawned the unsubstantiated claim that Mr. Obama had used British intelligence to spy on Mr. Trump.
The conservative Independent Journal Review told Oliver Darcy of Business Insider that it had disciplined journalists involved in a report suggesting that a Hawaii judge had blocked the revised version of Mr. Trump’s immigration order under pressure from Mr. Obama. The report, based solely on the fact that Mr. Obama had been in the state around the time of the ruling, helped hasten another IJR journalist’s decision to quit in protest, as Hadas Gold of Politico reported.
With Time magazine posing what should have been a bizarre question, but wasn’t, on its cover — “Is Truth Dead?” — it felt as if a time of choosing had arrived.
But the internet is faster to reward the fantastical than the factual, which is where Mr. Hayes sees potential risks in his strategy.
“You can make an argument that the people who pay the price are the people who do the real reporting — not the hot takes, and not the clickbait — and who aren’t extreme and ranting,” Mr. Hayes said.
The Weekly Standard, he said, will continue to have its conservative perspective. And just as it will call out Mr. Trump when he speaks falsely, it will avoid jumping to conclusions that every Trump move is false — which he said mainstream news organizations were too quick to do.
That means fewer opinionated takes that get ahead of what the reporting shows. So The Weekly Standard didn’t jump to the conclusion that Mr. Trump’s surveillance claims were vindicated by comments about “incidental” surveillance from Representative Devin Nunes of California last week — which Mr. Nunes appeared to temper on Friday.
Mr. Hayes is gambling that audiences will reward such prudence. There’s no guarantee.
It was the only option he saw during this “weird time for journalists.” That is, time to go pro.
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