Confessions of a conservative LA columnist
At The Hayride, Dan Fagan posted a piece about his reasons for quitting his columnist spot at the Baton Rouge Advocate. In it, he brings up issues about writing conservative pieces in today’s mainstream media, and more specifically at the Advocate, which deserve fuller investigation and explanation.
I preceded and overlapped Fagan there, writing a column from 2015-19, and observed some of what he did. In general, Dan (with whom I’ve never had a chance to correspond, although at one point one of my pieces made reference to one of his) recounts that he felt suppressed, had to edit columns to tone down their conservative content, and even had some outright rejected. He further perceives the Advocate editorial staff (past and present) as having an unreflective liberal bias largely with a readership to match.
Since the later 1990s, I have served as a paid opinion columnist for a number of Louisiana newspapers, both large and small, and that experience along with knowledge of the industry through my academic studies has led to some conclusions that should interest anybody who wants to understand why the stuff that appears on opinion pages does, especially as it relates to conservative content. My experience with the Advocate largely reflects these.
First, with very few exceptions, it is axiomatic that editorial staffs of any larger newspaper will lean from mildly to rabidly to the left, and usually the larger, the more rabid. At the same time, to attract readers and to adhere to the (diminishing) journalism canon of balance, they will deign to have a conservative voice on the editorial page. The staff will accept this with moods ranging from a genuine commitment to balance although with curiosity about the holding of such views to thinly-disguised hostility with gritted-teeth tolerance.
Secondly, almost all the staff, news and editorial, live in intellectual and ideological bubbles. In terms of informational interests, source choices, and opinion they have more in common with New York City’s upper west side than they do with the Garden Districts of both New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and their attitudes match poorly with those prevalent in suburbia nor have they any real understanding of how (much less any real exposure to how) working-class families think, work, and live day to day. As such, they derive almost all of their information about politics and ideas from a handful of elite print (paper or electronic) media, the likes of the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Politico.com, and Salon.com, with authors and readerships very similar to them in views. Not only do they have next to no exposure to conservative philosophy and its reflection in public policy, the only referents to it they normally receive usually are highly caricatured. And, in their professional circles and even to some degree personal lives, they hang out with people who think almost identically with them on politics who overwhelmingly reinforce and rarely challenge their views.
Third, if you are going to write conservative columns in this environment, you must understand you are in the same place that blacks and women commonly and lamentably often found themselves in America as concerns higher-status occupations, until about half a century ago, as tokens. In a sense, even with demonstrated skill you got your job as a form of affirmative action and, because of the biases that exist against your viewpoint, you have to work harder than others and even if you keep up that standard your product always will be viewed suspiciously.
I’ll explain how these interact. On a number of occasions at the Advocate I was questioned about the content, data, and conclusions about policy preferences I advanced. A few times when questioned about the veracity of these I had to go so far as to send links to the exact information I was using – information often widely known to those familiar with conservatism, or who had gone beyond the headlines about Louisiana politics and dug deeply into the data and arguments behind them. Astonishingly, at these times my editors acted as if they never had encountered these data or arguments before, except perhaps in caricatured form.
But, again, understand that these people exist in a bubble and, if you’re effective, you’ll be exposing them to stuff they’ve never encountered in any serious way in a way they cannot easily dismiss. This is why conservative columnists will get much stiffer informational vetting than their liberal counterparts. Understand that leftists can write whatever they want consistent with liberal orthodoxy, and they’ll rarely be questioned about it because their views and conclusions simply are considered common knowledge by like-minded editors (which allows some debatable, if not ridiculous, assertions appearing in print that contextually come across as gospel and undisputed). But if you write from the right that contradicts those views and effectively so, the knee-jerk reaction from leftist editors is that something must be wrong with it because it seriously attacks their own worldview.
With the Advocate, I will say I had a different experience with content than Dan relates (with all three of the individuals he mentioned, one of whom no longer works there). I never toned down a piece nor had one rejected. When challenged, I stood my ground as described above and rarely pulled an entire point or argument, and at those times only because of space limitations.
Still, that didn’t mean I didn’t engage in a bit of self-censorship. Keep in mind that conservativism is a far more intellectual and comprehensive data-driven exercise than liberalism’s reliance on emotive appeals backed by oversimplified and cherry-picked data, and some leftist myths, especially in the context of writing about a state or local issue, you just can’t crack in 600 words or in a way that an eighth-grader could read without too much cognitive strain. Early on I tried a couple of times, such as explaining the canard of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, only to be told I was getting “too much in the weeds.” This structural constraint creates a self-fulfilling prophecy guaranteed to bolster the leftist bias on editorial pages.
Of course, you don’t want to become a “house” conservative – given leeway to write as you like often enough but not allowed to challenge certain liberal canards or certain politicians and accepting those limitations – and was the issue over which Dan indicates prompted him to resign. “Pet” conservatives more often than the real thing show up on opinion pages nationwide, and the more local your content gets in your commentary, the more newspapers blanche at this as editors shy away from criticism of such politicians unless it deals with blatantly obvious ethics stumbles.
That attitude exists partly because of the ego stroke editors get from being able to mingle with the honchos in power and partly because, particularly concerning chief executives, those same elected officials and their appointees control access to news journalists depend upon for their stories so they aren’t keen on riling them. However, this reluctance diminishes substantially when a politician from the other side of the ideological aisle is involved – meaning in most cases Republicans – because if you’re a liberal you don’t want to hang around those folks anyway, much less want them in office, so why not upset them?
When dealing with today’s legacy print media, conservatives face obstacles their leftist colleagues never have to deal with. That problem of restraint of opinion production was very much a problem over two decades ago in Louisiana, and even somewhat still five years ago. But much has changed from when I started at the Advocate. Online competition continues to make the legacy media product proportionally read by fewer and fewer people, and particularly by those in the state’s majority center-right population who tire of these media’s leftist skew (certainly on the editorial page, but outside of it if not in content then in story choices).
Plus, the decision by almost all Louisiana newspapers with online presences to go to hard or soft Internet paywalls drives down editorial page readership considerably, because while you can get significant numbers of people to subscribe for sports news or lifestyle features, few will do so to take a gander at opinion columns – especially for readers on the right when the page’s content rests almost exclusively on the left. And more and more payless media, left, right, and all points in between (particularly electronic media outlets) are providing mainly news and some opinion, with others still from the left and right providing mainly commentary and a bit of news.
Sites like The Hayride formed for conservative opinion precisely because the demand was there to support it. Conservative voices no longer need newspapers as their distribution channel. If this causes the legacy print media to turn more inward and insular, in the final analysis soon the only ones who pay any attention to them will be politicians, who worry about anything written anywhere about them. As far as Louisiana goes, every day that passes erodes more the ability of the Advocate or any of several large newspapers in the state to influence public policy, while other opinion disseminators will gain that ability at their expense.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 16:00