Rabblerousers now must defend realm

When he thinks about Washington, Rich Lowry can't help but feel just a bit conflicted these days.

As a supporter of George W. Bush, Mr. Lowry looks gleefully forward to Jan. 20, the day the president-elect takes the oath of office. But as editor of the conservative opinion magazine The National Review, he knows the next four years of reporting on a friendly White House will, in many ways, be more difficult than the past eight covering "the enemy."

Not that Lowry is shedding any tears, mind you. He'd be more than happy to help the Clintons pack. But in the fickle game of the Washington opinion press, there are certain ironic rules. And Rule 1 is: It's more fun to be poking fun at the halls of power than defending them.

"It's much easier to be in opposition, because you can go out with guns blazing," he says. "If we just put Clinton or Gore on the cover, we'd be guaranteed a big week on the newsstand. Bush will not engender that kind of passion."

Beyond the usual switching sides, however, the conservative press is facing a more complicated challenge with the arrival of the Bush White House. In many ways Bill Clinton has been very good for the American political right - his tenure has spawned a virtual cottage industry for the conservative media. But having come of age as a kind of "alternative" media, the disparate Internet sites and talk-radio programs that spoke with a unified voice against the White House now have to adjust to life as defenders of the realm.

Paul Weyrich, who on Jan. 15 will launch the conservative television Renaissance Network, says that while conservative voters are pleased to be back in control of the presidency, they aren't used to power. "They don't see themselves as the ruling class. Up to now, there has been a kind of underground quality to our media that lent itself to the point of view of our readers and viewers."

Lowry proudly talks about how the guerrilla aspects of the conservative media were critical in challenging Al Gore's presidential debate tale of a young girl who was forced to stand in an overcrowded classroom. The girl's father told a website that was only a problem on her first day of school. The father's story was picked up by The Drudge Report and went from there to Fox News, Lowry says.

"There are just so many more outlets now," Lowry says. "In 1992, Rush [Limbaugh] was just getting started. Now there's Fox News Channel and all these small Internet sites, along with Matt Drudge, who on scandal reporting anyway seems to lean to the right. There's the Weekly Standard."

And with the bogyman who helped spur that proliferation departing, the media he helped create have to go beyond being an opposing force. They have to define what they are for, and that may prove a far more difficult question.

The question for many conservative outlets will be where they choose to stand on the spectrum of conservative thought, says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Thorny questions, such as how far Bush should push for his proposed tax cut, are bound to arise, and taking positions will almost certainly alienate some readers.

And then there is the critical question of how close to stand to the Bush White House.

Whenever a new administration comes to town, the game begins to find the oracle of White House thought. When Bill Clinton arrived in 1993, The New Republic was a must-read for those seeking insight into the inner workings of the new administration.

But while becoming the hot magazine - or newspaper or radio show or journalist - may be at the top of every conservative's wish list, the goal is not risk-free. Even in the murky, gray world of opinion journalism, reporters value a jaundiced eye. Sydney Blumenthal, who covered Clinton's campaign for The New Republic, eventually joined the administration - much to the dismay of many in the Washington press corps.

" 'Tell the truth' seems to be a pretty basic and obvious principle for journalists," says Tucker Carlson, a writer for The Weekly Standard who has become a regular talking head on CNN. "There are some people who are activists, whose job it is to flak and that's what they do. That is not what a journalist does."

Among the front-runners for oracle status, Lowry's National Review probably ranks near the top. Since the primaries, the magazine has largely been considered pro-Bush (while the Weekly Standard was seen as leaning toward McCain). But Lowry says the magazine knows the risks of pushing too hard for the president-elect.

"Having the man you supported in the White House does change your tone a little, but the danger is you get less interesting. You start becoming an apologist," he says.

So what exactly will be the role of the alternative conservative media in the Bush administration? It depends on whom you ask. Mr. Weyrich talks of outlets that may at times disagree, but that allow Bush to bypass traditional media and reach "half the country simply by getting on the right radio shows."

Mr. Carlson, meanwhile, suggests a harder edge. "I do expect them to give the president the benefit of the doubt, which they should. But I hope the conservative press tries to tell the truth. If Bush says something foolish or wrong, they should point it out."

And Lowry? He says The National Review has already decided on something of a loose policy. "What we have said is we will be Bush's foul-weather friend," he says. "When he's struggling, like he was in Florida, we'll be there for him, but when he's getting pats on the back from everyone, we'll be calling him out."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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