Robert Costa, the best journalist in Washington during the Republican shutdown, is rightly bemused about his soaring celebrity status. If the rest of the conservative media shared his commitment to fact-based reporting, he wouldn’t stand out so much. But because those outlets are so overstaffed with fact-averse ranters and rumor-mongers, Costa comes off as the soul of integrity.
And who knows, maybe he can help save the conservative media from itself.
If you watch cable news or monitor Washington politics on Twitter, you probably know about Costa. As the Washington bureau chief for the conservative National Review, he broke news daily during the shutdown (on Twitter, sometimes hourly) – because Republicans on Capitol Hill trusted him to tell the story accurately, without attitudinal snark.
Indeed, his aversion to snark and his devotion to fact make him a rarity these days, especially within the right-wing infauxtainment complex dominated by the likes of Fox News, Breitbart, Drudge, The Daily Caller, Newsmax, the Washington Free Beacon, and the rest of the usual suspects. He’s so rare that he got profiled last week by a national magazine.
I hosted Costa yesterday at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House – I’ve also co-guested with Costa several times on WHYY’s Radio Times – and I asked him why so many of his colleagues on the right seem so allergic to factual reporting, so hooked on shrill opinionizing. He said, “So often people go into conservative journalism because their heroes are (modern conservative movement founder) Bill Buckley, or Charles Krauthammer, or George Will, or Sean Hannity.” All too often, he said, aspiring conservative journalists just want “to have columns and be on TV battering the left.”
Later, he elaborated by recalling his first exposure to the echo chamber: “In 2009, when I was starting out at the National Review (he was 23 at the time), I’d hang out in the bars with people from Breitbart, The Weekly Standard, Townhall.com, and all they’d do at happy hour was hate on the left, hate hate hate…And I thought, ‘These people are just annoying, they’re not writing anything interesting.'” So he went in a different direction, adopting the reporting standards of the mainstream media, building up a network of D.C. sources who could actually tell him factual stuff he didn’t know.
So it was no surprise, earlier this year, that when the right-wing media flogged a pair of demonstrably fake stories, Costa was admirably AWOL. Not a word from Costa about how Defense nominee Chuck Hagel had supposedly conspired with an anti-American group called “Friends of Hamas” (a Breitbart exclusive, even though Friends of Hamas didn’t exist). Not a word from Costa about how Senator Bob Menendez had supposedly slept with prostitutes in the Dominican Republic (a Daily Caller exclusive).
Costa actually benefits from these excesses. Republicans on Capitol Hill talk to him in part because he has few worthy journalistic rivals on the right. He said yesterday, “Even the most conservative members of Congress – they’re like anyone else, they don’t like that (junk) either. They’re news consumers too, and they don’t take crazy journalism seriously.” (Indeed, a Republican strategist said recently that GOP operatives on the Hill often prefer to work with mainstream or left-of-center newsies, because at least those outlets believe in journalistic accuracy.)
Costa said that the big flaw, within the conservative outlets (and within conservatism generally), is “the war mentality. There’s a feeling that if you break from the team, you’re out of the cause.” But the irony, he said, “is that there is no ‘team.’ Because they’re fighting with each other all the time.”
Costa has seen the shutdown Republicans close up, he talks to them all the time, so his assessment of reality speaks for itself: “I cover a messy, messy party….It’s not even a party anymore, in the traditional way we think of the term. It’s a collection of groups that uses the GOP front in order to exert power” – ideological groups, like Heritage Action and Club for Growth, that care primarily about taking a stand. “It’s not about winning, or governing. It’s about being a warrior for the conservative movement.” (Although he said that if Chris Christie can win the ’16 nomination, the party might be successfully rebooted. He expects to see “Christie versus Cruz, until the convention.”)
Costa’s tough take on the current GOP puts him at odds with the rest of the conservative media “team,” but hey, his prime interest is reality. And he wishes that more scribes on the right shared that priority. In 2011, he even pitched his journalistic ethos to a college-age audience at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference – no doubt telling them what they didn’t want to hear: “You can’t just stay in the conservative bubble. If you want to compete with all kinds of journalists – especially the liberal journalists – you’ve got to be able to play their game and do things how they do it.”
If only they would heed his advice.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1