The plan was to unmask Obama. It didn't work.
President Obama's decisive reelection has promised the conservative new media four more years of fodder, but it's also left some of its more earnest participants with a gnawing question: What went wrong?
The new online right came roaring out of 2008 convinced that the only reason Obama won was because John McCain's weak-stomached campaign — cowed by the aura of the first black presidential nominee — had failed to document his ties to the radical left. Their mission would be to "vet" the president as McCain hadn't, and convince the American people to reject him.
Now the loose coalition of scrappy bloggers, advocacy journalists, and unrepentant trolls who spent four years writing about Jeremiah Wright and Saul Alinsky are coming to terms with reality: The polls weren't skewed, and their narrative didn't stick.
And with the Republican Party now in full-throttle soul-searching mode, many in the conservative blogosphere are turning introspective as well.
"I think the right media may have erred," Dan Riehl, a contributor to Breitbart News and longtime proprietor of Riehl World News, told BuzzFeed a week after the election. "I think we let Obama get into our heads and we wound up campaigning against him, rather than for the things we believe in."
"It was a trap," he added. "And one I can't say I didn't fall into."
In hindsight, Riehl questioned the wisdom of devoting so much energy to combing through the president's early life for signs of radicalism — a process that yielded few true exposés, but rather a handful of scraps that bloggers tried to spin into scandals. For example, in March, Breitbart News reported that Obama attended a 1998 production of a play about left-wing Chicago activist Saul Alinsky. The story, which was presented as a major scoop on the site, included this memorable lede:
In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama claims that he worried after 9/11 that his name, so similar to that of Osama bin Laden, might harm his political career.
But Obama was not always so worried about misspellings and radical resemblances. He may even have cultivated them as he cast himself as Chicago’s radical champion.
"I just don't know that America cared," Riehl now says of this story genre. "The guy had already been elected, and our message was that Barack Obama's a socialist that wants to control your life. I'm not arguing that he isn't, but is that a message people want to hear?"
The notion that Obama's unusual name, international roots, and time as a liberal Chicago leader would disqualify him was an early fixation of Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign, and a running preoccupation of some of her die-hard supporters, who staked their final hopes on the emergence of a legendary, apocryphal recording of his wife using the word "whitey."
Six months later, frustrated conservatives blamed Obama's landslide victory on John McCain's failure to take the fight to his opponent.
The consensus that soon emerged on the right was that if Americans were fully aware of Obama's relationship with extremists like Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the former Weatherman terrorist Bill Ayers, they never would have elected him. And since tank-dwelling mainstream reporters couldn't be trusted to expose The Real Obama, it would be left to the crusading online right to get the job done.
Breitbart News efficiently captured this sentiment with a mission statement earlier this year, where they promised to "vet the president."
Prior to his passing, Andrew Breitbart said that the mission of the Breitbart empire was to exemplify the free and fearless press that our Constitution protects—but which, increasingly, the mainstream media denies us...
Andrew wanted to do what the mainstream media would not. First and foremost: Andrew pledged to vet President Barack H. Obama.
The mission of the conservative media, then, became less to "stand athwart history, yelling 'Stop!'" — as National Review's founding editor famously put it — and more to stand athwart The New York Times' White House coverage, yelling, "biased!"
Some conservative writers now worry that their media outlets spent too much time poking and prodding old-guard journalistic institutions rather than digging up dirt on the Obama administration.
"My impression from the outside was that the target of the vetting effort was always the mainstream media, not really the president," said Ben Domenech, a conservative blogger and cofounder of the long-running conservative blog RedState.com.
Domenech said conservative coverage of Obama's first term drifted "too often toward entertainment and mockery, and too little toward the critical and hard work of investigation."
"I think it's a bit disappointing that the major scandals during Obama's administration thus far have all been broken by mainstream media entities, not journalists on the right," he added.
But as 2012 heated up, so did the right's efforts to expose Obama and his lapdogs, with conservative outlets never flinching in their insistence that America wouldn't fall for the great "Obama con" again. When the polls seemed to dispute that narrative, bloggers pushed back by charging that the surveys' results were "skewed."
Dean Chambers, the previously obscure conservative blogger who gained notoriety for re-weighting public polls to make them more favorable to Mitt Romney, was not shy about his motives.
"I've been hearing from people inside the Tea Party movement and Republican movement calling to say that they support what I'm doing," Chambers told BuzzFeed in September. "It's given them a boost of confidence."
But now that the votes have been cast, conservative outlets are left picking up the pieces of their shattered narrative, as the movement they've championed looks to rebuild and rebrand itself.
John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary and a prolific tweeter, rejected the notion that Obama's reelection represented a failure of the conservative media. But he said that as the GOP tries to widen its tent in the coming months and years, conservative sites will need to stay out of the way — or better yet, cheer on the effort.
He singled out RedState.com, which has earned credibility on the right, in part, by targeting vulnerable moderates in Republican primaries, and directing grassroots readers to defeat them. Podhoretz warned against the site's "hunger and desire to establish an ideological party line and draw boundaries around it, and say anyone who's not in this line should not be elected and should be destroyed."
"A deliberate choice is going to have to be made," he said. "Is RedState a news and information website, or is it an activist partisan Republican website pushing specific politicians? Regrettably, right now I think it's more the latter than the former."
He also distinguished between "high-minded" publications like his own, and the "much more scrappy, low down, tough, take-no-prisoners ad hominem stuff" published on certain websites, and said that the latter's approach was misguided.
"The Daily Caller may have thought that surfacing a speech from 2007 was going to ruin the election for him, but I think that was a foolish hope," Podhoretz said. "He'd already been elected in spite of all that."
The speech in question was actually emblematic of the failed story line many conservative outlets tried to advance during Obama's first term.
The day before the first presidential debate in October, The Drudge Report began teasing a supposed campaign bombshell to be dropped that night, plastering cryptic headlines across the homepage like, "THE ACCENT... THE ANGER... THE ACCUSATIONS... THE SERMON."
As it turned out, the scoop — which belonged to The Daily Caller — was a video recording of a 2007 speech Obama gave bemoaning the injustices suffered by poor African-American communities, and seeming to suggest that the lackluster federal response to Hurricane Katrina was a result of racial bias. The speech had been covered by the press when it was first delivered, but The Caller touted footage of off-script remarks that didn't make it into the official transcript.
The story had all the trappings of a surefire entry into the conservative canon of 2012: racial overtones, confirmation that Obama was concealing his true extremism, and a chance for conservative champions of truth to accuse the mainstream media of covering up Obama's true nature.
But despite half a day of hype courtesy of Drudge, and an A-block unveiling on Sean Hannity's Fox News show, the scoop landed with a thud outside the conservative echo chamber. The video got little pickup in the national media and was quickly overshadowed by Mitt Romney's dominant debate performance.
The Daily Caller's editor-in-chief, Tucker Carlson, defended their coverage of the video to BuzzFeez and said it was a major failure of the "legacy media" that the video didn't get more play.
"Not only did we break stories that no one else would have written, we were mocked and attacked by flacks posing as reporters in the press," Carlson said. "Like Sam Feist, the Washington bureau chief at CNN, immediately attacked us. On what grounds, I don't get it. We shouldn't air footage of a president giving a speech?"
Unlike some of his colleagues in the conservative press, Carlson showed no hint of regret at his site's performance, citing record traffic and crediting Obama's first term with making the company profitable. In fact, he said he founded The Daily Caller out of frustration with the unsatisfactory vetting Obama received in 2008.
"I think we're the ones practicing traditional journalism and I think a lot of legacy media has ceased to," Carlson said, emphatically. "And that's why I think we'll win in the end."
But for all the tough talk of his less reflective fellow travelers on the online right, Riehl, a true believer, remains leery of using click rates and ad revenue as a measure of success. He still wants their work to pay off at the ballot box.
"That's something I said right after the election," Riehl said. "I don't give a shit about all these people talking about their page views. Look at the results. We did something wrong."
This story has been updated.