If the measure of a conservative publication is how bonkers it makes members of the media, the Washington Free Beacon, a three-year-old news website, has been a spectacular success.
David Brock, founder of Media Matters for America, has called it a “dumping ground for Republican opposition research.” The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf torched its “flawed, soulless mission.” In June, after the Beacon charged that a New York Times scoop about Marco Rubio bore the fingerprints of Democratic oppo trolls, the newspaper declined the Beacon’s request for comment, noting its record of responding to “serious inquiries.”
But as the line between reporting and opposition research grows more wan, the Free Beacon regularly pounds out scoops any political reporter would envy. And many of its stories are difficult for their targets simply to dismiss, because they provide that rarest of internet wares: actual news.
“Most conservatives address media bias through criticism,” editor-in-chief Matthew Continetti told me at a Chinese restaurant in the Rosslyn building the Beacon shares with unrelated outlets such as Politico, WJLA-TV, and NewsChannel 8. The Beacon operates on a broader critique of mainstream media that goes like this: Within any given story, mainstream-media reporters work to be fair and accurate; it’s the stories and narratives their editors choose to pursue that often aren’t.
Continetti wants to take the same approach to push the conservative worldview. “I take stock right now by our ability to drive the news cycle,” he says. “Not to comment on the news. Not necessarily to write the same story everybody else is writing.”
The Beacon’s emphasis on newsgathering sets it apart among right-facing publications. “I tell young conservatives the value you add is not going to be your opinion,” Continetti says. “The value you add is picking up the phone or noticing something in a document.”
Most of the digging is in Clinton territory, but it provides a partisan mirror image of the old-line newspapers’ narrative line. Beacon reporters have mined the University of Arkansas’s special-collections library for tidbits that cast Hillary Clinton as callous and opportunistic, and the news that ABC’s George Stephanopoulos donated $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation appears to have stemmed from a Beacon story that was in progress when the scoop—with comment ABC withheld from the Beacon—miraculously showed up on Politico instead.
When I visited the Beacon’s offices this spring, staff writer Lachlan Markay was prowling through an SEC database. Markay, whom the Beacon plucked from a digital organ of the Heritage Foundation, tried to gain a foothold as an opinion writer but realized “when I’m 23 or 24 years old, nobody cares about my opinion.”
Continetti says training journalists to be sent into the wider media world is “the best service we can provide. A lot of people in journalism aren’t exposed to conservatives.”
Not so long ago, Continetti was cloistered in conservative media’s more echo-chambery confines. A young fogey who grew up in Springfield and Burke and can talk at length about the art of a great lead—the opening sentences of an article—he spent eight years writing and blogging for the Weekly Standard, the magazine founded by William Kristol (now Continetti’s father-in-law) before founding the Beacon in 2011 with Standard colleague Michael Goldfarb. At 34, Continetti lives in McLean and reads “hard newspapers every day.” He claims to have only a vague idea of what the Beacon’s traffic numbers are. “I’m not very good at the internet,” he says.
Launched by a nonprofit called the Center for American Freedom, the Beacon quickly drew almost $4 million in contributions and grants, according to its IRS filings.
Last year the website went private, with a plan to make money with display ads from its average of 1.8 million readers per month, according to data from comScore. So far, Continetti writes in an e-mail, ad revenue “does not cover the costs of operation,” but “our investors continue to show patience as we work to develop additional revenue streams.” (He declines to name the investors or say what happened to the rest of that $4 million.) The Beacon, he says, plans an online store hawking “Greatest Living President George W. Bush T-shirts, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed chia pets, and posters of Kate Upton.”
These offerings hint at another reason the Beacon drives its critics crazy: its dedication to laughing at politics as it reports on the field. Melding the news that Clinton planned to attend a fundraiser hosted by New Republic owner Chris Hughes with Hughes’s recent statement that he was viewed as “the Antichrist” by the magazine’s loyalists, the Beacon ran a story under the banner HILLARY CLINTON TO FUNDRAISE WITH “ANTI-CHRIST.”
This article appears in our August 2015 issue of Washingtonian.