It was the biggest story of 2009.
If you doubt, ask ACORN. Or Van Jones. Or the So We Might See campaign. You won't need Time magazine's once clout-filled "Man of the Year" issue to figure it out, either. Just take a look back at the bestseller lists, the ratings of Fox News or simply turn on your local AM radio dial.
The single most important news event of 2009 was the emergence of The Virtual Newsroom. A newsroom run by a virtual army of conservative journalists famous and unknown, their individual and collective impact multiplied exponentially by millions of Internet users, radio listeners, readers and television viewers.
How did this happen? How does it work in practice?
First, perspective is needed here. Like other big news events, it didn't happen overnight. There is history, lots of it.
In the afterglow of World War II, at the dawn of the Cold War, the ideology of American liberalism reigned supreme. What began at the beginning of the 20th century as the "progressive movement" -- an ideology that believed government control in some fashion was The Answer to the everyday lives of Americans -- was now riding herd.
Politically, on the one-to-ten scale, Communism was at a thousand. Beginning with the Soviet Union, entire nations had succumbed to the idea of state control of everything, run by the famous Marxist dictum of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." In America, adherents to the driving principle of government control were spread out along the scale below, from socialists like Norman Thomas at a ten to progressives like FDR Vice President Henry Wallace at a nine and on down the line, ending with the weakest strain of the germ as exemplified by liberal Republicans like the New York Governors Thomas E. Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller.
The "progressive disease" was slowly and not so slowly infecting everything it touched -- the culture, education, religion, commerce and so on. It was "mainstreamed" -- and nowhere else were its believers more prominent than in the American media. As fate would have it, the media itself was undergoing a transformation -- technology relentlessly pushing it along in a fashion that in fact had nothing to do with the politics of the participants. The power of newspapers, magazines and books was growing as printing and distribution technology blossomed. Radio, coming on the scene in the 1920s, was reaching what would be thought of as a peak, quickly giving way not just to television but to network television.
And in each and every case, these events were being shaped by believers who self-identified somewhere on that one-to-ten scale of "progressivism." It was, literally, one giant food chain of intellectual thought, with respectability unquestioningly bestowed on just about everyone of any note who believed -- which meant just about everyone of note. The country could trade political parties in the White House from Truman to Eisenhower, while putting up losing presidential nominees like Dewey or Democrat Adlai Stevenson. It could send its kids to college, buy bestselling books, go to church, turn the television channel from CBS to NBC to, later, ABC -- and without missing a beat be on the receiving end of some forms of the progressive message.
In retrospect, the opening shot of the media counter-revolution to all of this was the 1951 publication of one book -- God and Man at Yale -- by a precocious William F. Buckley, Jr. The book took on the startled establishment of Yale, portrayed by alumni Buckley as progressive politicians in the guise of educators. The book was an instant bestseller, setting Buckley at 26 firmly on the road to a hugely successful life as a founding father of conservative media. The book was followed by Buckley's establishment of National Review magazine in 1955.
The conservative counter-revolution in the American media was on.
There isn't space to detail all that brought us to this moment. In brief -- the known events of the Great Society, the 1960s cultural revolution, the comeback of AM radio, the rise of the Internet, cable and satellite TV, Fox News. What we can focus on here is the effect -- how all of this has salted out in the biggest story of 2009. The coming of age of the Virtual Newsroom and its convergence with the conservative movement.
Imagine, if you will, the traditional newsroom as it dominated the once-great metropolitan daily newspapers of America. A vast acreage of desks, in the modern era, separated into cubicles. Somewhere is the glassed-in office of the editor, and somewhere else, usually not on the same floor, the clubby and comfortable quarters of the publisher.
Now take this image and virtualize it. Add in the names and faces, the specific tasks of each. Most importantly, understand that just as with the original, physical version of a newsroom, the relationship of one person to the other, one task to the other and each person and task to the whole is essential to the success of the entire virtual enterprise.
So let's tour the Virtual Newsroom.
This being the modern era, computers hum at every work station. The acreage required to accommodate everyone is simultaneously huge -- mammoth -- yet intimate. This is a virtual operation. To be "at your desk" requires only a computer, and while the story files in here, the journalist in question can in fact be anywhere, not unlike the old-fashioned idea of the trench-coated foreign correspondent on the line from 1930s Berlin or the hard-charging White House correspondent calling in from the Dallas, Texas of November 22, 1963.
In one corner are the newspaper people, still engaging in the ancient art form by writing the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal or putting together the New York Post or Washington Times. In another corner are the magazines --- the one you are reading, The American Spectator -- along with Buckley's National Review, Human Events, the Weekly Standard and Commentary. Throughout are the columnists -- my colleagues -- who sift the work product of the rest of the room for investigation or commentary.
Just down the hall is talk radio row. This line of studios filled with hosts, producers and call-screeners is enormous, covering hundreds of shows from Maine to California. The man who almost single-handedly created this section of the newsroom has -- but of course -- a corner office. Everybody in the newsroom loves Rush. They know he's in when cigar smoke is seen wafting out the door, the occasional NFL replay booming forth as he preps his way through his "stack of stuff." His EIB studio adjoins his office, a glassed-in-front providing an inside-look for visitors as he sits before the golden microphone. The great thing about the Virtual Newsroom is the corner office concept. Everyone can have one if they wish. Sean Hannity has one, a football frequently arcing out onto the larger newsroom floor waiting for someone to toss it back. Donuts airlifted from someplace called Stan's in California signal that Mark Levin is back there, along with the pin-up of the U.S. Constitution. Beck's people are distinctive because they seem to be perpetually running out of chalk, giving new meaning to the phrase "let's chalk this one up." Laura Ingraham is frequently seen running out to run with pal Lucy, the music plugged in, eyes rolling as she catches an Obama image on a nearby monitor.
Moving along the room we enter TV Land, populated primarily by Fox News and Fox Business Channel personalities. CNN rented space for Lou Dobbs but recently gave it up. O'Reilly and Beck seem constitutionally unable to stop pranking each other, which has necessitated a rare disciplinary procedure of giving Bernard Goldberg his virtual office separating the two on occasion. Dennis Miller does not help the situation. Sean and Beck, doing double-duty with radio shows and TV shows, seem to live in the newsroom, both apparently having a huge time of sheer fun with the whole thing. Greta and Neil and Stuart Varney work their respective beats, although there is a ripple of amusement or two every time heads lift to the realization that Frank Rich is on Imus and hence Fox Business, yet again playing defense for the Times.
The rapidly expanding section of the Virtual Newsroom that has everyone buzzing is the Internet "desk." Drudge is here, ditto Andrew Breitbart. There is much suspiciously timed coming and going to the virtual water cooler when Breitbart stars James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles are in. In real life people are always disappointed to see O'Keefe doesn't wear the chinchilla fur to work and that Giles is, in fact, suitably dressed for the virtual workplace. What's particularly interesting here is the size of this division. Job applications pour in hourly from conservative bloggers around the nation. The applications are stamped "hire now" by someone wearing a Harry Potter-style "invisibility cloak" and the virtual newsroom expands yet again. There is some speculation that the physical dimension of the newspapers will at some point vanish altogether and their offices just be folded into the Internet group. Time will tell.
Last but most importantly not least, is what we call the Boswell department. Named after England's James Boswell, the famous 18th-century chronicler of The Life of Samuel Johnson, the Boswell's are conservative authors. The real-time chroniclers of conservatism as it is or is not seen or applied today. Between them they take the time to illuminate the basics of conservative philosophy (Mark Levin in Liberty and Tyranny), the craziness of liberalism (Ann Coulter, most recently in Guilty ,Glenn Beck in Common Sense, Laura Ingraham in Power to the People), the historic attachment of progressivism to overripe if not outright totalitarian political thought (Jonah Goldberg in Liberal Fascism) or what the progressives running the government are up to now (Michelle Malkin in Culture of Corruption, Dick Morris in Catastrophe). The central function of each is the same. To educate, to remind, to explain, to illuminate for their Virtual Newsroom colleagues. This in turn keeps all of us in the Virtual Newsroom repeatedly attuned to the necessary ability to examine what we see in the world around us. To understand exactly what we are seeing, why we are seeing it, and most importantly why what we are seeing does or does not work.
SO HOW DOES all this work together? What is here that makes the Virtual Newsroom and its conservative occupants indisputably the biggest story of 2009?
Story One: Here you have two young conservative journalists, O'Keefe and Giles, possessed of a keen philosophical eye, a knowledge of technology (cameras, microphones videotape, the Internet) and a fat and inviting liberal fish in a barrel known as ACORN. Imagination conjured as to how they will approach their story -- they go out and conduct their very-old style journalism investigation. Story in hand, Andrew Breitbart of Breitbart.tv in the Internet division takes the handoff. He sends a virtual memo to talk radio row's Beck and Hannity. Who in turn are both Fox News stars. Five…four…three…two…one. Bang! Within a virtual instant, the Virtual Newsroom has just blown in the hull of the good ship ACORN, its stunned survivors racing around the deck of a political Titanic as Breitbart, O'Keefe and Giles are powered by the engines of the Virtual Newsroom. The full power of the Virtual Newsroom kicks in. Talk radio shows light up the call screeners screens. The newspaper and magazines kick in, in print and online. The lights are on in the Fox studios as the surging Fox audience gapes at a federally funded organization strategizing on prostitution. And…lights out for ACORN. Or more accurately, considerably damaged and suddenly congressionally unfunded. And the coverage from what's left of the liberal mainstream media in all this? Next to zero.
Story Two: Van Jones has it made. From community organizer straight to the White House staff in the Obama era. Says Obama key aide Valerie Jarrett:
JARRETT: You guys know Van Jones? [Applause. Moderator injects: "This is his house apparently."]
JARRETT: Oooh. Van Jones, alright! So, Van Jones. We were so delighted to be able to recruit him into the White House. We were watching him, uh, really, he's not that old, for as long as he's been active out in Oakland. And all the creative ideas he has. And so now, we have captured that. And we have all that energy in the White House.
Alas for Mr. Jones, the Virtual Newsroom is at work. This is the 21st century, and not unlike millions of others, Mr. Jones has portions of his career on videotape. On the Internet. The blogger sleuths of the Virtual Newsroom are at work, from coast to coast. This time the info surfaces, speech by speech, piece of tape by piece of tape, painting a portrait of Van Jones -- painted by Van Jones himself. A portrait recognized of the old progressivism highlighted so ably in book form by National Review's Jonah Goldberg in Liberal Fascism -- the desire to take from one group seen as undeserving and unworthy of their creations and give it to others. A portrait made more vivid by the Virtual Newsroom discovery of a tie to the nuttiness of the "Truther" movement that believes George W. Bush secretly set up the attack on America. In the material flows. The Old Media, predictably if irrelevantly, ignores the story. Seamlessly now, racing around the Virtual Newsroom from Internet desk to the talk radio desk to the television, magazine and newspaper desks -- Van Jones is quickly and unceremoniously out of his White House job.
Story Three: The So We Might See campaign "hate speech" campaign that pushes to get both Beck and CNN's Lou Dobbs off the air. In this case, the story came from my desk at The American Spectator section of the Virtual Newsroom. After spending much time in the Internet division's research library, the Spectator runs a series of my investigative columns involving seven major religious denominations and what appear to be an effort to silence Virtual Newsroom colleagues Limbaugh, Beck, O'Reilly, Dobbs and others. Paid for in part by left-wing billionaire George Soros's Open Society Institute. Once up on the virtual screen of The American Spectator, customers of the Virtual Newsroom begin swamping the leaders of their faiths, furious at what is instantly seen as an attempt to silence free speech -- and in a fashion a portion of the Virtual Newsroom itself. Backtracking begins. Three faiths change their mind, two dropping from the FCC petition, one out of the group altogether. The campaigns to Drop Dobbs and get Beck are removed from the So We Might See site. Who in the Virtual Newsroom was involved in this? The Internet desk, the magazine desk, talk radio row, and Lou Dobbs. Ironically, Dobbs left CNN the night of my appearance on his show, a fact that only highlights CNN's inability to cope with the Virtual Newsroom. He is still, it should be said, over there in his studio on radio row.
What these three stories illustrate -- and there are more, the health care fight being another -- is that the Virtual Newsroom has arrived. It is populated by a cast of thousands -- TV stars, radio broadcasters, Internet sites, columnists, investigators, people in pajamas -- you name them, they are here. They have a philosophical underpinning for what they do -- something seen in the response to Levin's Liberty and Tyranny. They know exactly what to look for, as Breitbart, O'Keefe and Giles of the Internet division have shown. Most importantly, they know how to take a story -- to alert their colleagues in the Virtual Newsroom -- and then work the story across the newsroom from virtual or physical print to Internet to radio to television. To wit: from the cameras of Breitbart, O'Keefe and Giles to talk radio and the bright lights of Beck and Hannity. Or, from my computer to pages of The American Spectator to the set of Lou Dobbs. And so on, for every single colleague in the Virtual Newsroom who has a compelling story to tell.
What is particularly interesting here -- and a key to the success of the entire Virtual Newsroom -- is that the Virtual Newsroom itself is a living, breathing example of what Levin calls Adam Smith's devotion to free markets as "spontaneous order."
No one "has" to write or broadcast a particular story. It's a free market in story ideas out there on the Virtual Newsroom floor. As a result, creativity reigns. A million different ideas float through the Virtual Newsroom on any given day, with the journalists in the room looking them over as if at some giant intellectual smorgasbord. What appeals to The American Spectator may not interest National Review. What turns on Breitbart may enthuse Beck but not Hannity. The curiosity of Michelle Malkin on an issue may not appeal to a Jed Babbin at Human Events. Launching Laura is not the same as ticking off Ann. What gets Rush's adrenaline flowing…well…generally speaking Rush gets everybody's adrenaline flowing.
The problem for American progressives today -- be they the activists of ACORN, Van Jones, the So We Might See group or others -- is that they are unaccustomed to finding themselves on the receiving end of this kind of attention from the journalists, commentators, investigators, talk radio hosts, television stars and authors of the Virtual Newsroom. It is safe to say that whatever else went on in the three stories listed here, the scoundrels at ACORN, Mr. Jones, and the So We Might See-ers were taken aback at the fact they -- they! -- were suddenly under the Virtual Newsroom microscope for their public activities. Accustomed to velvet-gloved treatment from their progressive buddies in the Old Media, they simply never factored the existence of the Virtual Newsroom into the equation.
Newsflash to progressives. The Virtual News room is here to stay. Not only is it not going away -- in spite of whatever shenanigans may be going on behind the closed doors of the FCC -- it is gaining in both size and strength.
And gaining in something else that simply terrifies progressive activists everywhere: the power to seriously influence events.
Which is why, when all is said and done by December 31, it is already clear that the story of the year in 2009 is not President Obama, health care, Iraq or even Tiger Woods.
The story of 2009 is the emergence of a new and powerful player increasingly dominating American politics, culture, education, religion and who knows what else.
That player is the media that is the Virtual Newsroom. And the conservatives who run it.