Once conservative domination of the press is complete, we still might want, just for old times' sake, to issue occasional prizes to lonely liberals still trying to fight the good fight for what's left of their side. We can call it the Joe Conason award, after the churlish scribe who never failed to throw his heart and soul into blind defense of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Roger Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and even Al Gore.
An early favorite for the Conason Prize has to be Joshua Marshall, author of the online Talking Points Memo (not to be confused with the Washington Post's online "Talking Points" column). No sooner did Tom Daschle and Al Gore complain about conservative manipulation of mainstream media than Marshall was up and about dutifully trying to prove their case.
Earlier this month he seized on a report by Matt Drudge that liberal presidential prospect Sen. John Kerry was a client of Washington's Cristophe Salon, where his hair was expensively handled by the same stylist who confronts Hillary Clinton's coif.
"Look how quickly the right-wing-agitprop take-down of John Kerry gets underway," Marshall wrote on December 2. "It begins with an admittedly sophomoric routine by Matt Drudge about an over-priced haircut, with an assist from an anonymous source at Fox News. But soon enough this will all become a talking point for Matthews, Russert, et al. Watch how it happens ... Which other normally reasonable commentators will get pulled in?"
On December 4 he started answering his own question, even identifying two of Gore's right-wing ultra-millionaire media moguls in the process. "More on how the right-wing trashing machine kicks into gear. The imbecilic Drudge John Kerry haircut story gets picked up undigested in Canada's National Post, the former flagship sheet of Conrad Black, Canada's would-be Rupert Murdoch. It also gets picked up and packaged with a lot of other bashing -- by turns, ludicrous and hideous -- in Tony Blankley's column in the Washington Times.
"Of course, the real issue is the on-its-back insipidness of the mainstream press and how easily it gets pulled in by this stuff. Here's Judy Woodruff yesterday on CNN's Inside Politics ..."
Note how the coolly analytical his language is: "right-wing-agitprop," "right-wing trashing machine," "imbecilic," "hideous" -- but what infuriates him is that Judy Woodruff (of all people!) and CNN discussed the Kerry-Cristophe connection. For this was proof positive. As he put it, "The conveyor belt. Watch how it works."
One other thing irked him to no end: Woodruff's segment had brought up Bill Clinton's famed Cristophe haircut at LAX.
With Marshall it all goes back to the way Clinton was allegedly mistreated. One might recall that Marshall made it big as an intrepid pursuer of Gary Condit after the disappearance of Chandra Levy. Later he acknowledged that what got him interested in the story was Condit's turning against Clinton during the impeachment battle. He remains unforgiving of anyone with anything unkind to say about Clinton. (We're not calling it the Conason Prize for nothing.)
On December 5 Marshall continued to discuss what he now called "this moronic John Kerry hair story" and how "very unreflective" the media is "about the ways it allows itself to be manipulated." Yet he seemed to be having trouble coming up with any new examples of how his kind of media were letting him down. For lack of anything else to shoot it, he turned his sights on the Hoover Institution, the "famed conservative think tank," which he charged "has gotten in" on the hair cut story, all because one of its research fellows, Bill Whalen, had now written about it for National Review Online.
Of course, though dutifully linking to it, Marshall said not a word about the actual content of Whalen's column, which raised perfectly reasonable questions about the difficulties a man with luxurious tastes (and no discernible charm) faces winning popular backing. Instead, Marshall, in some confusion, warned: "Up the agitprop food chain we go. When does Irving Kristol chime in? Bob Bork? [Or the Hoover Institution's own] Milton Friedman?"
So what's he complaining about? A "conveyor belt" from conservative outlets to the mainstream? Or a "food chain" from lesser conservatives to conservative giants?
To add to this conceptual confusion, a day later Marshall launched his own effort to set off a conveyor belt. So far as anyone knows, he was the first to report on Trent Lott's Dixiecrat moment at Strom Thurmond's centennial. Naturally, he initially characterized Lott's words as "just another example of the hubris now reigning among Capitol Hill Republicans." But by December 7 he was chiding CNN for failing to ask Lott about his comments during an interview about the firings of O'Neill-Lindsey. By yesterday he was calling for Lott's head and congratulating Andrew Sullivan for offering similar sentiments. He didn't mention the Washington Post's story critical of Lott's comments from Saturday, but he did find David Broder's criticism of Lott on Sunday's "Meet the Press" insufficiently harsh, at least compared to what Broder had once said about Clinton.
It's not clear where Marshall will go next with Lott, though it's obvious that any apology Lott attempts won't meet Marshall's standards. Currently he seems intent on proving Democrats did not steal the South Dakota Senate race. In the meantime something odder is taking place. While there's now been considerable mainstream coverage of Lott's remarks, it is on conservative websites that the strongest anti-Lott views are being voiced. From Instapundit to Virginia Postrel to David Frum to Jonah Goldberg to Front Page Magazine, among countless others, Lott isn't exactly finding any apologists. Here Marshall was hoping to set off something similar on the left, only to learn once again that all the energy and straightforwardness remains on the right.
He may even figure out what conservatives have wanted for years -- a Republican Senate leader who isn't Trent Lott. If that ever comes to pass, they'll no doubt happily give Marshall a prize, and it won't even have to be named after Joe Conason.