Jonathan Karl and the success of the conservative media movement
Conservatives don’t just complain loudly, endlessly and inaccurately about liberal media bias. They also train right-leaning journalists to make their way into the supposedly hostile terrain of Beltway media. And one of the most famous alums of a conservative media training program is now a major star at a network news outlet: ABC’s senior political correspondent Jonathan Karl.
Karl came to mainstream journalism via the Collegiate Network, an organization primarily devoted to promoting and supporting right-leaning newspapers on college campuses (Extra!, 9-10/91)—such as the Rutgers paper launched by the infamous James O’Keefe (Political Correction, 1/27/10). The network, founded in 1979, is one of several projects of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which seeks to strengthen conservative ideology on college campuses. William F. Buckley was the ISI’s first president, and the current board chair is American Spectator publisher Alfred Regnery. Several leading right-wing pundits came out of Collegiate-affiliated papers, including Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, Michelle Malkin, Rich Lowry and Laura Ingraham (Washington Times, 11/28/04).
The Collegiate Network also provides paid internships and fellowships to place its members at corporate media outlets or influential Beltway publications; 2010-11 placements include the Hill, Roll Call, Dallas Morning News and USA Today. The program’s highest-profile alum is Karl, who was a Collegiate fellow at the neoliberal New Republic magazine.
After a stint at the New York Post, Karl soon found his way to CNN, but he was still connected to ideological pursuits; he was a board member at the right-leaning youth-oriented Third Millennium group and at the Madison Center for Educational Affairs—which, like the Collegiate Network, seeks to strengthen young conservative journalism. After moving to ABC in 2003, Karl contributed several pieces to the neo-con Weekly Standard, such as his April 4, 2005 article praising Bush Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as out to “make her mark with the vigorous pursuit of the president’s freedom and democracy agenda.”
Karl’s high profile at ABC demonstrates that conservative messages can find a comfortable home inside the so-called “liberal” media. Karl channeled former ABC corporate cheerleader John Stossel with a segment (3/5/11) complaining that regulation of the egg and poultry industries was “almost embarrassing,” since different government agencies regulate different aspects of the industries. “Got that?” Karl asked. “Fifteen separate agencies have responsibility for food safety.”
During the rollout of Paul Ryan’s budget plan, Karl (1/26/11) gushed that the Republican media darling was “a little like the guy in the movie Dave, the accidental president who sets out to fix the budget, line by line.” And while Democrats were saying Ryan “is a villain,” Karl was clear about which side he was on: “Ryan knows what he sees…. Paul Ryan is on a mission, determined to do the seemingly impossible: actually balance the federal budget.” (Actually, even with its draconian spending cuts and absurdly optimistic economic assumptions, the Ryan plan still foresees a cumulative deficit of $62 trillion over the next half century—Congressional Budget Office, 1/27/10.)
On a This Week roundtable (2/20/11), Karl declared that state budget debates were “the Tea Party’s moment” and “also the Chris Christie phenomenon. Will politicians be rewarded for making tough choices—again, something I don’t think we’ve ever seen happen?” Of course, it’s hard not to conclude that the “tough choices” made by Christie and other Republicans are the ones that ought to be rewarded.
And in one World News segment (2/14/11), Karl likened the federal budget to stacks of pennies in order to demonstrate that deeper spending cuts would be necessary in order to balance the budget. Karl concluded that “the bottom line, Diane, is unless you’re willing to talk about cutting entitlements or defense or both, really, there’s no way you can even think about balancing the budget.” This is not actually true—one could raise revenues by increasing taxes on the wealthy—but it is how Republicans want to frame the budget debate.
Perfectly unbalanced factchecking
Karl is often tapped by ABC to offer factcheck segments, and the results frequently reinforce some of the misinformation that is supposed to be corrected, or attempt to spread the blame to “both sides.” During the debate over extending the Bush tax cuts, conservatives complained that a tax increase on the top 2 percent would actually be a crushing burden on small business owners. Karl’s “factcheck” interviewed two small business owners who claimed they would be adversely affected. One said an increase in his personal tax bill would cost him between $20,000 and $40,000, and the other claimed a potential tax bill increase of $120,000. If these estimates were true, Karl’s small businessmen were making enormous amounts of money—upwards of $700,000 a year for the first, nearly $3 million for the second (FAIR Action Alert, 9/13/10). That was never explained to ABC viewers.
Karl’s report, ironically enough, was supposed to be a “factcheck” of Democratic claims that the tax cuts would not affect many small businesses—about 2 percent. Karl finally admitted this was true—and then made it sound less so: “894,000 small businesses that would see their taxes go up. A small percentage, but a large number of small businesses.”
Karl produced one factcheck (10/25/10) of political rhetoric about the stimulus package. This would seem to be an easy one; some Republican candidates were claiming that the stimulus either created no jobs, or actually led to millions of lost jobs—both of which, as Karl noted, were not true. But due to the apparent need to create “balance,” Karl followed that debunking by stating, “The most extravagant claim related to the stimulus, though, comes from Harry Reid.” What followed was a short soundbite of the Nevada Democrat saying, “But for me, we’d be in a worldwide depression.” Karl’s retort: “Hmm, maybe not.”
Reid’s comment, however, did not seem to refer to the economic stimulus plan at all. It was drawn from an interview with MSNBC host Ed Schultz (10/21/10), where Reid was talking about the perils of campaigning in an economic downturn: “So people have been hurting, and I understand that, and it doesn’t give them comfort or solace for me to tell them, you know, ‘But for me, we’d be in a worldwide depression.’ They want to know what I’ve done for them.” How Karl came to use this quote as an example of stimulus extravagance is hard to fathom, but it was prominently featured on right-leaning websites like the Drudge Report.
Though not billed as a “factcheck,” Karl did something similar for a report on This Week (4/3/11) about the budget debate. Tea Party activists make unrelenting demands about spending cuts, explained Karl—before pivoting to say:
Democrats have their hotheads, too. One Obama administration official said the Republican bill, which cuts $5 billion from the Agency for International Development would kill kids. That’s right: Kill kids.
What Karl considered hotheaded extremism was the claim that deaths in poor countries will occur due to, among other things, cuts to USAID’s anti-malaria programs. Others will die because of a lack of life-saving medicines or cuts in programs fighting infant mortality. That cutting health aid to poor countries will cost lives, apparently, is a claim only a “hothead” would make.
Stimulus cop: looking for pork!
One of the most frequent themes of Karl’s ABC reporting is government spending. After the passage of the economic stimulus bill, Karl set out to track potential signs of wasteful “pork.” According to anchor Diane Sawyer (2/10/11), “Jon Karl really is a Sherlock Holmes of waste in Washington.” What he produced was a series of trivial reports that seemed to mimic standard Republican complaints about government waste: Two reports complaining about Recovery Act signs (7/14/10, 7/10/09), a railroad/flood prevention project in California’s Napa Valley “wine country” (2/2/10), and small airports receiving government funding (4/23/09, 9/18/09).
In the midst of these reports, Karl could go back to more mundane complaints about government spending, which usually mean relying on Republican politicians for your research: “For the past week, [John] McCain has been twittering a daily top 10 list of the bill’s porkiest projects,” Karl (3/4/09) reported about a government spending bill. “Today’s top 10 includes $150,000 for lobster research, $950,000 for a convention center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.”
A few months later Karl wasn’t just reading McCain’s Twitter feed—he had a downright “exclusive” from McCain and Republican Sen. Tom Coburn. On ABC’s Good Morning America (8/3/10), Karl outlined the Republican complaints, mocking the stimulus bill for including “nearly $1 million for the California Academy of Sciences to study exotic ants.” (How crazy to study potential pest species—it’s not like California has a $37 billion agriculture industry or anything.)
On another program (12/20/10), Karl derided a government “cow burp study”—related to the trivial problem of global climate change—while earlier he joked (6/16/09): “Why did the turtle cross the road? Because $3.4 million in stimulus money hadn’t been spent yet to build them a tunnel. But that’s about to change.”
It’s a timeless theme. “The bill is supposed to fund government operations,” he explained on one newscast (2/24/09) “but it includes things like more than $1 million for so-called ‘Mormon crickets’ in Utah, $200,000 for tattoo removal in Los Angeles and $443,000 to control beavers in Mississippi.” If Republican congressional leaders ever need someone to fill in on their PR team, Karl would be a perfect fit.
What’s striking about Jonathan Karl’s reporting, however, is that it’s not flagrant Fox News-type bias. Rather, Karl comes across as a somewhat exaggerated version of the kind of Beltway center-right conventional wisdom you’re likely to see on any network newscast. Perhaps the lesson is that right-wing pressure to push the news business to the right has been so successful, a conservative movement plant fits right in.