The Secret Handshake

The Strib is discontinuing its “Contributing Columnists” column – or at least the part of it that featured conservatives like Katherine Kersten and Jason Lewis – in favor of installing Doug Tice as the paper’s sole voice of “dissent”.

Now, I’m acquainted with Doug.  I’ve interviewed him.  He’s a good guy, and a good reporter.

But having him serve as the sole voice of dissent on the Strib’s DFL-blue columnists’ row?

Bill Glahn writes about the changeover:

If such a thing is possible, I participated in a useful discussion on Twitter last night. The principal participants included my internet radio partner—St. Paul attorney John Gilmore—Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial page editor Scott Gillespie, and former editor and current Southwest Journal columnist David Brauer.

Prompting our conversation was the apparent decision by the Star Tribune to discontinue the weekly Sunday Opinion page “Contributing Columnist” feature, in which non-liberal voices rotated through about once a month. The feature included columns from conservative author Katherine Kersten, conservative radio talk show host Jason Lewis, and centrist politicians Tim Penny and Tom Horner.

That space is to be filled by a weekly column from current Star Tribune staffer D.J. Tice. I’ve met Mr. Tice on a number of occasions and have read his work for years. Not to damn him with faint praise, but he strikes me as a reasonable sort, very middle-of-the-road.

And he is.  This blog has mixed it up with Tice, and come away better for the discussion.

But here’s the beef:

To my taste, he comes across as more Joe Lieberman than George Bush. Perhaps, though, I will be pleasantly surprised by his work in this new role.

If you go waaaaay back to when Tice was with the Pioneer Press, he was…Republican.  Low-key, not especially ideological.

Mr. Brauer was among those cheering the move, telling us that the current conservative lineup was not “worthy” and did not “best showcase” our side of the aisle.

I’ve had that same discussion with Brauer, among others on the left.   I asked – in a city full of highly capable conservative writers (John Hinkeraker, Walter Hudson, Ed Morrissey, Bill Glahn himself, Scott Johnson, Erin Haust, and on a good day yours truly), what was the problem?  Finding a new conservative to fill the space would be a cakewalk!

And Glahn has the same question I did:

What makes a conservative “worthy”? It is a willingness to support the larger progressive cause? In Part 1 of this series, I quote National Review’s Jonah Goldberg on the liberal view of what the proper role of conservatives should be in the national discourse,

“Good conservatives… should know their place and gladly serve as Sherpas to the great mountaineers of liberalism, pointing out occasional missteps, perhaps suggesting a slight course correction from time to time, but never losing sight of the need for upward ‘progress’ and happily carrying the extra baggage for progressives in their zealous but heroic quest for the summit.”
For another view of a worthy role for conservatives, in Part 2 of this series, I quote the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto as he reviews a piece by Time magazine’s Joe Klein on the subject of ObamaCare,

What Klein wishes for is a division of labor in which the two parties would cooperate to make government bigger. He’d like the Republicans to reinvent themselves as a non-ideological party devoted to effective management, which would allow the Democrats to focus on expanding government. In such a world, Democrats would face no serious resistance to their legislative efforts, and there would be less risk of ObamaCare-style failures because the elephants’ job would be to clean up after the donkeys.

There’s all that; a decade of reading Lori Sturdevant’ll tell you that the views above are more common than not.

But the other subtext I got from discussing this with Brauer was the idea that their idea of a “worthy” “conservative” is someone who might be incrementally to the right of the rest of columnist’s row – enough to allow plausible deniability of bias without being too threatening – but most importantly, someone who knows the secret journalists’ handshake.

In other words – someone who is a journo first and foremost, and a dissenter from the group orthodoxy…somewhere down the list. 

Is it a make-work program in an industry increasingly full of people scrambling for jobs with non-profits or PR firms?

Or is it sometime more?

And are people (like, occasionally, a very frustrated me) being shortsighted for saying “a pox on their house and all like them?”

Glahn says yes:

For the reader, the absence of dissenting views—or when rebuttals are allowed only to hand-picked issues at certain times—reinforces the impression that no credible opposition exists to the progressive worldview or that there exists no viable alternatives to liberal policies. As a result, conservative election triumphs (like Scott Walker’s) or the failure of progressive initiatives (like MNsure) catch the reader by complete surprise: from faithfully reading the Star Tribune, they would not be aware such outcomes were possible.

This, of course, ties into my thesis – that most Minnesota liberals never learn how to debate conservatives, and conservatism, because they never actually encounter it as anything but a punch line, a defamatory stereotype, or a crisis.  From our DFL-owned school system, through our university system in which ”questioning authority” means “from the left only”, to the non-profits and academic and government union jobs that absorb so much of the regional left, they never have to confront considered, intelligent dissent – because the institutions that “inform” them carefully filter everything about conservative dissent that can’t be turned into a Sack cartoon from them. 

I still believe that even a liberal newspaper and its readers would benefit from a regular conservative presence on its pages. Thoughtful conservative commentary that describes, week-in-and-week-out, a workable alternative set of policies based on a competing worldview would force liberals to sharpen their arguments and readers to expand their horizons.

I believe the mainstream media hit a fork in the road over the past few decades; inform people, or serve a political end.  They made their choice, and they’re going to keep running with it.

And while I have the utmost respect for Doug Tice, he’s less a dissent from the Strib’s suffocating groupthink than he is the “good cop” to a room full of rhetorical “bad cops”. 

It’s not actually dissent.