by Glen Frieden
Jonah Goldberg is the founding editor of the National Review Online, a fellow at the right-wing American Enterprise think tank, and a widely distributed conservative columnist. He first gained the spotlight, and began writing for National Review, in 1998, when his mother Lucianne Goldberg helped promote the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
To give you an idea of how he built his career as a “provocative” conservative thinker, he opened a 2001 column thus (Jewish World Review, 10/15/01):
Suddenly, serious people are rethinking an old idea that’s time has come again: colonialism. For years, colonialism has been discredited. It was considered racist on the left to point out that many people lived better and more productive lives under, say, British rule than they have without it.
The core theme of his punditry has always been complaining about “liberals”: His two books, from 2008 and 2012, are titled Liberal Fascism and The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas.
Why has he appeared as a guest on National Public Radio’s most widely distributed news hours (primarily Morning Edition) 25 times since April 2016—making him one of the network’s most regularly consulted commentators?
A number of NPR’s listeners have written in to complain about Goldberg’s prevalence on the airwaves. NPR ombud Elizabeth Jensen acknowledged in a response column (NPR.org, 4/11/17) that “no liberal commentator has had such a recurring platform, and Goldberg is not always identified by his political views, leaving listeners to guess.” She also defended their frequent use of Goldberg: “I appreciate Goldberg’s commentary and rarely find it following predictable talking points.”
Based on FAIR’s review of all of Goldberg’s NPR appearances since 2015, it is easy to see his value as a pundit to NPR’s editors and producers. He is always an easy interview; he never contradicts NPR hosts and usually confines his commentary to mundane observations on the political horserace between Democrats and Republicans. He is willing to critique Republican strategy and lawmakers. Most significantly, he refused to endorse (or vote for) Donald Trump, sharing what we may assume is most NPR staffers’ distaste for Trump’s style and rhetoric. (NPR’s other most frequent conservative commentator, David Brooks, is also a well-known “Never Trumper.”)
Offering the anti-Trump Goldberg a platform is NPR’s way of providing a “counterbalance” to its widely perceived liberal worldview, while also drawing a distinction between good right-wingers (establishment conservatives) and bad right-wingers (Trump). But promoting Goldberg is a misguided move: The liberal/conservative balancing act has always been a misleading quest for a false “center,” and Goldberg’s brand of conservatism is not an antidote to Trumpism, but rather its close relative and natural precursor.
‘A Conservative Voice’ and the False Center
When Jensen praises Goldberg for “rarely…following predictable talking points,” it is clear that the apparent unconventionality of Goldberg’s commentary is what appeals to NPR. She writes further about political commentary (NPR.org, 10/6/16): “My sense is that the vast majority of listeners are hoping to hear a commentary perspective that makes them consider an issue from a different angle.”
But Goldberg’s unconventionality is superficial. It consists primarily of irreverence towards politicians and the occasional stale pop culture reference (Morning Edition, 5/22/17):
You know, Mitch McConnell, who’s got a gift for understatement, said we could all use a little less drama. That’s code for, dear God, please cut it out. I have these visions of Reince Priebus doing a sort of Jerry Maguire with Trump—you know, help-me-help-you kind of thing.
Meanwhile, Goldberg’s views on policy are conventionally right-wing. His take on Rep. Steve Scalise’s shooting (National Review, 6/16/17), which included his trademark “I can see both sides” posture, concluded that the shooting teaches us…that we need to reduce the size and scope of government. (A glance at Goldberg’s past writings—e.g., Townhall, 3/7/13—on the necessity of cutting “entitlement” programs like Social Security provides a clue as to how he envisions shrinking the government.)
His writings in the past month include an essay on how PC-culture “snowflakes” pose a threat to free speech (Commentary, 6/19/17). He entered the AHCA debate (Townhall, 5/31/17) with the edgy idea that people don’t really need health insurance, parroting a Ted Cruz and Rick Perry talking point from 2015 that’s long been debunked (Factcheck.org, 7/10/15). Elsewhere (Baltimore Sun, 5/5/17), he asks the question: Is empathy a distraction in the healthcare debate?
Goldberg’s views on Israel/Palestine, and US Mideast policy more broadly, can be gleaned from a 2007 column (Townhall, 6/20/07) that complains that “the assumption behind the push for democracy in Gaza and in Iraq is that Arabs can be trusted to handle political freedom.”
It’s tough to see what precious spice Goldberg adds to the mix on NPR; his contributions range from the absurdly equivocal (Morning Edition, 7/20/16):
Oh, Roger Ailes is a colossal figure. And he—the list of people who owe their careers to Roger Ailes is very, very long, including many politicians. And this is a thunder clap, and we don’t know where it’s going to go, but it’s complicated.
…to the hopelessly slanted (Morning Edition, 4/10/17):
There are some people, including some of my colleagues at National Review, that basically see Syria as just a hot mess. It’s basically like the Spanish Civil War, where you had two bad guys fighting each other.
Goldberg, the author of Liberal Fascism, sees the democratically elected left-wing Spanish government and the Hitler-backed fascist coup as “two bad guys.”
His views would only be unconventional if racism, celebration of US militarism and a constant drone of warnings about budget deficits—where the solution is always to cut programs that support poor and marginalized US Americans—were unconventional among right-wing pundits. They’re not; this is the same conservative cocktail that has been served to the Republican base for years, scapegoating immigrant populations, people of color and the poor to provide cover for policies that do little but further concentrate wealth and power upward. It is in the shadow of such policies—the brand of conservatism endorsed by Goldberg—that the white nationalist and proto-fascist tendencies encouraged by Trump have established their foothold, as a population encouraged to blame scapegoats for economic and social problems looks for ever more extreme solutions.
It is strange to think that promoting such a conservative voice—which he will continue to use in service of the same deceptive and exploitative project—would provide clarity or even a clarifying “balance.” From their vantage point amid the Washington, DC, political class, Morning Edition decision-makers may feel that hosting an acknowledged “conservative ideologue” (Morning Edition, 3/24/17) provides the needed balance for a news organization often maligned as “liberal” (ABC News, 2/15/11).
Meanwhile, the inherent conservatism of that same DC milieu would make it extremely uncomfortable for Morning Edition to regularly host a left-wing ideologue of any kind—so they don’t. Conservative ideologues, more often than not, are “balanced” by the voices of Democratic Party loyalists and centrist liberals. In 2016, Goldberg was often paired with former NPR reporter Cokie Roberts as a commentator—someone who claims that she has an ideology that “does not exist” (NPR.org, 10/5/16), but who for decades has consistently been warning the Democratic Party that it needs to move to the right (Extra!, 7–8/98).
The foreign policy realm offers instructive examples of how this balancing act often plays out at NPR. When President Trump ordered an airstrike on a Syrian airbase in March, Morning Editionhosted a series of guests to air their reactions. Among these were Goldberg (4/10/17) along with other conservative supporters and opponents of the strike (Will Hurd, 4/10/17, Chris Buskirk, 4/7/17, Cory Gardner, 4/10/17), plus two ostensibly liberal voices—Democratic senators Tim Kaine (4/7/17) and Adam Schiff (4/7/17)—both of whom approved of the strike, but wished the president had asked congressional permission first.
Any distinctly left-wing guest could have questioned the motives of the United States government and its military’s interventions in the Middle East; at the very least, such a guest could have provided a basic principled anti-war argument against the punitive strike. Somehow, such common sense perspectives were not among the “different angles” that Morning Edition wished its listeners to consider.
Seeing through Goldberg’s surface-level willingness to part with GOP orthodoxy, we perceive Morning Edition reaching to a sometimes extreme right-wing voice in order to balance out a left-wing voice that doesn’t, in fact, exist.
The 2016 election results belied the predictive punditry of NPR and most other mainstream outlets, where Clinton’s win had seemed a near certainty. This misstep forced a moment of reflection; David Folkenflik, NPR’s media correspondent, wrote:
Cenk Uygur, the leftist host of the Young Turks and a supporter of Bernie Sanders, predicted in July that Trump would beat Clinton, based on a populist appeal tapping into voter anger against the establishment. He looks pretty good in retrospect. But he has for years been considered outside the acceptable norm of media voices….
The conservative political columnist Salena Zito…has been writing for months about the depths of Trump’s support. One such column in August was titled: “Stumped by Trump’s Success? Take a Drive Outside US Cities.”
This can be a period of great reconsideration by the press of how it operates, even as the stories arise all around us.… It is a time for humility and taking stock. It is a time for listening to voters who unexpectedly turned to Trump and those who envision a very different form of America.
Christopher Turpin, NPR’s vice president of news programming, told Jensen (11/15/16):
NPR was “a little slow to spot the two mass movements in this campaign,” the ones behind Trump and Sanders. He added, “As an organization, if the election has taught us one thing it is to really think about how broad the political spectrum is in this country.”
It was clear to some at NPR that ping-pong reporting that bounced between establishment liberal and conservative voices was failing NPR’s listeners, in much the same way that the political establishment was failing the whole country. The powerlessness, suffering and struggle of multitudes of US Americans had been ignored, in favor of the competition constructed between powerful political factions.
The mass movements “behind Trump and Sanders” that NPR was “slow to spot” were both partly built around economic populism. Jonah Goldberg is an establishment conservative voice whose problem with Trump, in part, was the latter’s occasional rhetorical flirtation with traditionally left-wing economic and social policies (Morning Edition, 3/2/16):
A lot of people on the right believe that he will be actually a huge victory for liberalism if he wins the presidency, because he’s in favor of all sorts of ideological heresies on the right—you know, on sort of single-payer healthcare, on trade protectionism…. And you hear him last night talking—singing praises about Planned Parenthood.
Now that Trump, in power in making policy, has ditched his lip-service to, for example, single-payer healthcare, Goldberg has softened towards him, and calls for us to “give him a fresh start” (Morning Edition, 11/09/16).
Sticking with Goldberg is evidence that NPR is resistant to really acting on the lessons of 2016. It shows every sign that it will continue to be “slow” to leave behind the traditional gatekeepers of the left and right, and cling to a particularly conservative notion of the “center.” When Jensen addressed Goldberg’s presence in her ombud column in April, she spoke to Sarah Gilbert, Morning Edition’s executive producer:
Gilbert said the show is “careful to make sure we have a varied mix of perspectives on our air, of course,” and that it will include a more complete identification of Goldberg’s views in the future.
Goldberg has been a commentator on the show four times since then, and only once (4/28/17) did the hosts identify him as a right-winger. And that “varied mix of perspectives” has failed to include any commentator who advocates for progressive populism the way that Goldberg speaks up for establishment conservatism.