In my career, I’ve worked for two conservative journalists who began their careers at the Yale Daily News and who solved their mid-career problems by creating organizations they led for decades. I doubt Peter Braestrup (1929-97), founder of the Wilson Quarterly, and M. Stanton Evans, the creator of the National Journalism Center, who died on March 2 at age eighty, knew each other. Braestrup, although he was a hardhat conservative (the sort who, in the 1960s, would find hippies to beat up) didn’t know many people on the right; when I escorted him to the twentieth-anniversary American Spectator dinner in 1987, the only conservatives he knew were foundation program officers and retired soldiers.
Both men were of wildly different temperaments. Braestrup was a bully whose daily chore was measuring his toughness. (He went on a boat trip to New England every year with friends, but it wasn’t just a boat trip, but his annual “stress test”). Evans was courtly and unfailingly polite; I knew him for over thirty years and never saw him scream or raise his voice.
But both Braestrup and Evans created organizations that lasted. The Wilson Quarterly, from its birth in 1976 until its quiet demise in 2014, was a major public policy journal whose articles have lasting value. The National Journalism Center, founded in 1977 and acquired by Young America’s Foundation in 2003, trained a generation of right-wing journalists as well as a few non-conservatives, most notably best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell and ABC News correspondent Terry Moran.
It would be a worthy project to compare the National Journalism Center with major journalism schools of the 1970s and 1980s. It would be my guess that the top twenty NJC graduates did as well and perhaps better than, say, the top twenty alumni of the Columbia or Northwestern journalism schools during this period.
I think this is because the NJC stressed intellectual diversity. As a thinker, Evans practiced fusionism, a philosophy that tries to find common ground between traditional conservatives and libertarians. (Evans’s The Theme Is Freedom is the best expression of his views.) As a school, the NJC was practically fusionist; we were taught to get the facts and be accurate, not to put a right-wing spin on what we wrote. Although the speakers at Friday lectures were conservatives, such as columnist Robert Novak and Reader’s Digest editors William Schulz and Ralph Kinney Bennett, Novak was renowned for decades of shoe-leather reporting and Reader’s Digest in this era was the most lucrative market for freelancers on the planet.
The students and staff also came from everywhere. I suspect a careful analysis will find that many of the most successful NJC alumni came from very liberal schools where they were one of the tiny minority of students who were on the right. Many of the students were libertarians, but I recall that it was NJC philosophy to admit a few liberals every term, as long as the students were respectful and willing to work. As for staff, the chief writing instructor for many years was Donald Landers, a former newspaper reporter and a traditional Catholic who spent his evenings re-reading Plato, Etienne Gilson, and other great writers.
By contrast, the larger journalism schools spend a great deal ensuring diversity by race or gender, but ideological conformity. Their alumni may be African-American, Latino, or other minorities, but the political beliefs of their graduates range from A to B (or possibly A to A-.) These superbly credentialed graduates ascend the citadels of the cognitive elite, but their fervent faith in the One Right Way turn them into pasty grey mandarins, well-paid, politically correct, and predictable.
What can donors learn from Stan Evans and the National Journalism Center? The NJC’s budget was not large. I doubt they ever employed more than ten people, including two or three who exclusively worked for Consumers’ Research, a venerable magazine they acquired. Their offices were crumbling rather than sumptuous, and Evans’s office was closer to a man cave than an executive suite.
It’s far better for donors to support the young and struggling rather than the old and comfortable. But risk-averse program officers fearful of mistakes prefer the well credentialed to unproven talents, even though they could support ten young people for what they could pay one veteran. They would much rather give Malcolm Gladwell a six-figure fellowship in 2015 than do what the National Journalism Center did in 1982—pay Gladwell $100 a week plus a room to come to Washington and learn how to be a journalist.
What the NJC should be remembered for is that it saw something in Richard Miniter, John Fund, Steve Hayward, John Hood, and Rick Henderson—to name but five—when they were in their early twenties and gave them a chance. (They also picked me, when I was twenty-three.) We wouldn’t have had that chance if Stan Evans hadn’t created the National Journalism Center.
One of the last times I saw Stan Evans was in 2005. I was leaving a screening at an art-house theatre in Washington, and he was arriving to watch Good Night, and Good Luck. (Evans was an expert on the McCarthy era, and wrote two books about Joseph McCarthy.)
Evans showed me his crumbling spiral-bound notebook, bulging with scraps of paper. “I’m taking copious notes,” he said.
One of the lessons drummed into us at the National Journalism Center was this: whatever the project, make sure to take copious notes.