Harvard Resignation is a Win for Conservative Washington Free Beacon

AP Photo/Steven Senne, File
Then-Edgerley Family Dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay addresses an audience during commencement ceremonies, May 25, 2023, on the school’s campus in Cambridge, Mass.

The resignation of Harvard University’s president this week marked a major win for the Washington Free Beacon, the rare conservative media outlet that does significant reporting of its own – and plenty of it, this past month in particular on the plagiarism accusations against Claudine Gay.

Free Beacon reporter Aaron Sibarium helped keep the Gay story fresh for nearly a month, regularly uncovering new allegations, posting social-media-ready graphics comparing her work against the sources from which she allegedly lifted text, and interviewing academics who argued it was a clear-cut case of plagiarism.

On Tuesday, less than a day after Sibarium published a new list of six more alleged instances of plagiarism, Gay resigned.

Asked whether he thought his article prompted Gay’s resignation, Sibarium replied in an email that “it certainly didn’t help.”

The Free Beacon wasn’t the only news organization, or even the first, to turn its sights on Gay in the storm that grew after she and other university presidents declined in a December congressional hearing to say outright that calling for genocide against Jews would violate campus rules. But the role the Free Beacon played in the furor surrounding Gay demonstrates its unusual commitment to original reporting – almost unique within a conservative mediasphere that thrives on opinion and punditry.

The puckish Free Beacon has managed to dig up damaging stories on politicians – Republican as well as Democrat – and is sometimes more willing to break with former president Donald Trump than its competitors.

“The Free Beacon focuses on hard-news reporting, but they obviously have a bit more fun with it than a traditional news outlet would,” said Stephen Gutowski, a conservative journalist who worked there for seven years.

The Free Beacon was founded in 2012, with much of its funding coming from billionaire and Harvard Law School graduate Paul Singer. Since then, it’s produced a regular stream of exclusives. In 2013, the site revealed that a staffer for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) secretly worked as a neo-Confederate activist, prompting the staffer’s resignation. A year later, its aggressive reporting on Hillary Clinton’s legal career led to a dust-up with the University of Arkansas, which banned its reporters from campus archives for publishing old audiotapes without permission.

Original, hard-hitting reporting doesn’t always translate into an audience, however. The Free Beacon generally fails to make a list of the most-trafficked conservative media outlets compiled by TheRighting, a website that monitors conservative media, lagging behind both establishment competitors such as National Review and right-wing conspiracy pushers like Gateway Pundit.

Howard Polskin, TheRighting’s founder, said the Free Beacon is a “second tier” conservative outlet in terms of its audience.

“They put a lot of resources into original reporting, and my hat’s off to them for that,” Polskin said. “I don’t think it’s paid off for them in turns of audience.”

Eliana Johnson, a former White House reporter for Politico who became the Free Beacon’s editor in chief in 2019, cited the success of Fox News and conservative talk radio in dominating opinion media.

“Where the right has really lagged is in traditional print reporting, so that’s what we are devoted to at the Beacon,” Johnson said.

The allegations about Gay had apparently circulated quietly as early as October, when the New York Post said it contacted Harvard about what it described last month as “more than two dozen instances in which Gay’s words appeared to closely parallel words, phrases or sentences in published works by other academics.” The paper did not publish a story at the time, though, and later recounted that it had received a letter from a prominent defamation law firm hired by Harvard threatening legal action if it published the allegations.

On Dec. 10, Christopher Rufo – a right-wing activist who has focused on rooting out perceived liberal elements in academia – went public on social media with some of the first plagiarism allegations against Gay.

It was a day later that Sibarium published his first story about the matter for the Free Beacon, including additional plagiarism claims.

Much of his reporting drew on two anonymous letters that had been sent to Harvard administrators listing specific instances of plagiarism. Sibarium declined to comment on how he obtained the letters or who wrote them.

Harvard University and Gay did not respond to requests for comment.

The cheerleading of Gay’s ouster by many on the right prompted some liberal critics to accuse the New York Times and other mainstream outlets that covered the controversy of unwittingly participating in an orchestrated hit against the academic. (Rufo, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, gloated in a Dec. 19 post that activists had “launched” the scandal and now needed to “smuggle it into the media apparatus of the Left” in order “to topple her.”).

Both Johnson and Sibarium argue that allegations of scholarly misconduct at Harvard – arguably the most prominent university in the country – merit significant media attention. In an email to The Washington Post, Sibarium pointed to the number of Supreme Court justices and other prominent figures who graduated from Ivy League schools.

“Of course it matters how those people are educated and the views they take with them from campus into the workplace,” Sibarium wrote.

Johnson said the Free Beacon has more stories to come on Harvard and plans to turn its focus to whether the university’s other leadership ignored the initial plagiarism claims against Gay.

“We do believe that Harvard is an important institution to America and to American life,” Johnson said.