BOB GARFIELD: Where can a conservative, libertarian, free-market traditionalist college student find likeminded media? There's always Fox News, but as it turns out, there are other conservative outposts as well. Since 1979 the Leadership Institute, an Arlington, Virginia-based think tank, has seen 30,000 students walk through its doors and emerge political operatives. Hosting dozens of seminars, classes and internships, the Leadership Institute is the Wal-Mart of conservative thought, offering lessons in everything from candidate development to television techniques to starting college newspapers. It's the new alternative press, and it ain't what it used to be. On the Media's Sarah Lemanczyk went to the front lines.
JOSH MERCER: A lot of times, conservatives complain about the media, and we always stress at the Leadership Institute: conservatives should not complain about the media. Conservatives should be the media.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: For the past decade, the Leadership Institute has been putting on a traveling road show of conservative journalism, encouraging conservative students to take a more active role in campus politics. Josh Mercer is the current director of student publications.
JOSH MERCER: We don't endorse any specific candidate for office. We don't wear any politician's pins on our suits. We just want people to think a little bit more critically about issues from a, a traditional family-values and free-market approach.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: What they do do is start college newspapers. And if Josh Mercer were the Lone Ranger, then Owen Brennan Rounds would be Tonto. A one-time speechwriter for former New York City Mayor Giuliani, Owen gallops alongside Josh from college to college.
OWEN BRENNAN ROUNDS: Newspapers have sort of a soul. They have a mission statement. They have a purpose. They have a point of view. They're very different from a, a daily paper that just seeks to sort of be, quote, "objective."
SARAH LEMANCZYK: For Owen, objectivity is the delusion of the complacent, narcissistic liberal press.
OWEN BRENNAN ROUNDS: They don't teach this at journalism schools. They don't teach people to go out and be a pit bull reporter any more. They teach--journalists -- you know, it's more a, a trade school now where the, you know, the pinnacle achievement is going out and writing a story about why Aunt Bea has the finest pie stand in all of Washington County. You know, we want to be more of a, a cavalry.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: Riding into battle are students like Chris Pryor -- Editor-in-Chief of The Fountainhead -- an LI-supported paper out of the university of Oklahoma. He remembers his introduction, as a freshman, to the staff of The Fountainhead.
CHRIS PRYOR: They had us go around the room and introduce each other and ask what, what books we would like to see burned. And yeah -- that, that seems real, and it is real -- but that's just kind of the introduction I got to these guys. They were way out there, and they were certainly blood and guts conservatives which is something you don't see very often on campus.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: They impressed Chris enough to make him want to write for the paper -- and later, to spend the summer as an intern at the Leadership Institute, a place where he picked up some jargon and a belief in the LI's outsider tactics.
CHRIS PRYOR: We are five or six guys, and sometimes girls, putting together a newspaper at my place. That's -- it's a different kind of environment. The LI even has a name for 'em -- I think they call them 3am-ers -- people who, who stay up way late and do these kind of covert type things. That's the real attitude that you get with these people. These are people who want to go out there and, and they have something in mind that they want to defeat.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: The ranks of the Leadership Institute talk a lot about the war of ideas. Chris and other LI alum are waging a war against what they consider to be the hegemony of left-leaning institutions. Josh Mercer remembers the moment he knew he had to fight. It was at a campus lecture, listening to a conservative speaker discuss the controversial murder case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
JOSH MERCER:Most of the people that are standing up and screaming and yelling were not actually college students themselves. They were local community activists -- people who work, I presume, full time to try to convince students to become socialists. And I thought, well, you know it's about time that we had more people dedicated to the cause of freedom and introducing young college conservatives to a different perspective.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: Perspectives he believes are not being addressed in the established papers. The Fountainhead Editor-in-Chief Chris Pryor.
CHRIS PRYOR: When we take on a professor for being extremely feminist, I mean to the point of ludicrousness, students in that classroom won't have the fear of thinking, you know, if I speak up against this professor, I'll get an F in this class, because look at The Fountainhead, they're doing it too. Geez, they put her picture next to a mummy. I mean, this is the kind of stuff that, you know, we can do now.
OWEN BRENNAN ROUNDS: Journalists are always going to have a perspective that they're writing from.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: Again, former Giuliani speechwriter, Owen Brennan Rounds.
OWEN BRENNAN ROUNDS: If they work for a news organization where that perspective is understood, it makes them more effective at communicating their message.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: Allison Kasic is the editor of The Counterweight -- from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. In the three years since its founding, The Counterweight has gone from a small newsletter to a 20-page paper with a full color cover.
ALLISON KASIC: We've really been fighting the speech code at Bucknell. That was an issue that really went unnoticed until we decided to write about it in The Counterweight.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: The paper considers campus rules against racially or sexually derisive language to be a violation of free speech.
ALLISON KASIC: That's kind of the strategy when you're fighting these things -- is that the administration can't justify in the public eye what they kind of do in private. What we've been doing is ever since that we kind of brought this issue into the limelight, we've printed the speech code in every single issue of The Counterweight and will continue to do that until the speech code doesn't exist any more.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: To ensure the continued existence of The Counterweight and other conservative papers, the Leadership Institute employs field reps on call for any kind of neocon, libertarian, free-market crisis the student papers might have, and the papers are thriving. The California Patriot was started nearly four years ago with the LI's help, and even before Arnold Schwarzenegger, it ignited enough conservative sparks to start three new papers in California. And according to Owen, that's only the beginning.
OWEN BRENNAN ROUNDS: The students who are putting these publications together today have much more in common with sort of the pamphleteers of the revolution. It's not quite Tea Party-esque, but, you know, these are the first bubblings of revolution on campus.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: The Leadership Institute has helped start over 80 papers so far, leaving, according to their calculations, about 3,000 campus news racks ripe for occupation. For On the Media, I'm Sarah Lemanczyk. [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price, Katya Rogers, Megan Ryan and Tony Field, engineered by Dylan Keefe and Rob Christiansen, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Sharon Ball and Dave Goldberg. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts and MP3 downloads at onthemedia.org, and e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.