Credit: Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

Over the last few years, Washington journalists, particularly those whose audience tilts to the left, have enjoyed a not-so-secret addiction: conservaporn.

When the big annual gatherings of the right rolled around, from CPAC to the Values Voters Summit, packs of liberal bloggers would descend, armed with Flip cameras and Twitter feeds. The moment some activist cracked a joke about Barack Obama’s birth certificate from the podium, it would go live on the Internet. Outrage—and Web traffic—ensued.

But this year, something different was going on. Republicans and their fervent base are no longer the sour group who lost the last election. Now, they’re driving the debate in national politics. The Koch brothers, who fund some of the groups that keep events like CPAC going, are practically a household name. It wasn’t just liberals who flocked to watch CPAC last month.

Conservaporn, in 2011, has gone mainstream.

CPAC is an annual gathering of the Republican Party faithful, the largest of its kind, held at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel in Woodley Park. This year’s conference, a few weeks ago, attracted over 11,000 registrants—and 750 registered members of the press. That works out to about one reporter for every 15 attendees. It’s practically embed-level coverage. (Though, as Slate’s David Weigel was quick to point out to me, at the 2010 Tea Party Convention in Nashville, the ratio was more like one to three.)

Ours is a political media environment where the scoop is everything (even if the money is still made off slideshows of celebrity cleavage). Politico is staking its 2012 election coverage on a tripled staff and reporters assigned to cover politicians’ every move. “There probably is in theory a point where there’s too much,” executive editor Jim VandeHei told The New York Times in late January. “But we certainly haven’t discovered it.”

Political journalism these days mostly involves flooding the zone to make sure you have that valued scoop. And liberal media organizations have already perfected the art of turning your opponents’ craziest supporter into tomorrow’s news. At its best, it’s a delightful skewering. Some speaker gets caught up in an exuberant rant about how the White House is taking the country on the path to socialism, or Newt Gingrich says something that might make less bombastic Republicans squirm, and a funny post or story results, one that plays up both the absurdity and the real political sentiments involved in such an event. The press room fills up early, and reporters stay late interviewing luminaries as they walk off the stage, and gauging the mood of the Republican faithful by chatting with eager attendees. (This has been going on for a while, and writers don’t always limit themselves to reporting what actually happens: CPAC was where, in 1997, The New Republic’s fabulist, Stephen Glass, hatched up a tale of wild debauchery that was only later exposed as phony.)

The conference offers a parade of conservatives behaving badly—attacking each other for being insufficiently zealous, and wooing the base. That spectacle is soothing to the left, and fertile territory for political reporters who have a beat to fill, day in and day out. But there’s also a dark side. At an Andrew Breitbart-sponsored GOProud party one night during CPAC, a fellow reporter points out Suhail Khan as one of their “gets” for the day. “I interviewed some real freaks today,” the reporter tells me. “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s almost too easy. It is too easy.” Khan is on the board of the American Conservative Movement, the main organizer of CPAC. He’d been under attack by conservative activists who claimed that he represented a Muslim infiltration of the right. But viewing political actors as gets—rather than as complex, motivated individuals—limits the story they can tell.

With a convenient D.C. location and a ready-for-Twitter presidential straw poll, the conference is one of the more visible of the odd-year political events that generate piles of blog posts and updates—all without producing actual political news, despite a saturation of reporters. “The last few years I haven’t gone because it’s struck me as totally over-covered,” one D.C. writer e-mails me. “My entire Twitter feed is CPAC dispatches.”

After the Tea Party’s rise in 2009 and electoral triumph in 2010, by the time CPAC rolls around this year, the vibe is somehow different. The same old liberal blogs and magazines send writers (including The American Prospect, where I used to be an editor). But the correspondents wind up asking serious questions about policy, not just transcribing the freak show. The activists who come to this sort of thing have demonstrated the power they wield over Republican leaders, and it’s not just the liberal publications that have people on the conservative beat.

The news business has changed. Despite the recession, political coverage has done quite well over the past few years, especially bite-sized scooplets like the ones CPAC makes so easy to dig up. Politico has made a star of itself despite launching at the start of the 2007 recession. The past year has seen a re-launch of National Journal, as well as an over-100 staffer expansion of Bloomberg’s D.C. office. The Huffington Post, for all its unpaid bloggers, has a thriving D.C. bureau; Talking Points Memo is adding staff to its own D.C. operations. For all their churn, these are outlets providing stories that audiences, particularly online audiences, have proved they will click on. “Saying there’s a little too much horse-race coverage is like saying there’s a little too much coverage of Dan Snyder,” Weigel says.

So perhaps it’s inevitable that the mainstream media has taken a cue from liberal media when it comes to conservaporn. At one point during the Breitbart party, I’m standing next to Brian Montopoli, senior political reporter for CBS (and a Washington City Paper alum). He pauses our conversation about Sophie B. Hawkins—who, disconcertingly, is the entertainment—because he wants to try for an interview with James O’Keefe, the conservative activist best known for dressing as a pimp for an attempted undercover sting of the liberal organizing group ACORN. O’Keefe’s handler (or friend, it’s unclear), is perturbed by the attention O’Keefe is receiving from Montopoli and others. “It’s not like he’s a celebrity. This is just downtime. Why won’t people leave him alone?” I raise my phone to type in O’Keefe’s name, and she stops me, “Are you taking a picture? I think it’s weird that people want his picture.”

Among the liberal press, meanwhile, some of the gawking seems to have been replaced by serious work. Amanda Terkel, senior politics reporter for The Huffington Post, was at CPAC for the first time this year. She says the lure is the level of access. “It’s is the big conservative event in Washington, D.C. And you get this incredible access; people just walking around, they feel comfortable, they are with their base, and they are willing to chat with journalists. You don’t have to go to Iowa.”

Activists-behaving-badly coverage, she says, is always a risk when covering movement politics, on either side. “This happened at the first Netroots Nation conference,” a liberal gathering that launched in 2005, Terkel says. “The blogosphere was new, people were excited. Journalists descended on it!” Terkel was there as a blogger. “The number of media from major newspapers, at times felt like they outnumbered attendees.” And like bloggers, conservatives have proven, if no less fascinating, certainly less exotic upon longer examination.

“What reporters don’t understand is that most of the attendees at the conference do not care at all about the potential 2012 field,” says Ana Marie Cox, formerly of Wonkette and Time, now with GQ. “They are there to network. To build their résumés. To learn how to put together a resume.” Cox told me she’d run into a reporter she knew who had apologetically dashed off after Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. “What is he going to get from Santorum? I mean seriously, what groundbreaking thing is Santorum going to say at CPAC?”

The bright side of everyone getting on the conservaporn bandwagon is that it’s no longer enough to just post a video, or capture the gaffe. The Tea Party is old news. You can fill a blog with gaffes, but the pieces that get traffic over time, and get you remembered, are the ones that offer something more substantive. “There’s always going to be a rush to be the first person to post what Michele Bachmann said,” Weigel notes. “Last year there was still a lot of coverage of the Tea Party stuff that was, you know, ‘I venture into the jungle’ which is something I’m often accused of. And that was less so this year; there was more context. I think it was pretty good.”