Media Circus: Doing the right-wing shuffle

By Eric Alterman
Published November 14, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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The American Spectator may be dumping its long-time publisher; David Brock may be posing as Joan of Arc in Esquire; John Podhoretz may be ditching the Weekly Standard for the New York Post. But don't be fooled by the actors in front of the curtain. The real action is taking place in the pockets of the conservative moneybags who pay for the production and continue to call its shots.

Here's what happened at the Spectator: Brock, and the magazine's recently deposed publisher, Ronald Burr, both ran afoul of the Richard Mellon Scaife-funded wing of the far right. Brock did it with his unexpected love letter to Hillary, "The Seduction of Hillary Rodham." Burr fell from favor by apparently looking too closely into the moneys that the Spectator (which is headed by R. Emmett Tyrrell) receives from various Scaife foundations. A lot of this money was apparently disbursed to persons of less than stellar character -- people, for example, who have been wandering around Arkansas looking for drug smugglers, murderers and hookers who say they can pin something on the president. Much of what they claim to have discovered has appeared in the Spectator -- some of it under Brock's byline, some under Tyrrell's. Almost none of it seemed likely to survive a professional audit of the type that Burr was demanding, however, and so he is now out of a job.

Brock had already made a virtue of necessity by attempting to mainstream himself by dumping on his ex-comrades. So far, only Esquire has bitten. Tyrrell's decision to cut Burr loose, however, has angered many on the magazine's masthead, including P.J. O'Rourke, who told the Washington Post, "The tendency of the magazine to do this Clinton-obsessive stuff, I don't get. It seems strange and somewhat embarrassing." Coming from a Clinton-obsessive himself, those are strong words indeed.

In addition to bankrolling Tyrrell and company, Scaife, who once called Nation Senior Editor Karen Rothmyer a "Communist cunt," is also the prime benefactor of such illustrious journalistic institutions as the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Accuracy in Media, the Heritage Foundation, GOPAC, the National Taxpayers Union, the Western Journalism Center and the collected works of one Christopher Ruddy. Just about the only Whitewater nut who is not sucking on the Scaife money-tit is The New York Observer's Phillip Weiss. You can bet that each one of the journalists swimming in Scaife dough will stick to the Whitewater story, particularly given the cautionary tales told by the treatment of Brock and Burr.

The John (son of Norman) Podhoretz story, while considerably less dramatic, illustrates another truth about contemporary right-wing journalism. All of the writers who worship at the shrine of the free market would be lost if any of them were ever forced to earn their living working in it. The new editorial page editor has spent virtually his entire life supping at the table of strange right-winger foreigners seeking to buy their way into respectability by courting the American right. Podhoretz's first patron was that distinguished theologian and jailbird Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who hired John and his college roommate, Todd Linberg, to provide a Nice-Jewish-Boy front for his nefarious activities. At both Insight and the Washington Times, young Podhoretz distinguished himself with prose that makes one yearn for the sparkling models of clarity and fine writing that appear under Abe Rosenthal's name on the Times op-ed page. According to Charlotte Hays, who was also employed by the Moonies during Podhoretz's tenure, John was known around the office as "John P. Normanson" because that was they way his editor introduced him to visitors. Writing in The New Republic, Hays reported that Podhoretz's self-infatuated prose was often read aloud "to the accompaniment of gales of laughter." Charlotte Allen even coined the term "podenfreude" to describe the enjoyable sensation one experiences while reading terrible writing.

Podhoretz briefly worked at U.S. News, which is owned by Mortimer Zuckerman, but is edited by real journalists. He published next to nothing and was summarily sent back to the Moonies, where he labored in continued obscurity before he was rescued by comrades in the Reagan/Bush speech writing office. This job turned into a kiss-and-tell memoir that garnered accolades so deep and moving that Podhoretz managed to land the prestigious perch of television critic for the New York Post. Rupert Murdoch, another foreigner anxious to use his media holdings as a way of ingratiating himself with right-wing political power, puts an estimated $10-to-15 million into the trashy tabloid in an attempt to tilt local political decision-making in his direction. In late 1994, Murdoch decided that he was insufficiently appreciated in Washington. So he tried to give Newt Gingrich more than $6 million for a book worth less than a fifth of that, and gave young Podhoretz and Republican power broker William Kristol another fistful of cash to found the Weekly Standard. (Kristol is the son of Neocon godfather Irving Kristol, who in turn is the chief beneficiary of the William E. Simon-directed largesse at the right-wing Olin Foundation. Podhoretz's father is the former editor of Commentary and also the beneficiary of oodles of Murdoch money. Both Kristols are considerably more talented, to say nothing of feared/admired, than both Podhoretzes.)

While the Standard does serve as a kind of tribal drum for congressional Republicans, it has been no more popular with the larger political class than Gingrich's awful money-losing book. The magazine's circulation for the past six months barely topped 60,000, compared to 96,000 for the New Republic and just under 104,000 for the Nation. While the Weekly may serve its purpose by giving Kristol a larger forum for his sharp tactical political advice, it has failed in its central mission, namely to reshape the political discourse of the punditocracy. So Podhoretz is moving back to New York to take over the Post's editorial pages, where he will try to fill the shoes of the infamous Eric Breindel, another Murdoch/Norman Podhoretz protigi.

If all of these connections sound a little confusing, they should. Contemporary right-wing journalism is a vast web of connections and feuds that, fortunately for the rest of us, keeps right-wingers primarily occupied with phony murders, internecine fights and lots of preaching to the converted. This may not be fundamentally different from the current state of contemporary left-wing journalism, but it certainly wastes a great deal more money.

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman last piece for Salon was "Confessions of a box-set sucker."

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