Democratic Underground  

A Fake Reporter for a Fake Magazine
June 14, 2003
By Dennis Hans

On May 11, the same day the New York Times devoted four pages to Jayson Blair's errors and deceptions, CBS's 60 Minutes devoted a segment to the Blair of the 1990s, Stephen Glass of the New Republic (NR). But correspondent Steve Kroft missed the really big story: The magazine Glass wrote for is every bit as fraudulent as Glass himself.

We'll get to the NR shortly, but let's first consider Glass. Here's his explanation to Kroft as to how he created at the NR the appearance of credibility:

"I would tell a story, and there would be fact A, which maybe was true. And then there would be fact B, which was sort of partially true and partially fabricated. And there would be fact C which was more fabricated and almost not true. And there would be fact D, which was a complete whopper. And totally not true. And so people would be with me on these stories through fact A and through fact B. And so they would believe me to C. And then at D they were still believing me through the story."

That, said Kroft, is how Glass led his editors and readers to believe, among other things, in the existence of "an evangelical church that worshiped George Herbert Walker Bush." (I could imagine a church springing up to worship Poppy Bush's super-endowed flyboy son, Dub Diggler. He's built and strides like a god, and he's free of all doubts. But Poppy never walked the god-like walk nor talked the god-like talk.)

Glass went the extra mile to make his bogus sources seem real, creating business cards, answering-machine messages and even a website. But for all his confessions of phoniness, the phoniest line of the segment belonged to Kroft, when he called the NR "a distinguished magazine."

The "liberal" New Republic

Long before Glass walked through its doors, the NR was a sordid, sleazy rag that was living not one lie, but two: the pretense that it was (1) non-fiction and (2) liberal.

By "non-fiction," I'm thinking less of Glass and Ruth Shalit (whose frequent ethical lapses - particularly plagiarism - preceded Glass's) and more of the routine smears of human rights groups and individuals who have the wrong take on foreign-policy issues near and dear to the NR's neoconservative heart. That's right, "neoconservative." Parts of the NR's head may be liberal, moderate or conservative, but the heart is hard right.

The rightwing fanatics who dominate George W. Bush's foreign policy team are cut from the same ideological cloth as longtime NR owner (now co-owner) and editor-in-chief Martin Peretz. It made perfect sense for Fox "All-Star" William Kristol to team with the NR's Lawrence Kaplan for a recent book on the U.S. and Iraq. They're peas in the same neocon pod.

As Eric Alterman documents in Sound and Furyand What Liberal Media? (two excellent books that would be even better if he either deleted or justified the snide potshots he takes at radical journalist Alexander Cockburn), the cynical pretense of NR personnel that they write for a "liberal" magazine has helped to push public discourse far to the right. Most of the media either believe or pretend to believe this nonsense, and that has led to the marginalization of genuine liberals while rendering progressives and leftists all but invisible.

Alterman asserts that "At least half of the 'liberal New Republic' is actually a rabidly neoconservative magazine," edited in recent years by "Clinton/Gore hater Michael Kelly" (who hated from the right) and by "the conservative liberal hater Andrew Sullivan" (What Liberal Media? p. 10). Sullivan himself, in a recent London Times essay reprinted in the March 30 St. Petersburg Times, described the NR as "neoconservative and neoliberal."

Neoliberals are considered closer to the center than old-school liberals, while hot-to-bomb neocons are considered to the right of old-school conservatives. So even if NR is a 50-50 neoliberal-neoconservative split, that equates to "right of center," not "centrist," let alone "liberal." It's preposterous to identify the NR by the single adjective "liberal."

Among the magazine's most famous alumni are four hard-boiled reactionaries - Fred Barnes, Charles Krauthammer, Sullivan and Kelly (who died covering the Iraq war). Morton Kondracke, Fox All-Star and dispenser of right-of-center conventional wisdom is another famous alum, as is self-described "wishy-washy moderate" Michael Kinsley.

Kinsley's con and Beinart's bile

For years, Kinsley conned America from his co-hosting seat on the CNN show "Crossfire," asserting nightly, "From the left, I'm Michael Kinsley."

Kinsley, who served two stints as NR editor, isn't on the left. He can't stand the left. Wishes it would go away. Until recently he was editor of Slate, an often smart, generally centrist online magazine that doesn't extend leftward beyond moderate liberalism, though it often invites rightwingers onto its cyberpages for dialogue and debate. Folks like Christopher Buckley, Chris Caldwell and Jeffrey Goldberg. (Goldberg, a New Yorker reporter not to be confused with Seymour Hersh, is a Pentagon mouthpiece who helped pave the way for war on Iraq with long articles reiterating the Gospel According to Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz - articles that carried great weight because they appeared in the purportedly liberal New Yorker.) Slate's approach to dialogue and debate is the same old center vs. right formula as when Kinsley dueled Pat Buchanan on CNN.

That's a perfectly acceptable formula for Slate, which is free to stake out its preferred ideological range. It's even fine for a news channel with pretensions of fairness to pit center vs. right - so long as the show is billed accurately and the network airs other shows pitting center vs. left and left vs. right. But there's plenty wrong with spouting a slogan that marginalizes anyone to the left of your wishy-washy-moderate self.

The current NR editor, Peter Beinart, occupies ideological space somewhere between moderate Kinsley and rightist Sullivan. Naturally, he's entitled to a weekly seat on CNN's Late Edition as a "liberal," where he and Gore-backer Donna Brazile (who leans a tad left on domestic issues and a tad right on foreign policy) square off against two proud righties, former Gingrich aide Robert George and National Review Online's Jonah Goldberg. Memo to Wolf Blitzer: That's not "balance." Since you have four seats to fill, why not invite a lefty, a moderate liberal, a moderate conservative and a righty?

Beinart, to his credit, has condemned Bush administration deceit on tax cuts and the pre-war propaganda blitz for a war that Beinart himself supported. To his shame, since 9-11 he's walked a beat as a McCarthyite cop of the Patriotism Police. Like Bill Bennett, Sean Hannity and Andrew Sullivan, he stands ready to slime anyone he deems insufficiently patriotic. He smeared the National Education Association as soft on Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. Even after real-liberal Robert Kuttner exposed the dishonesty behind the slander, which had been concocted by a Washington Times hack, Beinart spread that nonsense. Read about his disgraceful performance in Bob Somerby's Daily Howler. Then ask yourself, Why is this guy representing liberals?

Death-squad "liberals" in print and on the tube

Back in the 1980s, the NR loved Reagan's foreign policy. The magazine's editorials, often penned by Krauthammer, led the cheers for such Reagan-backed torturers and murderers as the Nicaraguan contras, the Salvadoran army and Jonas Savimbi's UNITA rebels in Angola. Neocon guest columnists such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Edward Luttwak, Irving Kristol (William's father), Michael Ledeen, Kenneth Adelman extolled the virtues of counterinsurgency and big-ticket weapons systems.

The NR did run occasional articles critical of U.S. support for Central American cutthroats; I recall some fine pieces by Jefferson Morley. But the steady supportive drumbeat was provided by Krauthammer, Barnes, Kondracke and the guest writers, while the institutional voice was provided mainly by Krauthammer. Morley's pieces were actually counterproductive to his liberal goals, because (1) the existence of a liberal faction contributed to the myth that the NR was indeed liberal, and (2) Morley did not represent the NR on the tube, where its impact is greatest.

The NR, despite its high profile, has a low circulation (85,000 according to Alterman, while the Nation magazine, with its mix of liberals, progressives and radicals, is at 122,000). The disproportionate influence of the NR stems from its role as a major source of supposedly liberal talking heads. For two decades it has usurped air time from genuine liberals and lefties by sending editors from the center, center-right and right to represent a purportedly liberal magazine. Today, Beinart is trodding that well-worn path.

Anyone who doesn't think it's a scam will have to explain why George Will is so keen on Beinart and wanted him to fill the pretend-liberal seat on ABC's "This Week," and why Will is a NR cheerleader of longstanding. No magazine that liberals consider liberal would have been hailed by Will in 1987 as "the nation's most interesting and most important political journal" (quoted in Alterman, Sound and Fury, p. 179).

The NR in black and white (but mostly white)

There was a wonderful spat back in1995 between "the liberal New Republic" and "the liberal Washington Post." (To be fair to the Post, its ludicrous "liberal" label is not self-designated.) The NR's Ruth Shalit penned a long, critical essay on the Post's affirmative-action program, drawing conclusions that delighted NR editors: The Post goes easy on the city's black-run government and downplays rampant black crime; mediocre black journalists land jobs and promotions at the Post over better-qualified whites. (Hey Ruth, the Post has a history of passing over highly qualified whites. But the mediocre beneficiaries are typically white and leaning right: Bob Woodward, Meg Greenfield, Fred Hiatt, Howard Kurtz, Michael Kelly, Katharine Graham and Graham's kids, Donald and Lally.)

The Post reacted strongly to Shalit's report, documenting plagiarized passages and dozens of errors. Post honcho Donald Graham even suggested the NR change its motto to "Looking for a qualified black since 1914"!

Best line of the spat, but is it fair? Although the "liberal NR" seems never to have had a single black staff writer in its "distinguished" history, it has trumpeted the work of a very special brand of black intellectual: the kind that either has no black friends or intends to achieve that status by what he writes in the NR.

Gents like Shelby Steele, John McWhorter and Glenn Loury. Bootstrap blacks. Blacks who have risen high and fast on their "merits" - that is, on their ability to eloquently deliver a message that their conservative white patrons are eager to trumpet: Affirmative action is both bad public policy and a curse for black people - especially for super-smart guys like us (Steele, McWhorter and Loury). That's because no matter what we and other blacks achieve, some white colleagues and co-workers will always suspect we couldn't have scaled such heights without a step ladder provided for blacks only. So please, all you guilty white liberals, stop burdening us with affirmative action.

Some might think it odd that the "liberal" NR's favorite black scholars all have (or had, in Loury's case) prestigious seats at conservative or neocon think tanks: the Hoover Institution (Steele), the Manhattan Institute (McWhorter) and the American Enterprise Institute (Loury). After all, the conservative National Review and neocon Weekly Standard don't look to the progressive Institute for Policy Studies or the liberal Campaign for America's Future for insights on the issues of the day. Conservative magazines prefer to ignore, criticize or villify thinkers at liberal and leftwing think tanks rather than provide them a platform.

NR's search for a Great Black Hope

For a generally sympathetic account of Loury's long, strange trip from neocon darling to disillusioned moderate, see Adam Shatz's article in the January 20, 2002 New York Times Magazine. Here's a telling taste:

"Word of the brilliant, contrarian black economist from the South Side of Chicago traveled fast. Conservative magazines solicited articles from him; The New Republic published his thoughts on race under the title 'A New American Dilemma.' He befriended William Bennett and William Kristol, his colleague at the Kennedy School. He sat at President Reagan's table at a White House dinner, and he socialized with Clarence Thomas. (Although the two no longer speak, Loury still keeps a picture in his office of himself with Thomas.) While his liberal colleagues were boycotting South Africa, Loury traveled there in 1986 on a trip financed by the white diamond magnate Harry Oppenheimer."

In 1987, chain-smoking poker player and Secretary of Education Bennett asked Loury to be under secretary of education. Alas, Loury had to decline his friend's offer. He really wasn't suited for a high-profile, role-model job, seeing as he was a coke fiend who was cheating on his wife with a 23-year-old college graduate he had put up in a love nest.

Years later, Loury began to realize that much (not all) of the conservative movement didn't give a rat's ass about black people. He split with the AEI over its promotion of race baiters Charles Murray and Dinesh D'Souza. Murray's book The Bell Curve, co-authored by Richard Hernstein and funded by rightwing think tanks, postulates that black America's relatively low socio-economic status is because the average black I.Q. is 15 points lower than the average white I.Q., which can't be altered no matter how many affirmative action laws bleeding-heart liberals enact, so why bother?

That message was music to the NR's ears, and it granted Murray a whopping 10,000 words to make his case, while editor Sullivan and editor-in-chief Peretz wrote sympathetic columns (see What Liberal Media?, pp. 94-103). Coming from a purported "liberal" magazine, the NR seal of approval was invaluable in legitimizing and rendering respectable notions that long ago had been discredited and branded beyond the pale. Months after the initial splash, serious scholars exposed the shoddy thinking and suspect sources upon which The Bell Curve is based - but not before the NR had helped to push the race-issues center of gravity far to the right.

As for Loury, he eventually made amends with relatives and other black former friends who had branded him a sellout. These days, he's more of a confused, soul-searching centrist on race issues, and NR "contributing editor" McWhorter has taken over as the magazine's Great Black Hope.

In the latest display of the NR's trademark racial sensitivity, editor Beinart has launched a campaign calling on Democrats to "shun" and "disown" controversial black presidential candidate Al Sharpton. That campaign, Sridhar Pappu reports in the New York Observer, is part of an exciting NR makeover. A publicist is spreading the news, "calling up reporters, touting a hot new redesign and bragging that the magazine is getting 'daring' and 'more conservative.'" This is all part of what Beinart maintains is the NR's "liberalism."

The NR's Great Arab-American Hope

Fouad Ajami is to Arab-Americans what Steele and McWhorter are to African-Americans: the guy who will tell Martin Peretz exactly what he wants to hear. The problem with Ajami is the same as with the NR's Great Black Hopes: His own people tune him out.

Two excellent journalists, Salon's Eric Boehlertand the Nation's Adam Shatz, have written at length about Ajami's media role. Their articles provide ample substantiation for my own uneasy feelings about Ajami, which had been based largely on his TV appearances.

Even though many Arab-American scholars and analysts agree with a good deal of Ajami's critique, they can't stomach the guy because they don't think he's fair. A common perception is that Ajami observes Arab regimes and the assorted Palestinian leaders and movements with a justifiably jaundiced eye, but he views the Israeli and U.S. governments through rose-colored glasses - and thus minimizes their contribution to the mess that is the Middle East.

Worse, he's gained access and fame by pandering to his patrons, who know that their views will carry greater weight if presented by an Arab face. Those patrons, writes Shatz, are "Laurence Tisch, former chairman of CBS; Mort Zuckerman, the owner of US News & World Report; Martin Peretz, a co-owner of The New Republic; and Leslie Gelb, head of the Council on Foreign Relations."

"Much of the American media knows what it wants to hear and it's very reassured to hear confirmation of received wisdom," Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination told Boehlert. "Since the [1991] Gulf War, Fouad has taken leave of his analytic perspective to play to his elite constituency," Boston University Middle East scholar Augustus Richard Norton told Shatz. "It's very unfortunate because he could have made an astonishingly important contribution."

Ajami is just about the last person a fair-minded media executive would select if he had room for only one Arab-American Middle East expert. He'd be tolerable as one of several such experts, but because he's not remotely representative of Arab-American thinking or of scholars in Arab and Muslim studies, he's all wrong as the expert.

A genuinely liberal magazine would want to make household names of Arab-American Middle East experts who are respected by their colleagues and are eager to promote peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians, as well as democratization within Arab societies. The New Republic - and Steve Kroft's bosses at CBS - prefer the polarizing figure of Fouad Ajami.

Re-branding the "liberal New Republic"

I don't think liberals should "shun" or "disown" the New Republic. But I do think it needs to pay a price for misrepresenting itself as liberal, given the disastrous consequences for actual liberals that continue to this day, and for poisoning relations among core Democratic Party constituencies.

Granted, the NR generally supports Democratic candidates over Republicans, but given its divisive role within the party, why not stick the NR with the political label "divisively Democratic"? As for an ideological label, given that it has spent the last 20 years exaggerating its orientation in a leftward direction, for the next 20 years let's stick it with a moniker that exaggerates in the opposite direction: "the extreme right-wing New Republic."

Come the year 2023, given good behavior by the editors and appropriate expressions of remorse over its deceptive past, it can begin an honest life with an accurate label: "the lilywhite, center-right, divisively Democratic New Republic."

Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. Click here to read his stunning essay "Lying Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His 'Techniques of Deceit'" - published several weeks before the start of the recent war. He can be reached at

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