The Weekly Standard, the country’s preeminent neoconservative magazine, was sold to Clarity Media Group, a Denver-based publishing group, for an undisclosed sum in June (Washington Examiner, 6/17/09). Rupert Murdoch’s unloading of the country’s most vigorously pro-war journal marks the end of a particularly sinister and regrettable era in the history of U.S. media.
At a glance, the move may seem unremarkable, given the Standard’s relative size. With a circulation of about 65,000 and annual losses estimated from $1 million (New Yorker, 10/16/06) to $5 million (Forbes, 6/29/09), the Standard represented only a tiny fraction of Murdoch’s vast media empire. Murdoch’s News Corporation, one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, took in nearly $33 billion in revenue in 2008 from properties in virtually every sector of the media, including such giants as Fox News Channel, Dow Jones, HarperCollins and MySpace, as well as hundreds of newspapers and television stations across the world.
While it yielded no financial gain for Murdoch and News Corp shareholders, for a time the Standard was arguably the most effective magazine in the nation in terms of its influence on policy. Edited by GOP political operative and neoconservative extraordinaire William Kristol, it had the eyes and ears of prominent members of the new Bush administration, Department of Defense and Congress, who drastically escalated the United States’ imperial ambitions. Perhaps no publication was as active or as successful in shaping the propaganda campaign that would enable this remarkable foreign policy transformation to take place.
The journal’s rise to prominence was one of opportunity through tragedy. When the magazine was founded in 1995, neoconservatives were somewhat out of step with mainstream debate in Washington. With the Cold War over, foreign policy was on the back burner, leaving neocons with little to work with. Kristol, along with other prominent bureaucrats like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, joined together in the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) to advocate for “regime change” in Iraq and other extreme interventionist policies, but these ideas were considered to be on the fringes of the foreign policy establishment.
Then came the September 11 attacks.
“One day a novel must be written that conveys the sense of purpose and energy that surged through the Standard’s offices…in the days after September 11, 2001,” wrote Scott McConnell, editor of the isolationist magazine the American Conservative (11/21/05). “For these bookish men, it was a Churchillian moment, an occasion to use words to rally a nation and shape history.”
And shape history is exactly what the staff did. For the next seven years, the Standard would become the birthplace of hawkish foreign policy proposals that would become official U.S. policy; as the magazine fought the war of words in the media, it helped its administration allies fight—and win—the battle of ideas in the White House.
Following the attacks, the Standard advanced what became virtually all the noteworthy tactics of the Bush administration’s “war on terror”: focusing the response to 9/11 on Iraq using flawed and flimsy evidence (11/24/03), widening U.S. foreign policy interventions far and wide (11/01/04), dismissing all calls for even partial withdrawals of U.S. troops (5/10/07), shunning the recommendations of the realist-dominated Iraq Study Group (12/11/06) and escalating troop levels in what became known as “the surge” (1/21/08).
The rhetoric in the Standard’s editorials and articles was often indistinguishable from that of the administration, as it downplayed war crimes committed by U.S. troops (6/12/06) and labeled antiwar activists and legislators as anti-American (8/14/06).
Although U.S. intelligence had found little evidence that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks (McClatchy, 9/22/01), the first Standard released after 9/11 (9/24/01) tellingly featured a cartoon of Saddam Hussein and immediately began making the case for targeting his government: “While it is probably not necessary to go to war with Afghanistan, a broad approach will be required,” wrote Gary Schmitt and Tom Donnelly. Despite acknowledging that Hussein “might not” have been involved in the 9/11 attacks, “the larger campaign also must go after Saddam Hussein,” said the authors. Weeks later, Max Boot (10/15/01) asked, “Who cares if Saddam was involved?” as he pushed for regime change.
These sentiments were largely shared by a cadre of high-level Bush administration officials, including Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Elliott Abrams and Richard Armitage, all of whom—along with Kristol and Weekly Standard contributing editor Robert Kagan—had signed a letter for PNAC urging Clinton to overthrow Hussein in the late 1990s (PNAC, 1/26/98).
In case Congress or the American public did not share Boot’s attitude, the Standard did all it could to find (or invent) evidence linking Iraq to 9/11. One high-profile article, “Case Closed” (11/24/03), earned public praise from the vice president, who called it the “best source of information” detailing this supposed relationship (Rocky Mountain News, 1/9/04). Cheney’s endorsement is now touted in an editor’s note atop the online version of the article. (Hayes later grew this sophistry into the 2004 book The Connection: How Al-Qaeda’s Collaboration With Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America.) In 2005, Hayes, along with Thomas Joscelyn, contributed another 10,000 words in an article titled “The Mother of All Connections” (7/18/05). Hayes would later be hand-picked to write Cheney’s official biography (Guardian, 9/04/06).
Of course, it is now widely understood that these supposed connections were spurious, having been debunked by every government body that has looked into the matter, including the Pentagon (Institute for Defense Analyses, 11/07) and the Senate Intelligence Committee (6/08).
That the Standard’s views so closely mirrored those of the powerful was not happenstance. Murdoch, by design, distributed the magazine with an eye not on building a wide base of readers, but on influencing elite decision makers. And he made no efforts to hide this process. The journal’s website reads: “Lots of Washington publications say they have influence. The Weekly Standard delivers it…. Each issue is hand-delivered—by request—every Sunday morning to an exclusive list: the most powerful men and women in government, politics and the media.”
Among those who made such a request was Cheney; according to Kristol (New York Times, 3/11/03), the vice president sent someone over “to pick up 30 copies of the magazine” every Monday. “I would hope that we have induced some of them to think about these things in a new way,” Kristol said. “We have a lot of writers who have independently articulated a version of how we deal with this new world we live in that has been read by Dick Cheney, Condi Rice and Donald Rumsfeld. Hopefully it had some effect.”
The strategy has paid off. The Standard’s website documents 10 instances where the magazine was mentioned in the congressional record; it also brags that the average reader has an annual income of $193,000 and net worth exceeding $1.3 million.
“Reader for reader, it may be the most influential publication in America,” said Eric Alterman (New York Times, 3/11/03). “The magazine speaks directly to and for power. Anybody who wants to know what [the Bush] administration is thinking and what they plan to do has to read this magazine.”
Under Murdoch’s leadership, this effect was magnified by media consolidation and the synergy between media outlets that fall under the same corporate parent. The magazine’s staffers are regulars on Fox News. Kristol has a regular spot on Fox News Sunday, further stretching the reach of the publication’s hawkish ideals.
The Standard’s website notes a “survey of top congressional staff” found that 70 percent said the magazine is “more or much more influential than other Washington publications,” because they “appear regularly on network and cable television.” The magazine’s 10-year anthology, as well as Hayes’ aforementioned book, were distributed by another News Corp subsidiary, HarperCollins.
When Bush gave his 2005 inauguration speech, the Standard’s relationship with Murdoch and government officials reached new heights. Kristol was hired as a consultant for the speech, which read much like a Standard editorial; he was also on Fox News (1/20/05) to analyze it, calling it “one of the most impressive speeches I think I’ve seen an American president give.” Kristol also praised the speech he helped write in the pages of the Weekly Standard (1/31/05), calling it “powerful,” “subtle,” “historic,” “sophisticated” and “nuanced” (Media Matters, 1/24/05).
This incident illustrates the function of the Weekly Standard under Murdoch: The country’s most prominent pro-war editor generates the intellectual justifications for endless war in his magazine, puts them in the mouth of the world’s most powerful politician, and praises their brilliance on airwaves owned by his boss, the most powerful man in media. All of this made possible, of course, by Murdoch’s media empire, generous subsidies and willingness to absorb massive losses for 14 years—advantages that other opinion journals (particularly those that challenge corporate media) could not even dream of.
It remains to be seen how much will change now that Murdoch has cut ties with the Standard. Clarity Media is run by Philip Anschutz, a billionaire with right-wing politics (Media Matters, 2/2/05) and the ability to sustain losses. The company’s CEO has also said he admires the magazine’s editorial content (New York Times, 8/3/09). And with his recent acquisition of the Wall Street Journal and its pro-war editorial page, Murdoch still has a powerful soapbox from which to push policy preferences.
But as the costly and bloody neoconservative misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to plague the world, Murdoch’s past ownership of the Weekly Standard assures that he will own, in addition to his media empire, a piece of the nightmare he helped create. As Kristol noted in a statement following the sale (Washington Examiner, 6/17/09), Murdoch’s “generous support and (if I may use the term) liberal disposition have made whatever we’ve accomplished possible.”
Michael Corcoran (MichaelCorcoran.blogspot.com) is a freelance journalist based in Boston. He has written for outlets including the Nation and the Boston Globe.