Opinion

Jack Shafer

Chris Hughes friends the New Republic

Jack Shafer
Mar 9, 2012 23:43 UTC

Chris Hughes joins the pantheon of vanity press moguls with the announcement today of his purchase of a majority interest in the New Republic. The 28-year-old Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, commands a net worth that Forbes put “in the $700 million range” last year. Based on this portfolio, Hughes should be able to sustain the magazine’s annual losses — which Anne Peretz, the ex-wife of former owner Martin Peretz put at $3 million a year — for a couple of hundred years after his death.

Of course, vanity press moguls rarely commit to their publications for life, and few sustain the relationship after death. Learning nothing from the vanity moguls who have gone before them, they recycle all of their errors. As their publisher’s promises to cut deficits and turn a small profit go unmet; as the editor he inherited from the previous regime turns out to be a dolt; as the staff gets caught giggling about the stupid things the vanity mogul said in story meetings; as the mag ends up making the vanity mogul enemies instead of the new, powerful friends he wished for, he begins to understand that publishing isn’t the creative paradise he sought.

Despite the heartache of owning marginal publications, millionaire after billionaire has lined up in the last generation to buy in or launch a publication of his own. The vanity moguls’ contemporary ranks include Mortimer Zuckerman (the Atlantic, Fast Company, the Daily News), Richard Mellon Scaife (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review), Harvey Weinstein (Talk), Martin Peretz (New Republic), Arthur L. Carter (The Nation, New York Observer), Jared Kushner (New York Observer), John Warnock and William Hambrecht (Salon), convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon (Washington Times, Insight, World & I, UPI), Sidney Harman (Newsweek), David Bradley (National Journal, the Atlantic), Warren Hellman (Bay Citizen), and Bill Gates (Slate). But they’ve been with us since the 1890s, when William Randolph Hearst used his family fortune to spread his newspaper ego across the nation.

The rich often buy vanity publications when they learn quickly that having a lot of money doesn’t necessarily make them “players.” They want that sort of influence and are crestfallen by the fact that the only reliable way to get people to do as you say — or even nod in agreement — is to put them on the payroll. Purchasing a publication, even a down-on-its-heels magazine like the New Republic, conveys some of that status, providing entree into certain salons and cabals of influence. (Although it still publishes many worthy articles, I rarely hear it cited as often as its competitors — the Atlantic, Mother Jones, the Weekly Standard — but that’s just anecdotal evidence.)

Martin Peretz came closer to becoming a pariah than a player in the four decades he controlled the magazine. So even though Hughes has an Obama connection, making a name for himself during the 2008 campaign running the candidate’s social-media division, there is little chance the magazine can return to its imagined status as the “inflight magazine of Air Force One”? That’s right, imagined. The phrase, penned early in the first Clinton term by my editor James Ledbetter when he was a Village Voice media columnist, was not a compliment. Even so, the magazine adopted the phrase on blow-in subscription cards and in its promotion literature, and it was recycled by characters in Billy Ray’s 2003 film about Stephen Glass, Shattered Glass, as if the assessment had been real.

Kony baloney

Jack Shafer
Mar 8, 2012 21:54 UTC

Call me a traditionalist, but when a non-fiction film’s soundtrack includes anything but incidental music, my eyes cease to view it as a documentary and begin to receive it as propaganda. Kony 2012, this week’s viral video sensation on YouTube and Vimeo, reaches for the heart-melting, minor-chord music about 16 seconds into its 30-minute run, efficiently alerting me to its emotional scheme.

Produced by the non-profit group Invisible Children, Kony 2012 implores viewers to purchase bracelets and action kits (tax deductible!) to help stop the murdering, raping, looting and enslaving ways of African warlord Joseph Kony, head of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, and to forward the video to friends. Kony 2012 also calls for U.S. support for Ugandan efforts to capture the warlord. According to the YouTube counter, the video has been viewed close to 40 million times since its release on Monday, although New York attributes that performance to clever marketing, high production values and a website that made it easy to push the link to celebrities who tweet.

Whatever the source of Kony 2012‘s viral power, it has been more than matched by a swift anti-viral counterreaction, with commentators at the Atlantic, the Guardian, Jezebel, the Independent, the Wronging Rights blog, the Traveling While Black blog, the Backslash Scott Thoughts blog and the Visible Children blog scrutinizing the video and its maker-marketers. They criticize the Invisible Children project for exaggerating the evil Joseph Kony is perpetrating these days; for engaging in paternalism that verges on colonialism; for failing to note that some of the “good guys” that the group supports are known to rape and loot themselves; for pretending that viewers sharing a video with other viewers will change the world; for selling “yesterday’s papers” and calling it news; for portraying Africans as helpless victims in need of saving by Westerners; for oversimplifying the central-east African crisis; and for other clap-your-hands-and-everything-will-be-all-right dreams.

What’s so great about moderates?

Jack Shafer
Mar 6, 2012 17:45 UTC

Could David Brooks, Frank Bruni and Joe Nocera be any more disappointed with the Republican Party? Over the last week, the three New York Times columnists have written op-eds about how miserable the ultra-Republicanness of the Republican Party establishment has made life for moderate Republican officeholders.

In his piece, which riffs off of a Times news story by Jonathan Weisman, Brooks sets the tone for his page, uncorking a sluice of tears not just for moderate Republican Sen. Richard Lugar but for conservative Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, both of whom have had to swing “sharply to the right to fend off primary challengers” from the “wingers.” The “wingers,” as Brooks calls them, “have zero tolerance for the compromises needed to get legislation passed.” The winger campaign is guided by “grievance politics, identity politics,” he writes, and they “have trashed the party’s reputation by swinging from one embarrassing and unelectable option to the next: Bachmann, Trump, Cain, Perry, Gingrich, Santorum.”

The wingers are “ferocious,” “extreme,” “metastasizing,” conductors of “heresy trials” (the presidential debates!), “meshugana,” and creators of “insular information loops,” Brooks continues.

Andrew Breitbart (1969-2012)

Jack Shafer
Mar 1, 2012 19:02 UTC

You’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, a rule I always ignore when somebody famous or newsworthy dies. If we shouldn’t be overly sentimental about death because we all die anyway, what better time to assess a life than when it ends, even if prematurely as in the case of media provocateur Andrew Breitbart, who died today at the age of 43? In the case of Breitbart, a man who gloried in savaging his political enemies whether they were dead or alive, there’s little reason to hold fire until the funeral baked meats have gone cold.

Besides, he knew how to take a punch. And he liked throwing them.

I liked the idea of Andrew Breitbart better than I liked any of his work at Big Government, Big Hollywood, Big Journalism, Big Peace, Breitbart or Breitbart.tv. As I wrote in Slate in 2009, I admired the way he ignored journalistic convention and the usual ethical standards to pursue the stories that were important to him. I admired his entrepreneurial approach to journalism and his disdain for the credentialed, self-important press corps. I enjoyed his prankster sense of humor, which goes a long way toward explaining why news of his death, tweeted and retweeted this morning, was met with disbelief. He was just the sort of guy who would fake his death and cull the reactions to make a tendentious point at the expense of his enemies.

But where did the punches land? Credit him with starting the avalanche that buried ACORN, hammering the National Endowment for the Humanities Arts by publishing a revelatory conference call tape, midwifing the congressional insider-trading scoop of Big Peace editor Peter Schweizer and exposing (sorry!) Weinergate. But also credit him with the shoddy attempted takedown of Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod.

Don’t fear the Web

Jack Shafer
Feb 29, 2012 23:49 UTC

Does the Internet make you anxious? Do you lie awake nights worrying that Russian hackers are turning your children into sex slaves? Have you had the feeling that your iPhone is spying on you?

You’re not alone, Adam Thierer of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, would have you know. In a working paper he posted on the Web yesterday titled “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle,” Thierer outlines the dread that many have for the Web. The fears are real, of course. People do get robbed on the Web. Individuals have lost their privacy on the Web. Companies and governments have been hacked by thieves and foreign agents.

But surveying the hacks and rip-offs, Thierer finds that for reasons both psychological and political, the severity of most intrusions has been exaggerated. Attributing the overreactions to “moral panics” linked to new technology (“technopanics”), he writes convincingly that “there is no evidence that the Internet is leading to greater problems for society than previous technologies did.” That’s not to say that you’ve got no right to be flipped out about apps pinching your address book or your photos without your express permission, or about Facebook accessing your phone’s text messages without explicitly saying so, or about Google using a browser flaw to bypass your privacy settings, or about Google and 104 other companies tracking you as you pad around the Web.

Wikiyawn

Jack Shafer
Feb 27, 2012 22:34 UTC

I love WikiLeaks — by which I mean that any organization that helps ferret out the secrets of states or the nefarious secrets of corporations deserves a cozy place in my heart. But as anyone who has experienced my love can tell you, it’s not always lovely. So I don’t feel bad at all about taking the business end of my press-crit rake to the latest WikiLeaks project, “The Global Intelligence Files.”

The Files contain in excess of 5 million emails from the Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor. WikiLeaks appears to have obtained the email from the hackers at Anonymous, who nicked the haul late last year. There may be great stuff in the 5 million emails, but the files released thus far, which International Business Times puts at 194 emails, underwhelm.

We learn, for instance, that Coca-Cola asked Stratfor for some intelligence on the animal-rights group PETA in 2009 in relation to the coming Winter Olympics in Vancouver: How many PETA supporters in Canada? How inclined toward activism are they? What relation does PETA Canada have to PETA U.S.A? Stuff like that. Stratfor’s vice-president for intelligence, Fred Burton, purportedly shares that he knows about a classified investigation of PETA operatives that the FBI has produced and that he’ll see what he can “uncover.” Another Stratfor employee assigns an intern to the project. In WikiLeaks lingo, this amounts to Coca-Cola “Contracting Stratfor to Spy on PETA.” If asking an intern to look up some information constitutes spying, you could say that I’ve been in the espionage business for 30 years and my operatives have probed hundreds of government bodies, public institutions and corporations. This particular WikiLeaks dump should probably be taken to the dump and dumped.

Who cares if a politician buys a newspaper?

Jack Shafer
Feb 23, 2012 23:45 UTC

Philadelphia has gone all hinky at the prospect of an investor group headed by former governor, former mayor, former district attorney, and former head of the Democratic National Committee Ed Rendell purchasing Philadelphia Media Network, the company that owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com. The Rendell group includes powerful local businessmen and assorted politicos, causing Philadelphia magazine’s Paul Davies to fret that such a sale would result in newspapers “viewed as a direct extension of the Democratic Party and Chamber of Commerce.”

Davies’s prediction that the new publishers would interfere in editorial matters was quickly preempted by editorial interference from Philadelphia Media Network’s current publisher, Gregory J. Osberg, whom the New York Times has already caught butting in on coverage.

Philly journalist Tom Ferrick maps the web of conflicts of interest the Rendell group would weave as owners: “[H]ow do you cover Rendell if he is chairman of your board? … George Norcross is the Democratic power of South Jersey. Watch what you say about him. Lew Katz has many diverse holdings — all of which could be sensitive topics to cover.” Non-Rendell bidders bring similar baggage to the deal: 94-year-old billionaire Raymond Perelman has teamed up with his billionaire son Ronald Perelman to buy the company; Raymond’s estranged son, Jeffrey Perelman, is said to be making his own offer; and developer Bart Blatstein wants a shot, although Raymond Perelman and Blatstein complain that they’ve been frozen out from bidding by the current owners.

What made Deep Throat leak?

Jack Shafer
Feb 21, 2012 21:14 UTC

Why did Deep Throat leak to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward?

Woodward and Carl Bernstein write in their 1974 book, All the President’s Men, that Deep Throat shared his secrets to “protect the office” of the presidency and “effect a change in its conduct before all was lost.” Woodward amended his source’s purely patriotic motives in his 2005 book, The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat. In it, Woodward held that Deep Throat — whom he confirmed was W. Mark Felt, a former high-ranking FBI man who outed himself as the leaker — supplied him with information to protect the FBI from the meddling Nixon White House. That harmonized with the rationale offered in A G-man’s Life: The FBI, Being ‘Deep Throat,’ and the Struggle for Honor in Washington, Felt’s 2006 book published with the guiding hand of a co-writer (Felt was 92 and suffering from dementia): that Deep Throat leaked to Woodward to “spark a broader investigation” by the Justice Department of the break-in.

By 2010, Woodward’s appreciation of his leaker’s motives had expanded to include bureaucratic infighting. Woodward writes:

In brief, [Felt] knew there was a cover-up, knew higher-ups were involved, and did not trust the acting FBI director, Pat Gray. He knew the Nixon White House was corrupt. At the same time he was disappointed that he did not get the directorship. And I was pushing him and pushing him. [Emphasis added.]

Media Madders

Jack Shafer
Feb 15, 2012 00:09 UTC

The “investigative series” that the conservative Daily Caller commenced this week about the liberal media watchdog outfit Media Matters for America and its founder David Brock accomplishes the impossible: It makes me sympathize with Media Matters and Brock.

This is no small accomplishment, as I’ve never thought much of Media Matters’ style of watchdogging or Brock’s journalism. I don’t mind Media Matters’ partisanship. Partisans often serve journalism by spotting unseen truths. I don’t dislike anybody over there; a couple of veteran journalists of my acquaintance produce copy for it. And I’ll be the first to admit that Media Matters’ giant media trawler captures much embarrassing — and occasionally useful — information about conservatives and conservative media.

That said, I always approach the group’s findings with the same reservations I do prosecutorial briefs or opposition research. What are the authors leaving out? Media Matters, like so many think tanks and watchdogs, is in the propaganda business. Yet even a propagandist deserves a fair hearing in the press. But the Daily Caller fails to clear even that low hurdle. As someone who routinely finds valuable nuggets in partisan media squabbles, I kept waiting to be shown something that wasn’t predictable political point-scoring. But it has yet to emerge.

Newt Gingrich and the fine art of press-bashing

Jack Shafer
Jan 31, 2012 23:10 UTC

After being bruised by tough questions in the primary debates, Newt Gingrich pouted yesterday that if nominated, he would not participate in any reporter-moderated presidential debates with Barack Obama.

“We should be able to talk to the American people without reporters playing gotcha, being clever or having 60-second rules like, ‘What would you do about Nigeria in 60 seconds?,’” the Georgia doughboy said, complaining that reporters serve as a “second Obama person” in debates.

Gingrich went on to propose a fall schedule of seven three-hour, Lincoln-Douglas style debates with Obama, ignoring the fact that three presidential campaign debates and one “town hall” meeting have already been set by the Commission on Presidential Debates. At the rate Gingrich is going, he will soon demand the right to choose the color of the debate set’s curtains, limit the number of close-up shots used on TV and stipulate that the bowls of candy in the debate green rooms contain no brown M&Ms.

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