years after its launch, the conser-vative journal of opinion, The Weekly
Standard, is something of a paradox. Editor William Kristol and his band
of contributors, including Tucker Carlson, Brit Hume and P.J. O’Rourke,
have some of the highest profiles of anyone in the business; the magazine
has the distribution power of Rupert Murdoch’s mighty News Corporation
behind it; it is frequently cited by heavyweights on Capitol Hill.
Yet its circulation is just above 50,000 — half that of The Nation and The New Republic and a third that of The National Review. Originally 72 pages long with 30 pages of advertising, the magazine is now a shadow of that — a recent edition had just 40 pages, 14 featuring some advertising. Industry experts estimate that the magazine must be costing Murdoch many hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. He had promised only to fund The Weekly Standard for three years. Five years on, he told a recent lunch gathering he had no intention of closing it. Profit, it seems, is way down on the list of priorities for both publisher and editorial staff.
The Standard has brought Murdoch a Washington presence that his other media operations, including two Fox television networks, The New York Post and publishing house HarperCollins, have not. The magazine has also given him a stable of TV pundits promoting News Corp. with every appearance on the Sunday talk shows and cable programs. Murdoch has proved willing to pay the price for political influence before — his highly regarded national broadsheet, The Australian, ate red ink for years. And, of course, in the News Corp. global conglomerate, a few hundred thousand dollars a year is but a speck on the balance sheet.
For Kristol et al., the magazine has been a perfect platform from which to promote their conservative message. They have never tried seriously to broaden the magazine’s appeal and attract more readers and advertisers, preferring instead to concentrate on boosting their own profiles with provocative positions that ignite debate.
And they look like they have a damn lot of fun doing it.
According to House Budget Committee Chair John Kasich, "You have to see it to be a part of the conversation." The Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief, Alan Murray said, "It can make a difference in debate in this town."
The Standard is a rollicking read of inside gossip, sharp (often well-deserved) jibes and telling satire, uniformly at the expense of the left. In a recent front of the book section called "Scrapbook," the magazine ran sections from Denise Rich’s yearbook. "It’s nice to be natural if you’re naturally nice," the yearbook reads. The Standard warns "influence peddlers: Don’t mess with us. We have access to your yearbooks."
A letter-to-the-editor from Kathleen Willey consoles the former first cat, Socks, over his banishment from the Clinton household to live with Betty Currie, Bill Clinton’s former secretary.
"I know how disappointed you must be — used and abused, of no further use," Willey writes. "We worked long and hard to get our guy elected. We gave our time and money gladly, because it was always for the public good…. And what do we have to show for our devotion? Public humiliation."
But the magazine’s insider—only casualness and almost total lack of responsibility ultimately make it seem amateurish. Like a school yearbook, it sacrifices truth and accuracy in the quest for notoriety.
In a wildly partial cover story, the February 19 issue hails newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, arguing that the conservative Likud party leader, widely recognized as having provoked the violent intifada currently raging in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is the only Israeli who can secure peace with the Palestinians. In a withering attack, Charles Krauthammer, a contributing editor, condemns out-going Prime Minister Ehud Barak as, "probably the worst leader in the West since Chamberlain." Dismissing any notion that a Palestinian state should hope to obtain a fair outcome in the peace negotiations, Krauthammer makes the inflammatory claim that Sharon’s mandate is "to restore the relative stability and security of the Netanyahu years."
Kristol promised his magazine would cater to conservatives but would not shy away from criticizing them when the need arose. Kristol’s own editorial advice turns out to be mainly criticism of the Bush administration.
The magazine ends on a high note with a clever parody section. The February 19 issue lampoons NBC’s Katie Couric for the pandering letter she wrote to the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, requesting an interview.
"Mein Lieber Chancellor," it reads. "The news coverage of Kristallnacht and the alleged excesses surely has [sic] been a disappointment as you continue the struggle to establish a vibrant Third Reich. Busy as you must be, an appearance on the Heute show would provide a vast audience, which, I know, is anxious to hear ‘the other side of the story,’ as we say in the entertainment business. By the way, Eva’s hair seems terribly, you know, severe — I’d love to give her my hairdresser’s number. Sieg and all that. Katrina von Kurik."
Colorful, thought-provoking, The Standard’s cavalier approach to the truth and slap-hazard treatment of gravely serious issues rob it of any genuinely significant role in public discourse.