The Media Today

The Weekly Standard’s grim outlook

December 5, 2018

Things don’t look good for The Weekly Standard. Yesterday, CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported that the conservative magazine may shutter after sparring between its leadership and owners MediaDC, who told the magazine’s editor, Stephen Hayes, that he could court potential buyers, then went back on the pledge. While MediaDC’s parent company wouldn’t be drawn publicly last night, MediaDC’s chairman, Ryan McKibben, has reportedly requested a meeting with Hayes next week. Ominously, Darcy reports, he’s requested that the entire Standard staff be made available immediately afterward.

The Standard has steadfastly opposed the Trump presidency, making it a relative rarity in conservative media circles. Its anti-Trump stance—and stated commitment to fact-driven and nuanced debate—helps explain why CNN’s scoop elicited such widespread concern in the mediasphere. On the right, Noah Rothman, an associate editor at Commentary magazine, tweeted, “This would be a disaster. The Weekly Standard is indispensable.” Further left, Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein called CNN’s story “terrible news.” The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer added, “I’m obviously not the target audience for The Weekly Standard but its output in the Trump era has mostly avoided the bizarre tone of Trumpist sycophancy dominating much of conservative media and losing it would be bad.”

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A subtext of much of the commentary is the broader capture of conservative thought by the forces of Trumpism. But that analysis ignores internal political dynamics here. While a source told CNN that MediaDC could shutter the Standard to boost the “pro-Trump” Washington Examiner—another MediaDC property which announced ambitious expansion plans this week—the Examiner is hardly a flamethrower in the Fox News or Breitbart mold. And despite the Standard’s dwindling circulation, unnamed staffers told Vox’s Jane Coaston last night that the magazine’s closure would reflect corporate infighting more than untenable financial pressure (MediaDC, in any case, has deep pockets: its parent company is owned by the billionaire Philip Anschutz). As one source told Coaston, “This isn’t a natural death.”

Within the confines of the conservative movement, however, strident anti-Trump voices are losing relevance—despite the ubiquity of “never Trump” conservative commentators in mainstream newspaper opinion pages and on cable news (Bill Kristol, who co-founded the Standard in 1995, being prominent among them). Most Republicans in Congress have embraced the president, who continues to inspire noisy devotion among the party’s base. As Jim Antle, editor of The American Conservative, told Politico’s Jason Schwartz, “I think, in general, people don’t visit conservative websites and read conservative magazines to read that the president is terrible. So what do you do when your writers and editors have concluded the president is terrible?”

In an insightful survey of the conservative media landscape back in January, The Washington Post’s T.A. Frank wrote that in response to attacks from Trump and his supporters, Hayes retooled the Standard to add more reported content, “less for the purpose of winning debates than to rescue a sense of shared premises.” Frank continued: “Hayes hopes that when a reader of the liberal magazine The Nation or a watcher of MSNBC seeks out an ‘intellectually honest conservative take,’ that person will go to The Weekly Standard.” In an increasingly polarized media climate, that hope may be in vain. But through this approach, the Standard has, increasingly, differentiated itself from the majority of right-wing discourse. If it does fold, it will be a loss.

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Below, more on The Weekly Standard:

  • Keeping the receipts: Last month, the Standard won plaudits for standing up to hard-right Iowa Congressman Steve King, publishing a recording of remarks that appeared to call immigrants “dirt” after King denied reporter Adam Rubenstein’s original story.
  • The difference 20 months makes: The New York Timess Jim Rutenberg profiled Hayes and the Standard in spring 2017. Back then, owner Anschutz had just given Hayes the go-ahead to expand his operation by a third—scouting for new journalistic talent and hiring editors from The Wall Street Journal and Slate.
  • Facebook’s conservative partner: Despite the Standard’s generally good reputation, eyebrows were raised when Facebook invited it into its fact-checking partnership—it is, after all, an openly ideological magazine. When the Standard’s fact-checker called a ThinkProgress piece on Brett Kavanaugh false in September, liberals cried foul, accusing Facebook of a cowardly sop to conservatives. As CJR’s Mathew Ingram wrote at the time, the truth wasn’t quite so simple.
  • Dissenting voices: Concern for the Standard was not ubiquitous yesterday. Some on the left took issue with the magazine’s reputation for thoughtful moderation, pointing out several of its past stances including its full-throated support for the war in Iraq. “The last act of The Weekly Standard is working with the most reactionary Republicans to spread lies about criminal justice reform,” tweeted left-wing journalist Sean McElwee, flagging a Standard article shared on Monday by pro-Trump Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton.

Other notable stories:

  • The Times’s Rachel Abrams and Edmund Lee have damning new details on former CBS boss Les Moonves, who quit the network in September in the wake of sexual harassment and assault allegations. According to a draft report commissioned by CBS, Moonves destroyed evidence and misled investigators—for example, by handing over his son’s iPad instead of his own—in a bid to salvage a $120 million severance payout. The report also contains previously unreported allegations of sexual misconduct.
  • Jarl Mohn will step down as NPR’s chief executive in June to lead a fundraising drive for the broadcaster, starting with a $10 million donation of his own, NPR’s David Folkenflik reports. Mohn has overseen strong audience and financial growth during his tenure, but has also faced controversy, in particular over his handling of sexual harassment allegations against former NPR news editor Michael Oreskes.
  • A briefing yesterday by Gina Haspel, the CIA director, only confirmed senior senators’ suspicions that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of the dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi: as South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham put it, “There is not a smoking gun, there’s a smoking saw.” Trump, who has refused to act on CIA intelligence, found a more loyal backer in Congressman Chris Stewart, who told CNN that “journalists disappear” all the time.
  • For The Atlantic, Julianna Goldman writes that TV news is an impossible environment for working moms: not a single female correspondent in NBC’s Washington bureau, for example, has children. “Being a TV-news correspondent is tough for anyone, but it presents structural challenges that are particularly rough on moms,” Goldman writes. “Unsurprisingly, these factors are combining to push women to leave.”
  • Jelani Cobb, the New Yorker staff writer who guest edited CJR’s latest print issue on race and journalism, and Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, discussed the new issue with Alison Stewart on WNYC yesterday.
  • One week after The Guardian alleged that Paul Manafort repeatedly met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Ecuador’s London embassy, the Post’s Paul Farhi writes that the paper’s “bombshell looks as though it could be a dud,” with no other outlet able to corroborate it. An interesting note from Farhi’s piece: The Guardian gave a print byline to Fernando Villavicencio, an Ecuadorian journalist and activist, but left his name off the online version of the story (The Guardian would not explain the omission). On Monday, WikiLeaks accused Villavicencio of fabricating documents.
  • For CJR, Elon Green sat down with Jim Nelson, who is on his way out as editor of GQ after 15 years leading the magazine. Reflecting on running a men’s magazine in the #MeToo era, Nelson told Green, “Men are not going away, nor is masculinity going away. But the idea is you approach it in a new, modern way, and the next wave of editors has to figure that out.” ICYMI yesterday, GQ’s Drew Magary published this “enormous” oral history of Anthony Bourdain.
  • Mexican reporter Jesus Marquez Jimenez was shot dead on Saturday, becoming at least the tenth journalist to be killed in the country this year. According to Reporters Without Borders, he had denounced ties between politicians in Nayarit state and drug cartels.
  • And Vulture’s Devon Ivie reports that Wes Anderson’s next film, The French Dispatch, will be a “love letter to journalists” set at an American newspaper outpost in 20th century Paris. Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, and Timothée Chalamet are lined up to star.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.