To many readers, Daniel McCarthy’s excellent new article in the Spectator USA about the likely demise of the Weekly Standard magazine will be most interesting for his thoughts on what this apparently impending event says about how best to keep alive non-mass market political publications. After all, McCarthy edits another such publication: The American Conservative.
To me, his piece is most interesting for another reason: It briefly points to how President Trump can marginalize a Mainstream Media that has worrisomely transformed itself from an essential watchdog for democracy into an unapologetic defender of a failed bipartisan political establishment – and in a much more effective way than by hurling insults on Twitter or at political rallies. And it’s no coincidence that the relevant McCarthy observation supports some suggestions I’ve made along these lines. (See, e.g., here.)
McCarthy is surely on target when he contends that the Weekly Standard chose the wrong business model – and especially the wrong business model for losing money (which he rightly notes is a feature of virtually all political magazines). And since a healthy democracy depends on the survival of a critical mass of such publications, his advice – stemming from years of experience in the field – seems well worth heeding.
But the following McCarthy passage matters much more now when it comes to Mr. Trump’s conflict with the Mainstream Media – which of course is largely self-serving, but which nonetheless has the potential, if conducted wisely and shrewdly, to push these news organizations into behaving more constructively:
“The Weekly Standard provided prestige and access to political leaders, especially Republicans.
“The Weekly Standard’s value lay in the fact that it was an insider magazine. It was a top-down product — there was never an independent mass audience clamoring for a second National Review or for a specifically neoconservative publication. (Commentary, as a monthly, already served that market as far as demand could justify.) What was important was that the magazine be read not by a mass market but by Republican officials and their staff and various other influential persons, primarily in Washington, D.C. If officialdom read the Weekly Standard, then it was worth continuing to spend millions on it. In business terms as well as ideologically and literarily, the Weekly Standard had a lot in common with the New Republic, which for decades was dependent upon Marty Peretz’s singular financial support as owner of a magazine that touted itself during the Clinton years as the ‘inflight magazine of Air Force One.’”
Although McCarthy doesn’t make this point explicitly, it captures what’s truly essential about the above analysis: The power and influence of the Standard and the rest of the Mainstream Media – and in the case of smallish political magazines, their ability to attract angel funders – depends on their access to leading political figures, and in particular, on enjoying such close access that their audiences can depend on them to reveal the so-called real inside story of big political and policy decisions.
To accomplish this goal, writers and editors from these organizations need (credibly) to make clear that they’re regularly welcomed into the confidences of bigwigs right on up to the presidency, specifically at chummy off-the-record or on-background lunches and dinners and other such get-togethers that advance the interests of each kind of participant. In addition to turning the favored journalists into must-follows for the political- and policy-minded (and into power-brokers of sorts themselves), these gatherings enable the hosts to make key points or send key messages (often about potentially controversial plans or proposals) to the public at large through sympathetic conduits. In the process, politicians can avoid being held accountable for the content of these messages if they backfire or fall flat.
It’s clear that Mr. Trump hasn’t treated Weekly Standard, or many other – if any – Mainstream Media figures like political intimates. And since it represents a neoconservative school of thought that has never enjoyed any notable popular following, the magazine’s obvious loss of insider status has undoubtedly contributed to its weakening viability under the current administration.
But as I’ve written (see, e.g., the post linked above), the President keeps giving exclusive interviews to other major news organizations – including to the most hostile – which inevitably enhances or sustains their prestige. On the one hand, it’s clear that, as widely observed, Mr. Trump is engaging with the Mainstream Media in the belief that any publicity is good publicity – and likely due to his own (arguably well founded) confidence that he always prevails politically whenever these encounters turn testy. (Think “Jim Acosta“.) On the other, this approach certainly hasn’t made the Mainstream Media pay any significant, much less prohibitive, price for propagating Fake News and too often flagrantly exhibiting bias.
As a result, the establishment press has little incentive to report more responsibly. And ultimately, by continuing to act as if there’s no adequate alternative to the increasingly fallen Washington- and New York-based press corps for his own communications purposes, and for serving larger national purposes, Mr. Trump is squandering a major opportunity for all Americans – even Never Trump-ers – along with a chance to undermine influential enemies and expand his base.