The late William F. Buckley’s journalistic baby, National Review, is in deep legal trouble.
This week it asked subscribers like me for donations to pay lawyers fending off a libel suit. Those legal bills, even before a trial it may well lose, could sink the leading right-wing journal in America, The Week says.
Progressives, liberals, conservatives and middle-of-the-roaders should all care about this, but not for the reasons National Review cites.
The magazine’s January 27 issue asserts “at stake most narrowly is the question of whether [climate scientist Michael] Mann’s work can be vigorously criticized, and more broadly is the fate of free speech in an increasingly politically correct society.”
Nonsense. Not to mention bad writing and editing.
National Review mischaracterizes both the facts and the import of the issues in a way that has come to define the magazine since 1997 under editor Rich Lowry.
All that is at stake here are the business interests of National Review, Lowry, writer Mark Steyn and the other defendants — as well as, of course, the wrongly maligned Dr. Mann.
Libel lawsuits are notoriously difficult to win, as they should be.
But Mann has powerful allies: facts, independent investigations that found “no basis” for any accusation of intellectual dishonesty and, perhaps most significantly, the studied refusal by both the magazine and Steyn to acknowledge error and correct the record.
In a 2012 post still available at National Review Online, Steyn reprinted an already discredited quote that compared Mann, who teaches at Penn State, to assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, the serial child rapist who was protected by college administrators.
The quoted language included this:
Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of political science, except that instead of molesting children he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science.
Steyn then slightly distanced himself from this quote before writing that Mann was “behind the fraudulent climate-change ‘hockey-stick’ graph, the very ringmaster of the tree-ring circus” and musing that “if an institution is prepared to cover up systemic statutory rape of minors, what won’t it cover up?”
Lowry refused Mann’s request to take down the post, writing a month later that rather than suggesting criminality, Steyn was “savagely witty and stung poor Michael” by exposing “intellectually bogus and wrong” research reports.
If Mann filed suit against National Review, Lowry concluded, he “risks making an ass of himself.”
We all make mistakes. When journalists err our duty is prompt, forthright and candid correction, not piling on.
National Review is in trouble because its minimalist “reporting” combined with lightweight analysis was compounded by Lowry’s conduct. Not owning up to these mistakes was not just unprofessional. It was stupid.
Would that Lowry and his writers attended any of my frequent lectures on how to report. They could learn not just interviewing and fact-gathering techniques, but what I call the first three rules of journalism:
Rule One: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.
Rule Two: Crosscheck and crosscheck until the facts are bolted down solid.
Rule Three: Put those facts in their proper place in the universe.
National Review’s assertion that “the state of free speech” depends on the outcome of Mann’s lawsuit is ludicrously out of proportion.
And Mann’s lawsuit is not about being “vigorously criticized,” but National Review’s disregard for facts.
I have been reading National Review since my teens, one of more than 40 magazines I take that provide a vast array of perspectives on many subjects.
Now and then over the last half-century I agreed with National Review. But, sadly, ever since editor Lowry took charge, it’s mostly laughter — derisive laughter.
When the online version got facts about me wrong years ago I called seeking a correction. No one who answered knew what to do or had authority to correct. Eventually I got Lowry on the phone, who promptly made clear that no correction would be made. He told me he saw no contradiction between that stance and his (and his magazine’s) frequent criticisms of other journals over their facts.
So why should those who see the world through a different lens care?
Well, not because National Review could go out of business. Should that happen a new publication would spring up to replace it. Many very wealthy Americans of all political stripes give money to make sure the marketplace of ideas includes viewpoints they favor.
Nor does any reason exist for those who care about integrity in journalism, be it straight news or opinion, to mourn.
But that is exactly the point.
The problem is that National Review is so lightweight that it’s easy to mock. And the same holds true in varying degrees for Fox News, Paul Gigot’s opinion pages in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, William Kristol’s Weekly Standard, Emmett Tyrell’s conspiratorial American Spectator and the nutty reports on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.
Thankfully there exist The American Conservative and the libertarian monthly Reason, with its provocative substance.
America needs first-rate publications that articulate conservative perspectives by marshaling hard facts and sound logic. It needs right-wing publications as steeped in reporting, and just as political, as The Nation and Mother Jones.
Instead, we get an array of conservative outlets worthy mostly of ridicule. (There are, to be clear, plenty of loonies on the left and with ambiguous perspectives, but they are sideshows, not dominant.)
Those not on the far right need quality conservative publications against which to develop, refine and test their own ideas.
Just as Toyotas and Hondas made Americans aware of how much better inexpensive cars could be, forcing Detroit to do better, serious right-wing journalism would produce better political ideas from the majority of the political spectrum. Journalistic Yugos and Gazelles don’t improve the competition.
One result of intellectual vacuity on the right is that too many progressive ideas for a better America are not thoroughly vetted.
The flint-eyed scrutiny that Charles Peters has campaigned for since launching The Washington Monthly in 1969, and which has influenced my work, needs a counterpart on the right. Conservatives need a journalist with a Peters-like skepticism to criticize allies so they do their best.
The path to a better America will never be drawn with the smoothness of the Laffer curve. The struggle to make tomorrow better will always be a story of ups and downs. But without a real contest of ideas America will never fulfill its promise of enabling the human spirit to flourish.
So, no, I will not be sending a check to help save National Review from its own folly. My money is better spent supporting the tiny San Francisco Public Press, which does the revealing investigative journalism that the Chronicle has never provided the city of my birth.
But I will donate to a serious, well-run and conservative magazine equal to what Charles Peters gave us. I hope you will, too. And I’ll renew my National Review subscription, if only for the laughs.
Photo: Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington D.C., accepting the “Robert Novak Conservative Journalism Award” on behalf of Jonah Goldberg. (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)