The New York Times‘ Jim Rutenberg (3/26/17), alarmed by right-wing websites with “no commitment to truth,” is eager to balance them out with some respectable conservative journalists—and seems to think he has found one in Weekly Standard editor-in-chief Stephen Hayes.
Hayes, writes Rutenberg, is following in the tradition of William F. Buckley:
Mr. Buckley designed National Review to win the larger argument through “logic and superior command of the subject,” as his biographer Sam Tanenhaus (a former writer for the New York Times) told me last week — through facts. And it inspired successive generations of conservative journalists to get in the game, too.
One of them was Stephen F. Hayes….
Unfortunately, as Rutenberg tells it, not everyone in right journalism shares Hayes’ self-proclaimed commitment to “basing our arguments on facts, logic and reason”:
The movement he joined had succeeded in breaking the mainstream news media’s informational hegemony (something the mainstream media had a hand in, too, he said). But as it evolved, grew and splintered, something else broke: any universal sense of truth.
“That’s a problem for our democracy,” he told me last week….
There are right-leaning voters who “don’t believe what they’re getting from the networks and the left-leaning cable outlets” and therefore may be open to false or unsubstantiated content that provides affirmation at the expense of true information, he said.
Aside from the false frame that mainstream media once represented a “universal sense of truth,” or that corporate media don’t themselves provide affirmation (of neoliberal economic dogma, for instance) at the expense of “true information,” this relay race of responsible right-wingers passing along the torch of truth-committed journalism falls down at both ends. For one thing, Buckley was kind of a monster—a supporter of eugenics, Jim Crow, apartheid, fascism (in the form of Spain’s Francisco Franco), McCarthyism, nuclear war (against China and Vietnam) and the tattooing of people with HIV (Extra!, 5–6/08). It’s not clear that he arrived at these positions through “logic and superior command of the subject.”
Even more problematic for contemporary journalism is offering Stephen Hayes as a model of fact-based journalism. Hayes is the reporter who famously used the Weekly Standard as a platform for recycled claims of a connection between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Al Qaeda—an article that FAIR’s Seth Ackerman (Extra!, 1–2/04) characterized as being based on pieces of evidence “so painfully flimsy it’s hard to believe they found their way into an official memo or a national magazine article.”
Hayes went on to publish a book on the claim—called The Connection: How Al Qaeda’s Collaboration With Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America. The Times‘ review of Hayes’ book (9/19/04), by Foreign Affairs‘ Gideon Rose, said that
Hayes cannot bear to let his pet theory fall by the wayside, whether it is borne out by the facts or not…. He tries to make the facts fit his theory, rather than his theory fit the facts.
So it’s odd to see a profile of Hayes in the Times bearing the headline, “The Weekly Standard’s Arsenal to Fight Falsehoods: ‘Facts, Logic and Reason.’”
The Weekly Standard, lest we forget—as Rutenberg clearly has—was second to no publication in using shoddy journalism to sell a war that would leave countless hundreds of thousands dead. As Michael Corcoran wrote in Extra! (9/09):
Following the [9/11] attacks, the Standard advanced what became virtually all the noteworthy tactics of the Bush administration’s “war on terror”: focusing the response to 9/11 on Iraq using flawed and flimsy evidence (11/24/03), widening U.S. foreign policy interventions far and wide (11/01/04), dismissing all calls for even partial withdrawals of US troops (5/10/07), shunning the recommendations of the realist-dominated Iraq Study Group (12/11/06) and escalating troop levels in what became known as “the surge” (1/21/08).
The rhetoric in the Standard’s editorials and articles was often indistinguishable from that of the administration, as it downplayed war crimes committed by US troops (6/12/06) and labeled antiwar activists and legislators as anti-American (8/14/06).
Although US intelligence had found little evidence that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks (McClatchy, 9/22/01), the first Standard released after 9/11 (9/24/01) tellingly featured a cartoon of Saddam Hussein and immediately began making the case for targeting his government: “While it is probably not necessary to go to war with Afghanistan, a broad approach will be required,” wrote Gary Schmitt and Tom Donnelly. Despite acknowledging that Hussein “might not” have been involved in the 9/11 attacks, “the larger campaign also must go after Saddam Hussein,” said the authors. Weeks later, Max Boot (10/15/01) asked, “Who cares if Saddam was involved?” as he pushed for regime change.
One can understand why Rutenberg, unnerved by the likes of Breitbart and InfoWars, would be looking for signs of hope on the right. But expecting a journalist and a magazine that led the most disastrous journalistic scam of the 21st century to restore honesty to conservative media is not hopeful—it’s delusional.