Monday, April 02, 2007

Right Wing Media : A great little racket

The Iraq Study Group (ISG), co-chaired by inside-the-
Beltway heavyweights James Baker and former Rep. Lee
Hamilton (D-IN), seemed to represent the “adult supervi-
sion” so desperately lacking in the blind idealism—or, as
others see it, fervid ideology—behind the Bush adminis-
tration’s misadventures in the Middle East. While
President George W. Bush reportedly called the ISG
report a “flaming turd,” some observers have held on to
the hope that at the very least one cornerstone of the
current political scene, the neoconservatives, at long last
are being pushed out the door, and along with them their
radical ideas about reshaping the Middle East. “Like Mr.
Bush, [the neoconservatives] look to the long span of his-
tory for vindication. It will indeed be eons before anyone
trusts them again,” wrote Financial Timescolumnist
Jacob Weisberg in March 2007, after recounting his dis-
appointment at the lack of contrition or regret expressed
by neoconservatives for the bungled war in Iraq.
Although many of the core Bush neocons, including
Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, have been
pushed out of the administration, and recent weeks
have witnessed the emergence of a more conciliato-
ry posture toward America’s “enemies” that is the
antithesis of neoconservative policy proposals, neo-
conservatism remains a force to contend with. This
fact is highlighted by the influence of American
Enterprise Institute (AEI) ideologues in shaping the
“surge” plan announced by the president in early
January (see, for example, Jim Lobe and Michael
Flynn, “The Push Behind the Surge,” Right Web,
January 11, 2007).
So how do they do it?
One partial answer to this puzzle is the continued
strength of neoconservatism and its standard-bearers in
the nation’s media, a point made recently by Gideon
Rachman in the Financial Times. Wrote Rachman: “The
neocons stand accused of many errors: imperialism,
Leninism, Trotskyism (New York school), militarism.
Some believe that the real problem is that so many of
them are Jewish—this is an alarmingly popular theme, to
judge by my e-mails. But the problem with the neocons
is not that so many of them are Jews. The problem is
that so many of them are journalists.”
Calling neoconservative media pundits “journalists” is a
stretch—the fact is, most don’t report, they spin—but
Rachman’s point is a good one. From top to bottom,
from tabloid TV like FoxNews to powerhouse newspapers
like the New York Timesand Washington Post, neoconser-
vatives have extraordinary presence in the nation’s
media. And Washington always seems to be listening.
A case in point has been the fate of the ISG. Even before
the release of the ISG report the neoconservative media
outlets and pundits began a campaign of discrediting the
Baker-Hamilton group and describing its policy recom-
mendations as a blueprint for defeat in Iraq and the war
on terror.
In a late November Weekly Standardeditorial, one week
before the ISG report was to be released, former
Republican House Speaker and AEI fellow Newt Gingrich
warned that any proposal to ask Iran and Syria for assis-
tance in stabilizing Iraq was a sign of “defeat” and
Right Web Analysis
“A Great Little Racket”:
The Neocon Media Machine
By Eli Clifton | March 20, 2007
With the United States bogged down in an increasingly ugly war in Iraq, tensions rising between
Tehran and Washington, and public sentiment—which has turned en masse against deeper U.S. com-
mitment in the Middle East—often seeming a non-factor in White House decisionmaking, it is hard to
believe that in the past few months some pundits and politicos have been optimistically predicting a
dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy that could, like a deus ex machina, resolve the country’s overseas
Three days later, in a Washington Posteditorial, Iraq War
hawk Charles Krauthammer ridiculed the ISG’s sugges-
tion that engaging regional actors in the Middle East
might help to secure stability in Iraq. He opined:
“Perhaps in some long-term future they will want a stable
Iraq as a tame client state of the Syria-Iran axis. For now
they want chaos. What in God’s name will a negotiation
with them yield?”
Several days after the release of the ISG report, perhaps
even further emboldened by the Bush administration’s
declaration that it was not prepared to follow the ISG
advice to engage with Syria and Iran, Robert Kagan and
William Kristol wrote: “The Iraq Study Group, aided by
supportive American media, has successfully conveyed
the impression to everyone at home and abroad that the
United States is about to withdraw from Iraq.”
The ISG report was quickly sidelined and in its place the
nation was presented with a new plan for “victory,” one
apparently inspired in part by the AEI and vociferously
promoted by the entire neocon media infrastructure. The
president announced his surge plan on national televi-
sion, in front of an audience that, in large part, wanted
nothing to do with it. Part of the success of the surge
push no doubt lies with the president and his own ideas.
But there is little doubt that the neocon promotion
machine weighed heavily.
To understand the media network of the neoconserva-
tives, it is helpful to examine the origins of the move-
ment and how the packaging—and repackaging—of neo-
conservative ideas has evolved over the past several
Irving Kristol, widely regarded as a founder of neoconser-
vatism and a self-described “liberal who was mugged by
reality,” made his early mark largely in the areas of jour-
nalism and publishing in the 1950s and 1960s. But the
early intellectualism of his various journals like
Commentarygave short shrift to things like policy imple-
mentation. Rather, under Kristol’s stewardship, early neo-
conservatism tended to the philosophical, debate, and
thoughtful—if increasingly ideological—critiques of the
trajectory of the nation and its domestic and foreign poli-
Together with the likes of Norman Podhoretz, who took
over Commentaryafter Kristol departed, and a host of
like-minded “public intellectuals,” early neoconservatism
was more an intellectual conversation among a small
“band of brothers”—as George Weigel once put it—than
a Washington political faction. Kristol also founded the
culture journal Public Interestin 1965, and in 1985 the
foreign affairs journal National Interest. Both Interests
have had overlapping contributors; they were also both
bully pulpits for neoconservative heavyweights such as
Francis Fukuyama, Richard Pipes, and Krauthammer. The
origins of the neoconservatives’ stances on Social
Security, the “culture wars,” Generation X, crime and
punishment, and post-Cold War thought can be traced
back to articles published in these journals.
Irving Kristol played an important role in creating the
space for sharing ideas and ideology crucial to the evolu-
tion of the neoconservative vision. His publications were
widely read among academic and intellectual sympathiz-
ers of the movement; however, their distribution and
reach were not comparable to mainstream periodicals.
But even at this early stage in its development, there
were signs of what neoconservatism would evolve into
by the 1990s. Not long after Podhoretz took over the edi-
torship of Commentaryin 1960, the style of the magazine
turned sharply bellicose, in line with Podhoretz’s own
evolving left-to-right political trajectory. As Andrew
Bacevich writes in his 2005 book The New American
Militarism: “Podhoretz did much to create and refine the
fiercely combative neoconservative style. That style
emphasized not balance (viewed as evidence of timidity)
or the careful sifting of evidence (suggesting scholasti-
cism) but the ruthless demolition of any point of view
inconsistent with the neoconservative version of truth,
typically portrayed as self-evident and beyond dispute.”
However, it wasn’t until the 1995 founding of the Weekly
Standardby Irving Kristol’s son William that a definitive
shift in the media presence of neoconservatism truly
took hold, and the impact of the political group inside
Washington began to shift. Unlike Commentaryand other
early neoconservative journals, the Weekly Standard,
owned by the News Corporation, the media conglomer-
ate of Rupert Murdoch, was not targeted at intellectual
elites. Rather, it was targeted at conservative power bro-
kers. Under the editorship of William Kristol and Fred
Barnes, the Standardundertook an explicit mission to
affect immediate changes in policy and to serve as a
reflection of neoconservative policy campaigns on cur-
rent affairs. The pretense of intellectualism disappeared.
The influence of the Weekly Standardruns all the way to
the top of the U.S. government. Vice President Dick
Cheney’s office at one time reportedly received 30 issues
per week, apparently in order to remain on top of any
policy recommendations advocated by AEI (where
Cheney and his wife have both held positions) and the
Exposing the architecture of power that’s changing our worldp. 2
Project for the New American Century (PNAC), two neo-
conservative groups with close ties to the management
of the Weekly Standard.
The Weekly Standardhas served a pivotal role in what
could be considered the neoconservative “echo cham-
ber”—a collection of think tanks, media outlets, and
advocacy groups that strengthen and repeat neoconserv-
ative policies and ideology through constant media expo-
sure and reinforcement within organizations populated
by influential policymakers. Only with this system in
place have the neoconservatives, a group with no grass-
roots support base, been successful in influencing U.S.
foreign policy as well as public opinion.
A significant component of the neoconservative echo
chamber is its use of mainstream media outlets to dis-
seminate ideas. Neither the academic journals nor neo-
conservative periodicals have the readership and crucial
role in public opinion of the mainstream media. Both the
editorial pages of major newspapers and the Fox News
cable channel have played pivotal roles in selling neocon-
servative policies to a more mainstream, conservative,
and Republican audience. Max Boot at the Los Angeles
Times, David Brooks at the New York Times, Charles
Krauthammer and Robert Kagan at the Washington Post,
and numerous members of the Wall Street Journal editori-
al board, including Irving Kristol since 1972, have served
as liaisons between neoconservative writers and main-
stream America.
Fox News, launched in 1996 by Rupert Murdoch’s News
Corporation, has served as one of the media outlets of
choice for Bush administration rhetoric as well as high-
profile neoconservatives. For personalities such as Bill
Kristol, Fox News has served as a springboard from
which to launch himself into mainstream media circles.
The outrage and patriotic rhetoric and images employed
by Fox News cast neoconservative ideas and policy in
consumable and marketable packaging. Never before had
the neoconservatives gained such a mainstream audi-
ence. The views of the Bush administration, as well as
PNAC and various other neoconservative groups, were
regularly publicized through Fox News and regional news-
paper editorial pages during the lead up to the war in
Iraq. The sprinkling of neoconservative writers and pun-
dits throughout the U.S. mainstream media served an
invaluable role in pushing for neoconservative-crafted
Mideast policy.
The impact and influence of the neoconservative echo
chamber was felt when accusations of an Iraqi weapons
of mass destruction program and charges that Saddam
Hussein’s regime was harboring al-Qaida members flood-
ed the mainstream media during the buildup to the inva-
sion of Iraq. Despite the factual inaccuracy of nearly all
the Bush administration’s justifications for invading Iraq,
the media and policy lobbying wings of the neoconserva-
tive camp successfully disseminated their message and
promoted their vision of a democratized, U.S.-friendly
To argue that neoconservative influence is truly on the
wane, as Fukuyama and others have claimed, is to ignore
the continued impact of this echo chamber. Unlike the
early years of the movement, today’s neoconservatives
enjoy a serious—and powerful—presence within the
mainstream media. Though this level does not generate
the political faction’s ideas and policies, it does generate
influence. Access to the gates of mainstream media has
enabled the movement to actually implement and mar-
ket its objectives to America.
The attainment of this power owes a great deal to the
early neocons who saw value in becoming “gatekeepers”
of information and ideas. Starting with Irving Kristol’s
early days at Commentary, the movement gained a voice,
but one largely aimed at intellectual and academic elites.
In fact, the evolution of the neocon movement parallels
the growth of its founders as publishers and media fig-
ures. Later, when Bill Kristol founded the Weekly
Standard, the neoconservatives could present specific pol-
icy objectives to Washington elites.
Not by any accident, the neoconservatives’ time of great-
est influence on U.S. foreign policy coincided with the
explosive growth of mass media outlets from which they
could promote their policies. The omnipresent fluttering
American flag on Fox News exemplifies the new über-
patriotic packaging through which the invasion of
Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, and the escalation of
tensions with Iran are marketed packages.
When asked why the Weekly Standardand Fox News
have increased in popularity over the past few years,
Matt Labash, a senior writer at the Weekly Standard
responded that it was “because they feed the rage. We
bring the pain to the liberal media. I say that mockingly,
but it’s true somewhat. We come with a strong point of
view and people like point of view journalism. While all
these hand-wringing Freedom Forum types talk about
objectivity, the conservative media likes to rap the liberal
media on the knuckles for not being objective. We’ve cre-
ated this cottage industry in which it pays to be un-objec-
tive. It pays to be subjective as much as possible. It’s a
great way to have your cake and eat it too. Criticize other
Exposing the architecture of power that’s changing our worldp. 3
people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you
want. It’s a great little racket. I’m glad we found it actual-
If Irving Kristol intended to start a revolution with his
writing on the culture wars and U.S. Cold-War foreign
policy, he certainly laid the groundwork in academic jour-
nals and periodicals. What may never have entered his
imagination at the time was the degree of success the
second generation of neoconservatives would experience
in marketing neoconservative ideas to a mainstream
audience. The original network of journals and think
tanks has been amplified by a powerful, streamlined
media machine. The neoconservative revolution has,
quite literally, been televised.
Eli Clifton is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a
contributor to Right Web (
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Jacob Weisberg, “Are Neo-cons History?” Financial
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Francis Fukuyama, “After Neoconservatism,” New York
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Newt Gingrich, “Searching for Victory in Iraq: Why the
Baker-Hamilton Commission Ought to Visit Mount
Vernon,” Daily Standard, November 28, 2006,,pubID.25195/pub
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The Iraq Study Group has reached a consensus,”
Weekly Standard, December 11, 2006,
William Kristol, “The Democrats ‘Slow-Bleed’ Strategy: A
Disgraceful Moment in Congress,” Weekly Standard,
February 26, 2007,
Matthias Küntzel, “Iran’s Obsession with the Jews:
Denying the Holocaust, Desiring another One,” Weekly
Standard, February 19, 2007, http://www.weeklystan-
“Interview with Matt Labash,”, May
Published by the Right Web of the International Relations Center (IRC, online at ©Creative Commons - some rights
The Right Web
“Exposing the architecture of power that’s changing our world”
Recommended citation:
Eli Clifton, "'A Great Little Racket': The Neocon Media Machine," Right Web Analysis (Silver City, NM: International Relations Center, March 20, 2007).
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