Figuring out what's wrong with Harper's magazine.

Media criticism.
Sept. 15 2004 7:06 PM

Lewis Lapham Phones It In

Figuring out what's wrong with Harper's magazine.

(Continued from Page 1)

The paranoid-reductionist formula goes like this: People connected by money, greed, and ideology are building institutions to foist their self-centered agendas—and corrupt ideas—on the easily hoodwinked masses. These people are so unscrupulous and cunning that they're willing to present the most outrageous untruths as fact. The Republican message machine, Stein tells Lapham (and the New York Times Magazinein the same words), is "perhaps the most potent, independent institutionalized apparatus ever assembled in a democracy to promote one belief system."

Stein and Lapham widen the scope of their argument from foundations to complain about non-foundation conservative media (the alleged "$300 Million Conservative Message Machine"). But the list contains more right-wing fleas—itching, biting pests—than liberal-devouring polar bears. Among the fleas listed are MSNBC's Scarborough Country, Cal Thomas commentaries, Radio America, the Washington Times, Townhall.com, and AnnCoulter.com. The only polar bears in the "Message Machine" list are the Wall Street Journal (presumably Stein and Lapham mean the editorial page), Eagle (nee Regnery) Publishing, Rush Limbaugh, and the Fox News Channel. Potent, loud voices, but hardly dominating the policy debate.

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Poor, Poor, Pitiful Liberals

Stein and Lapham would have you believe that conservative foundations both outweigh liberal foundations and suppress the liberal message with their big spending. But that's not the case. Stein estimates assets of $2 billion for the eight major conservative family foundations in 2001, which sounds gargantuan. But that's chump change compared to the holdings of liberal foundations. Writing in the American Prospectin 1998, Karen Paget notes that none of these conservative foundations rank in the top 10 American foundations measured by assets, and most don't even break into the top 50.

What sort of media do liberal foundations fund? The liberal John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which reported assets of $4.2 billion in 2003, made grants of $7.5 million to various liberal media projects, including Public Radio International ($2.5 million), WNET documentary films ($800,000), WGBH documentary film ($400,000), and other TV, documentary, and radio initiatives, according to the foundation's annual report.

The Schumann Center for Media and Democracy (assets of $60 million in 2002) gave money to liberal media organizations in 2003 at rates that would make a Scaife faint. The group's federal Form 990 records it giving $4.3 million away to TomPaine.com/the Florence Fund ($2 million), Sojourners magazine ($500,000), an investigative fund for Salon.com ($277,785), the Nation Institute ($115,000), and various radio, film, and magazine projects (the Washington Monthly and the American Prospect got piddly amounts). It also paid Bill Moyers, host of PBS's Now, $200,000 to serve as its president.

Paget argues persuasively that conservative foundations are more effective than liberal foundations because they're better at giving money away, not because they give more of it away. Conservatives tend to 1) give general support, letting the grantee decide how to spend the money; and 2) they tend to renew those gifts year after year, letting the grantee take root as an institution and freeing it from running in circles on the fund-raising wheel. Conservative magazines such as Commentary, the American Spectator, the National Interest, the Public Interest, the New Criterion, and Policy Review have flourished because of steady funding by benefactors.

Liberal foundations, on the other hand, tend to limit their donations to specific projects and don't make multiple deposits over the years. In other words, a liberal propaganda mill exists; it just operates under different philanthropic principles than the conservative one.

Archaic and Bizarre?

If Lapham finds right-wing ideas so uniformly bankrupt, "both archaic and bizarre," as he writes, why did he spend so much intellectual energy advancing them during his first tenure (1975-1981) as editor of Harper's? Lapham's piece anticipates those charges by noting that back then, "the magazine" (not the editor?) published articles by "authors later to become well-known apologists for the conservative creed, among them George Gilder, Michael Novak, William Tucker, and Philip Terzian. …" This is a deceptively short list considering the number of cons, neocons, free-thinkers, gold-bugs, and libertarians who contributed to the magazine. Lapham conspicuously neglects to name his onetime Washington Editor Tom Bethell, a supply-side touter and big-government critic who contributed at least a dozen stories about the budget, congressional pensions, welfare, the arts and politics, energy, the press, and other topics. Other Harper's writers who pitched right for Lapham the first include Ken Adelman, Paul Craig Roberts, Mark Lilla, Peter Brimelow, Lewis E. Lehrman (on bringing back the gold standard!), Michael Ledeen, Jude Wanniski, Norman Podhoretz (on appeasement!), Ben Wattenberg, and James Q. Wilson.

Harper's popularized so many right-wing economic and environmental ideas that Rob Stein might want to add another slide to his PowerPoint presentation naming Lapham an emeritus member of the conservative message machine.

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