David Brock is a former arsonist now hawking fire extinguishers, and his makeover humbles any on display in the pages of Cosmopolitan or Glamour. This may explain the unease among both his prior co-conspirators on the political right and new allies on the left as he surfaces as a pop culture Margaret Mead, here dissecting the purported hijacking of the American media by strange tribes of conservatives.
Brock was a self-acknowledged journalistic butcher who plied his falsehood-filled trade at the Heritage Foundation, The Washington Times and The American Spectator, gaining notoriety. for slimming Bill Clinton in the fabled "troopergate" opus for the Spectator and in a book trashing Anita Hill, the critic of Clarence Thomas's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. His awful oeuvre was so vast that most don't even recall one of the most hideous magazine pieces of our time--an overwrought, misogynistic 1999 Esquire profile of former California congressman Michael Huffington's decision to come out of the closet. This world-exclusive by Brock, who is also gay, was crafted with the agreement that the demonette of Huffington's tale, ex-wife Arianna, would not even be allowed to respond to allegations of skullduggery and gold-digging manipulation. Esquire's "The Strange Odyssey of Michael Huffington" served as a melancholy reminder that journalism has no minimum standards for entry.
Well, Brock says he subsequently saw the light (largely due to belatedly perceiving injustices done to Bill Clinton), switched political sides, and learned the benefits of rigor in reporting. His crossing this ideological bridge is not unlike treks by more notable figures in the annals of media, notably Walter Winchell (who supported, then excoriated President Franklin Roosevelt), Westbrook Pegler (who went way, way right) and William Randolph Hearst (a liberal Democrat transformed into another Roosevelt hater). Brock's book on Hillary Clinton is said to have inspired his transition, which in turn generated a book-length confession of his past misdeeds and a frantic assertion of how deeply he craved redemption.
The Republican Noise Machine is a lengthy, and not uninteresting, look at the impressive rebound of right-leaning thought in American (mostly Washington-based) media, personified by the current ascendancy of the FOX News Channel, riding its wonderfully effective and disingenuous slogan, "fair and balanced?' His case for a right-wing conspiracy, would make Hillary Clinton smile. Funded by deep-pocketed conservatives and intellectually inspired by various partisan think tanks, it encompasses right-wing talk radio hosts (Rush Limbaugh and Rush wannabes) along with aggressive book publishers, Internet impresario Matt Drudge, and of course, their beloved FOX. Frustrated by what they all deem traditional "liberal" domination of media and culture, they are said to constitute a propaganda machine to rival anything ever created in the old Soviet bloc.
Brock reminds the reader of a multitude of significant curiosities: How former Capitol Hill staffer Paul Weyrich, "an organizational genius," played a crucial role in the 1970s by beginning to redefine media on conservatives' terms; the domination of newspaper op-ed pages by conservatives; the dramatic reshaping and "awesome market power" of talk radio, and the coming of Limbaugh, once the courts had struck down the FCC's Fairness Doctrine; the head-turning smears of Bill Clinton, including The Wall Street Journal's editorial page; the red-baiting and error-filled legacy of Robert Novak, now an improbable eminence grise of cable punditry; the occasionally paper-thin credentials of authors of numerous conservative think-tank reports gobbled up by the media; the rise of loony commentators such as Ann Coulter, Alan Keyes, and Michael Savage; the very way in which the CNN "Crossfire" mode of debate has favored those on the right with little penchant for nuance; and the increasing gulf between right- and left-leaning media definitions of basic fairness.
Along the way, Brock seems to touch upon virtually every figure, big and small, in the modern conservative movement--Irving Kristol and son William, Pat Buchanan, Richard Viguerie, George Will, Cal Thomas, Robert Bork, Rupert Murdoch, Bill O'Reilly, Ronald Reagan, Reed Irvine, Roger Ailes, Newt Gingrich, Barry Goldwater, Grover Norquist, Phyllis Schlafly, William F. Buckley, William Safire, Amway Corp. founder Richard DeVos, publisher Richard Mellon Scaife, and beer mogul Joseph Coors, among many others. He establishes connections among the think tanks, their patrons, and the skewed studies which the think tanks feed to an all-too-obliging and lazy press. He reminds one of the woeful histories of wrongheaded declarations by Limbaugh and Drudge, but also why they tend to be more potent proselytizers than their ideological opponents.
Central to the right's success has been money, and Brock is good at collating various disclosures over the years about lucrative and conservative politics. In a Washington world in which the Brookings Institution was long dominant, the rise of the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, and CATO Institute, among others, was significant, and none could have happened without the funding of ideologically-driven Scaife, Olin, Bradley, and Coors foundations and families. To a far greater extent than their "liberal counterparts," notably Ford, Rockefeller, and Pew, these groups coordinated efforts and had Scant desire to support open-minded, empirical research as they threw hundreds of millions of dollars the way of like-minded groups and individuals, including former Judge Robert Bork, William Kristol (a close childhood chum and a friend of mine), Richard Perle, and Dinesh D'Souza, who has received an estimated $1.5 million in conservative grants to boost his speaking and writing careers on subjects such as affirmative action.
As an undergraduate, D'Souza was associated with the right-wing, at times racist and homophobic Dartmouth Review, one of many campus papers funded by a group called the Institute for Education Affairs. That organization, the handiwork of the Olin Foundation and Irving Kristol, led a successful effort to cultivate conservative journalists and pundits nationwide. As Brock outlines it, this outreach to young conservatives also benefited existing journalists on the right, such as columnist Robert Novak. Novak, as Brock shows, made a mint off his connections, not just by operating a paid newsletter but also by holding twice-yearly conferences for subscribers at which they could hobnob with the same conservative officials whom he used as sources. Today, Novak, a sterling beneficiary of First Amendment protections, closes his gathering to the media--a gambit that would simply not be allowed if he were a flail-time employee of any respectable newspaper (he slips through the cracks of ethics rules as a syndicated columnist with a loose affiliation with the Chicago SunTimes, as well as a regular contributor to CNN, which clearly does not care about his ethically-challenged buckraking).
As important, if not depressing, is the generally correct assertion that the right plays by a different set of journalistic standards. Brock is most informative when reminding one of the unceasing string of unabashed atrocities published and broadcast by conservative magazines
and television pundits. Whether it was a bogus Heritage paper on Bill Clinton proposing "the largest tax increase in world history" or one on African-American males being shafted by Social Security due to their lower life expectancies, such claims found a ready conduit in the likes of MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, FOX's Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh. A CATO Institute study discrediting the Head Start program, claiming that "heredity so strongly determines behavior that early intervention is a waste of time," was the handiwork of a man with no credentials in the field.