Spectator's Sport  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   May 1995

Spectator's Sport   

The American Spectator has flayed Bill Clinton and his family, friends and associates relentlessly. It's paid off: Circulation is way up. But serious doubts remain about the magazine's credibility.

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     


You might say R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., editor in chief of The American Spectator, owes President Clinton, big time. Whitewater, Troopergate, Travelgate, Vincent Foster's death and Hillary Rodham Clinton's commodities trades have provided Tyrrell's writers with storehouses full of ammunition. And they have fired at will.

As Republican challengers gear up for the New Hampshire primary, the staunchly right wing Tyrrell confesses, "I'm thinking about starting a Committee to Re-elect the President."

The star among the Spectator's sharpshooters is David Brock, a 32-year-old writer who burst onto the scene with his 16,000-word essay in March 1992, "The Real Anita Hill," which later became a book. Brock stirred things up again, Spectator style, in December 1993 with his Troopergate story, an 11,000-word treatise on Clinton's alleged use of Arkansas state troopers to procure women for him when he was governor.

Brock has attracted even more attention, if not notoriety, of late for the political and cultural monthly magazine than Bob Tyrrell, 51, who founded the publication as a history graduate student at Indiana University over 27 years ago.

But perhaps the key catalyst to the magazine's emergence onto the national scene is someone who has never written a word for it: Rush Limbaugh. Not only does Limbaugh unabashedly flog the magazine and its articles gratis, the Spectator also has paid to advertise on Limbaugh's radio and TV shows, reaching an audience of 20 million.

It's all combined to make The American Spectator one of the fastest-growing opinion magazines in the country. It brags its circulation is 330,000. The Audit Bureau of Circulation, which keeps the official score, reports it at 279,106 as of last December 31. Nonetheless, it's a remarkable uptick for a publication that sold 30,000 copies per issue in 1990.

"When we passed 100,000," says Publisher Ron Burr, "we were as surprised as anybody."

But while far more people are devouring the Spectator's assaults on the Clintons and other liberal villains, the magazine's reputation in the journalistic community has hardly soared. It is often accused of hype and hysteria, of acting more like the Natýonal Enquirer than The National Review. It's guilty, say many, of writing sleazy, self-serving, out-of-control screeds that attack the obvious suspects and lack corroboration. "They play by different rules," says New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, a Spectator target.

The American Spectator wasn't always widely criticized. But then it used to fit more quietly into the niche of opinion journalism. Before the watershed year of 1992, when its fortunes dramatically changed, it was just another conservative publication writing about government and literature with a heavy-handed spin.

It still does. But in 1992 the Spectator began focusing more on hard-edged reporting. It also glitzed itself up, switching from a four-column tabloid newspaper format to a newsstand-size magazine.

"We evolved from a magazine of opinions to a magazine of opinion, commentary and reporting, emphasizing the reporting," says Burr, a friend of Tyrrell's since their days at Indiana. "I think the investigative reporting is the primary reason why circulation increased. We've been focusing our attention on articles no one else would publish."

It's a murky world the Spectator has entered, one where the articles have an attitude yet try to convey information convincingly to the uncommitted and unconverted. The question is whether a magazine with a clear ideology can do credible reporting and not appear biased.

"Opinion journalism is such a gray hybrid of things," says Andrew Ferguson, a Washingtonian magazine senior writer and former Spectator assistant managing editor. "You're writing what is essentially a piece with a strong point of view. The way the reporting is conducted is under the constraint of that point of view. A lot of people don't even consider it real journalism. Newspaper people don't. I happen to think it's a perfectly valid approach."

So does the boss. "The American press are extremely provincial," Tyrrell says. "When they hear you say you have a point of view, they hear you say that you are incapable of having any objectivity. You can be objective and have political, religious or philosophical views. In fact, if you don't, you're a dope. A born dope."

What does President Clinton think of the publication that has pounded his administration so relentlessly? "I can tell you the president has read it in the past..," says White House spokesperson Dawn Alexander. "But the president doesn't review magazines or talk about them." White House Counselor George Stephanopoulos, subject of a Spectator cover story last October, has called the magazine "pulp fiction."

It all began in the fall of 1967, when Tyrrell started a student publication in his off-campus farmhouse, calling it The Alternative. He's been at it full time ever since.

His goal was to provide a counterbalance to the leftist views that were being so loudly proclaimed at the time.

Tyrrell, a competitive college swimmer who claims he has never smoked marijuana or had long hair, wanted a cerebral magazine with humor that catered to young Nixonites. In 1971, the magazine went national. Eight years later, Time magazine named Tyrrell one of the nation's 50 future leaders.

In 1977 Tyrrell changed the magazine's name, fearing it sounded too much like a hippie sheet. He settled on the name of the 1930s literary magazine put out by George J. Nathan, The American Spectator.

"It turned out to be a great name," says Tyrrell, who in 1986 moved the magazine to Arlington, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. "I'm much more of a spectator here at this three-ring circus we call Washington."

Today the magazine has a staff of 22 and pays freelance writers from $400 (for a book review) to $5,000 (for a major piece). That's about twice what it paid before its circulation took off, according to contributor Joe Queenan. Its readership is mostly male and college educated, with a median age of 44, Burr says.

The magazine's mission is to be lively, intellectual, irreverent and stylish, say its editors. "They're sprightly," acknowledges Victor Navasky, publisher of The Nation, a left-leaning magazine. "They have a jauntiness."

"Somebody once said, 'Life is too serious to be taken seriously,' " says Managing Editor Wladyslaw Pleszczynski, who signed on in 1980 and oversees the Spectator's day-to-day operations. "The magazine wants to exude that. We are reacting against the humorless, witlessness of modern liberal life."

During the Reagan years, Tyrrell became something of a Reagan acolyte. But the president, whom Tyrrell calls the most successful chief executive since Eisenhower, wasn't off limits for Spectator writers. Washington correspondent Tom Bethell started going after Reagan in 1982 and didn't let up, says Ferguson.

By 1991, the magazine needed a change. With conservatives fat and happy during the Reagan-Bush years, circulation was dropping – a common fate for political magazines, which tend to prosper when the opposition is in power.

When the Spectator launched a redesigned magazine in January 1992, circulation took off. So did the budget – $1.8 million in 1992, about $7 million today. While the nonprofit publication is still in the red, says Publisher Burr, "it's close to breaking even." He says about 17 percent of the budget comes from foundation grants and private contributions, 14 percent from advertising and the rest from subscriptions.

But the numbers didn't rise because Tyrrell changed the look; he also changed the mix, by investigating subjects he thought the mainstream press was ignoring. That, he believes, has been the key to circulation growth.

"It's something other journalists don't do," Tyrrell says. "This city is so filled with pious conformists just dying to be invited to the right dinner party."

Once Brock broke the barrier when he went after Anita Hill, the tone was set. The story titles alone give a flavor of where the magazine is going: "His Cheatin' Heart," subtitled "Bill's Arkansas bodyguards tell the story the press missed"; "The Lady Macbeth of Little Rock," a.k.a. "Boy Clinton's Big Mama."

"By the time Clinton came in," says Ferguson, "that investigative aspect of the magazine was already pretty well established. And here was this huge, fat target, and I'm not saying anything about the president's weight. But here was this huge administration full of people, many of whom had unsavory pasts. So the magazine just went to town."

To many conservatives, Tyrrell is a hero. The American Spectator enjoys a reputation as an aggressive publication stirring up much-deserved trouble. While the staid National Review sticks to political ruminations, the impudent Spectator strives to unearth misdeeds and malfeasance in the Clinton administration.

"People don't talk about The National Review," says Joe Queenan, whose work appears in the Spectator as well as in the Washington Post's Outlook section. "They do talk about The American Spectator."

But among members of the mainstream media, much of the talk about the Spectator is negative. "Most people I know who are journalists don't take The American Spectator at all seriously," says Frank Rich, a New York Times columnist whose distaste for Brock is well-documented in three vitriolic columns.

Rich is not alone. Jack Nelson, the Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau chief, dismisses the Spectator as "a right wing, ideological magazine that has extreme reporting that at times has a tremendous impact."

Like several other Washington journalists interviewed for this story, Nelson says he rarely reads the Spectator except when it publishes a high-profile story. "They run things that frequently have little foundation and don't measure up to the traditional standards of reporting," he says. (In its December 1994 issue, the Spectator said Nelson "doubles as a Democratic Party adjunct.")

Ellen Hume, a former Wall Street Journal reporter now with the Annenberg Washington Program, sees the Spectator as a tip sheet for political journalists: "Some of them have panned out. A lot of them are just ideological screed."

Tyrrell is unfazed by the criticism. Mainstream journalists and many politicians, he says, are a bunch of "ignoramuses."

Dan Thomasson, Scripps Howard's Washington bureau chief, says he has read pieces in the Spectator that are "right on." "I would not rule the Spectator out just because they're coming from a point of view," says Thomasson. "They have a shaky reputation because we in the media are more liberal and more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to The New Republic than The American Spectator."

The Spectator's new incarnation resonated with an American cultural landscape fixated on bizarre behavior in general and on the private lives of public figures in particular.

"The American Spectator has done something which has tapped into part of the zeitgeist, which journals of opinion rarely do," says Navasky of The Nation. "They've tapped into the newly sensationalized, Murdochized, tabloidized focus on sexuality and breaching the privacy of public figures."

That may be true. But while star writer Brock is openly gay, the magazine doesn't write about homosexuality in a positive way. Bruce Bawer, author of the book "A Place at the Table," had been the Spectator's movie critic for four years when he said he was told not to mention AIDS or homosexuality.

"I knew, of course, what [my editor] meant: They couldn't have any mention of AIDS or of homosexuals that wasn't homophobic," Bawer, who is gay, wrote in explaining why he left the magazine.

Pleszczynski says he never gave Bawer those instructions and denies that the Spectator is homophobic. "What has been in the magazine has been a lot of tweaking of the vocal gay activists like ACT UP. The magazine has a fairly long libertarian streak that suggests what people do privately is their business."

What is "tweaking" to some can be misconstrued. Tyrrell once wrote a column suggesting gay people be given "an attractive appellation that pleases them and represents them as they are." His choice: squash. "Youthful, nicely muscled homosexuals often have heads like the well-known butternut squash," Tyrrell wrote. "Homosexuals less favored by nature frequently have heads reminiscent of the squat acorn squash."

But making fun of homosexuals pales next to the vehemence with which the magazine went after Anita Hill in 1992, with its now famous description of the law professor as a woman who "may be a bit nutty, and a bit slutty." Then came the Troopergate story, with its sordid details and gratuitous mention of Hillary Clinton ordering troopers to fetch feminine napkins for her. Another "scoop" touted by Spectator editors was a story by Lisa Schiffren, a one-time speechwriter for Dan Quayle, about Hillary Clinton itemizing used underwear she had donated, among other things, to get a tax break.

While the Spectator certainly has attracted attention, many in Washington, in particular, read the magazine only after its latest bombshell is written about elsewhere.

"In a strange way it's not a must-read," says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies the press. "It becomes an item in the newspaper or gossip columns and then you read it."

But it does get written about, and negative attention is better than none.

"The worst thing to do is be ignored, I guess," says Brock. "The level of attack or negative attention often corresponds to how closely you hit your target in journalism."

Says William F. Powers, who writes about periodicals for the Washington Post, "The Spectator is a magazine with personality and that's one of the best things a magazine can have. But it often has this off-putting, mean edge to it that you don't even find in a magazine that strives to be a naysayer in the sense that The New Republic does. I'm not always in the mood to take this blast of hatred for Hillary and Bill and the whole crowd."

With that backdrop, it's probably not surprising that when the Spectator published Brock's treatise on Clinton's love life, it was the magazine – not the story – that got the attention.

"By the time Troopergate came out," says Brock, who was vociferously attacked over his Anita Hill book, "I was quite used to the way the media works. I knew it meant that I had drawn some blood."

Other journalists wrote stories about the story, their way of comfortably dealing with what many perceived as a tabloid-style saga that may have contained an important truth buried among the lurid details.

Were the troopers' tales reliable? Apparently the Los Angeles Times and CNN thought so. Both reported independently on their allegations (see Free Press, March 1994). But Brock, much to his surprise, crossed the finish line first. He expected to be following up the Times which is why, he says, he provided so much detail. It irks him that his story wasn't accepted as credible.

By making him the focus, he says, "it's an easy way to discredit or deny what's in the story. It's a way of diverting attention."

Robert Bartley, editor of the Wall Street Journal's editorial pages, wrote: "These allegations were first detailed by David Brock in The American Spectator, and there was an initial attempt to impugn his scoop with the label 'conservative,' as if that were a dread disease. But the Los Angeles Times quickly confirmed the essence of the Brock report by publishing its own extensive investigation."

William C. Rempel, a Times reporter who worked on Troopergate, says he wishes Brock had done more reporting, because he believes the Spectator story tended to discredit the Times.

"The fundamental difference between the two stories," says Rempel, "is ours used what the troopers said and then tried to validate it. We only wrote what we could corroborate. The American Spectator ran the troopers' best recollections and ran it unsupported.

"I knew as soon as I heard they [the Spectator] were involved that meant we would have trouble with the credibility of the story," he says. "It gave Clinton a chance to attack the story on the grounds that it was a cheap shot from the right wingers, who were natural enemies of Bill Clinton."

Over a year after Brock broke Troopergate, some say the much-pilloried Spectator finally was vindicated. David Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter, wrote a biography of Clinton, "First in His Class." The book reported, among many other things, that a Clinton aide had considered his extramarital affairs a serious obstacle to a presidential candidacy. The Post published a front page story focusing on this aspect of the book.

Here was the Post, one of the nation's premier newspapers, corroborating Brock's story, Tyrrell wrote in a column in the Wall Street Journal. But, he added, "the Washington Post's vindication of The American Spectator will, I fear, not redound to our credit. There is an infantile quality about the American journalist's mind: Our journalists do not revise their thoughts when confronted by earlier errors."

Asked if his work vindicates the Spectator, Maraniss replies, "My book says what it says. I didn't write it to corroborate anything in The American Spectator or to knock The American Spectator... I thought the Los Angeles Times story was good journalism. The Spectator is the Spectator.

"I find the reporting in it of varied quality, even within the story itself," he adds. "I haven't used it as a primary resource. But I read it and I'm not going to knock everything in it. It's clearly written from a politically biased perspective, which is different from most of the newspapers I read or trust."

Others thought Tyrrell had a point. Boston Globe ombudsman Mark Jurkowitz wrote that "the Post's decision to deliver its official version of Troopergate more than a year after the story first broke – and the rest of the media's ardent embrace of it – does smack of a journalistic arrogance that Tyrrell wailed so loudly about."

While the magazine is best known for its brutal treatment of the Clintons, of which Troopergate is perhaps the most prominent example, liberal Democrats are not its only targets.

Tyrrell has been known to criticize House Speaker Newt Gingrich in his column and writer David Frum has ripped into conservative commentator and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. And in November 1994 the Spectator turned its sights on right wing direct mail groups, accusing them of hurting the conservative cause while making big money in the process.

"You expect certain things from a magazine," says Ferguson. "When it runs counter to type, it carries more weight."

That the Spectator is aggressive is not in dispute. But is it credible? Questions have arisen about the accuracy of some of its reporting. Take, for example, a February story by William Tucker titled "Sweet Charity," which reported that nonprofit organizations are relying more on the federal government and less on private donations.

Tucker, the magazine's New York correspondent, wrote that Goodwill Industries had $488 million in federal cleaning contracts to employ the handicapped. He didn't check that figure with Goodwill, whose president, David M. Cooney, took him to task.

"The value of these contracts to Goodwill in 1993 was about $55 million..not $488 million as suggested," Cooney wrote in a letter to the editor.

In a published response Tucker wrote, "I am sorry to have overstated the value of Goodwill Industries' contracts with the government. But that begs the question of whether the government should be spending the money or performing the service in the first place."

Tucker also accused the national leadership of the Girl Scouts of America of absorbing all the money raised by cookie sales and giving none to local chapters.

"I also overstated the case in saying that all proceeds from Girl Scout cookie sales go to support the national leadership network," Tucker wrote in response to charges by B. LaRae Orullian, national president of the Girl Scouts. "Girl Scouts of the USA, the national headquarters, does not receive any money from cookie sales."

Brock's story last December about former President Jimmy Carter, which called his international peace efforts "treasonous," also was criticized for containing inaccuracies.

"My problem with Brock is not that I'm a Clinton Democrat or a Carter apologist," says Douglas Brinkley, a diplomatic historian at the University of New Orleans who's writing an unauthorized biography of Carter. "I have an article coming out in Foreign Affairs that is very tough on Carter. But Brock's piece was just falsehood after falsehood of just pure erroneous fact that just makes him nothing more than a tabloid artist." Brinkley identified 40 errors in the piece.

In a cover story in August 1991 on then-Secretary of State James A. Baker, Brock wrote that when Baker was on the road, his security detail would put a fresh rose on the pillow of his spokeswoman at the time, Margaret Tutwiler.

"Nobody checked with me about that," says Tutwiler, now a public relations consultant. "It was complete, total garbage. It was just laughable."

Many magazines employ fact-checkers to prevent mistakes, but the Spectator can't afford to do so, according to Managing Editor Pleszczynski.

Brock's friend and former editor Ferguson says mistakes are in the eye of the beholder. "I edited Brock in about a half dozen pieces before I left," says Ferguson. "I never found him to be sloppy or inaccurate."

Brock says he stands by his reporting. He believes he's a target of criticism solely because he's writing tough pieces that liberal journalists dismiss. "The targets that we choose are targets exempt by the liberal press," says Brock. "There are lots of reporters who are liberal and left who are accepted as reputable. Why we can't be accepted as journalists, I don't know."

Says Brock critic Frank Rich, "My main objection is that he is somebody who doesn't use what's considered normal, objective journalistic techniques. He creates big stories in the same way the National Enquirer does. But they have an effect on the political life of this country."

They certainly do. It was Brock who first mentioned a woman named "Paula" who, according to Arkansas state trooper Danny Ferguson, was willing to become Clinton's girlfriend. Paula Jones responded by suing the president for sexual harassment. Had it not been for Brock's article, there probably would be no suit.

In January, Brock wrote a scathing 20,000-word opus tearing apart a book on Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings by Wall Street Journal reporters Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer. (Mayer has since joined The New Yorker.) After interviewing hundreds of people, Abramson and Mayer concluded in "Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas" that the preponderance of evidence suggested that Anita Hill was telling the truth. Brock called the book "one of the most outrageous journalistic hoaxes in recent memory."

Brock attempted to discredit "Strange Justice" by raising questions about a number of small items that, when lumped together, he believes undermined the book. One telling dispute concerns Playboy pinups.

Mayer and Abramson wrote that Kaye Savage, a civil servant who worked with Thomas in the Reagan administration, told them that Thomas' apartment walls "were papered with centerfolds of large-breasted nude women." When Savage appeared on ABC's now-defunct "Turning Point," she mentioned how odd it was for "people in their mid-thirties" to "have nude centerfolds in their kitchen and on their walls." At one point Savage spoke of a particular pinup in the kitchen.

Brock picked up on that reference and tried to prove that Thomas' apartment was not "papered" with pinups, but just had one or two. He used this example in his attempt to show that Abramson and Mayer had it wrong.

Brock even called Savage, meeting her for lunch to discuss how many pinups she saw. She told him, says Brock, that she saw two – one in the kitchen and one in the bathroom.

How Brock got that information is in dispute and has been the subject of criticism. According to Jamin Raskin, a lawyer Savage called for advice, Brock threatened to reveal personal information that would embarrass her unless she changed her story.

Brock says that's ridiculous. Within a minute after they began talking, Brock says, Savage told him she had been misquoted in the book.

Savage declined to comment. According to Raskin, "She told me Brock was trying to force her to retract her statement and disown what was in the book. But she'd told the truth and felt besieged and felt threatened that he was going to release personal information about her."

What difference does it make whether there were one, two or many pinups? "The difference between the two versions, of course, is immense," Brock wrote. "It is the difference between the bachelor apartment of any young heterosexual man and the apartment of a sex-obsessed weirdo."

Mayer and Abramson decline to discuss Brock's attack or the matters in dispute. In a letter to the Spectator in March, the pair wrote, "Your review is built on the errors that have become your hallmark. You write that we never interviewed sources with whom we've talked repeatedly and you have us meeting people we've never laid eyes on."

They also noted that Abramson is not an attorney, as Brock wrote. When that mistake was pointed out, the magazine responded, "Ms. Abramson, incidentally, if not a practicing attorney, is a graduate of Harvard Law School." AJR called Harvard Law School. While Abramson was an undergraduate at Harvard, she never attended Harvard Law School, according to spokesperson Fern Coleman.

Can an ideological review do credible reporting? The answer, as far as The American Spectator is concerned, is it doesn't matter. The magazine's readership is up. Money's not a problem. Clinton's still in office. Journalists such as Brit Hume, Robert Novak, Terry Eastland and Fred Barnes write for it. So do Jeane Kirkpatrick, P.J. O'Rourke, Irving Kristol and Mordecai Richler. Tom Wolfe is on the editorial board.

Tyrrell isn't worried. After all, the Spectator is his baby; he can do whatever he likes, just as he's done all along. Let his critics complain. He'll go on writing books, playing handball several afternoons a week and running his magazine by phone from home.

"I'm editor in chief for life," says Tyrrell, "just like an African despot." l

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