The ‘Weekly Standard’ and the Eclipse of the Center-Right

Photo by Colin Young-Wolff/Invision/AP

The Weekly Standard's founder and editor-at-large Bill Kristol speaks in Pasadena, California. 

The news that the owner of the Weekly Standard may shut it down highlights how conservative political journalism and media continue to change as a result of one of the most important recent developments in American politics—the collapse of the center-right.

A decade ago, as I recalled in an op-ed in The New York Times in October, prominent commentators confidently asserted that the United States is a “center-right country,” a claim that had some plausibility when George W. Bush was president. But since then, first under Barack Obama and now even more under Donald Trump, the center-right has lost influence nationally and even within the Republican Party, leaving many people with those views politically homeless. 

Indeed, as Republicans have moved right, what counts as “center-right” has moved further right too, from the Rockefeller Republicans of a half century ago to the Bush Republicans and now even to many traditional conservatives and neoconservatives who have refused to go along with Trump.

The Weekly Standard has been the foremost intellectual voice of #NeverTrump conservatives, and that appears to be precisely the reason for its troubles today. Founded in 1995 by the neoconservatives Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes and financed originally by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp., the Weekly Standard enjoyed its peak influence during the Bush years. 

In 2009, however, two years after buying The Wall Street Journal, Murdoch decided that he no longer needed the Standard and sold it to another right-wing billionaire, Phil Anschutz, who purchased it through one of his firms, the Clarity Media Group, the parent company of the Washington Examiner. But now, like Murdoch before him, Anschutz seems to have decided that the Standard has outlived its political usefulness. In an apparently related development, the Washington Examiner, which has been more supportive of Trump, has announced it is expanding into a national magazine.

The Standard’s problems are not just a matter of being out of sync with the president and therefore with conservative readers. Its difficulties reflect a more general development in conservative media that began before Trump’s election and has intensified since then. 

The new book Network Propaganda, by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts, helps clarify the shift on the right through two different “maps” of American media and political communication over the period from 2015 to 2018. One map describes the hyperlinking patterns in online media (who links to whom), while the other describes the content sharing practices (liking, sharing, retweeting) of Facebook and Twitter users. The analysis is based on nearly “four million political stories from over 40,000 online news sources.”

One of the findings that emerges from this analysis is that center-right media are a negligible force online:

We find that the influence in the right-wing media ecosystem, whether judged by hyperlinks, Twitter sharing, or Facebook sharing, is both highly skewed to the far right and highly insulated from other segments of the network, from center-right (which is nearly nonexistent) through the far left.

Sites like Fox News and Breitbart, according to Benkler, Faris, and Roberts, not only are the big hubs of right-wing communication; they are also far more prone to rumors and conspiracy theories. The rest of the media—stretching from that “nearly nonexistent” center-right to the left—“operates as an interconnected network anchored by organizations, both for profit and nonprofit, that adhere to professional journalistic norms.”

In other words, center-right media have had the same problem as center-right politicians: They don’t connect to what is now the core of the Republican Party. Since the Weekly Standard has no immediate prospect of recovering the influence it once enjoyed in the White House and elite levels of the Republican Party, it’s easy to see why Anschutz may have decided to cut his losses and place his bet on a publication more likely to resonate with conservatives.

But this also seems like a short-sighted decision. The center-right is down, but it isn’t out. Center-right views are well represented among the more affluent in the United States and especially among the corporate elite. Their influence is sure to be felt in the future.

It's also short-sighted of liberals and progressives to take any pleasure in the Weekly Standard’s troubles. As Jeet Heer writes at the New Republic, whatever replaces the Standard is likely to be worse. 

In a country where we expect power to alternate between the right and left, it’s a dangerous thing when the far right displaces the center-right. You don’t have to be a partisan of the center-right to prefer that it prevail over Trumpism. So when the dust clears, I hope the editors and writers for the Standard find another patron or another platform. I look forward to a time when they and others on the center-right represent the right in the great intellectual and political debates the nation deserves to have.  

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