In Defense of Philip Anschutz

The late William F. Buckley, Jr., published a book several decades ago titled Gratitude, in which, while making a case for mandatory community service, he argued that gratitude is one of the distinctively conservative virtues. Gratitude, he reasoned, nourishes continuity in society while its opposite—resentment—provokes discontent and disruption.

Buckley was hardly the first to say this. The great religions teach that a noble person is grateful for the favors he receives from others. Cicero, reflecting the view of Roman civilization, wrote that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”

These reflections are called forth partly by the Christmas season, also by some unfortunate responses to the news that The Weekly Standard has ceased publication. The decision by the owners will close the books on a spirited magazine that for the past 23 years served as a beacon for conservative thought and commentary. The Standard now joins a lengthy list of magazines that have failed over the decades because of the loss of readers or due to political fissures in society: The Literary Digest, The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Look, Life, The Saturday Review, and Newsweek (to name a few). Others are certain to follow. Time magazine, for example, is unlikely to make it to its 100th anniversary in 2023.

William Kristol, along with several conservative colleagues, founded the magazine in 1995 in the wake of the 1994 “Gingrich election” and with a generous annual subsidy from Rupert Murdoch. It began as a neoconservative magazine, somewhat in opposition to the traditional conservatism articulated in National Review. While it covered domestic issues and reviewed current books, the magazine’s forte was always in the area of foreign policy where the editors promoted a robust role for the United States around the world.

In 2009, Philip Anschutz acquired ownership from Murdoch, and thereafter subsidized the magazine to the tune of $3 or $4 million per year, but without changing any editorial policies. It was ultimately Anschutz, in conjunction with Clarity Media Group, the corporation that managed The Weekly Standard and other publications, that ultimately decided to shutter the magazine.

As regular readers, we liked the Standard because it was informative, albeit idiosyncratic, and unpredictable, but never so on the large issues dealing with America’s role in the world and the preservation of her constitutional heritage. The writers were conservatives—mostly—but followed no party line. Many prominent journalists today got their start years ago at the Standard. Kristol, the magazine’s longtime editor, edited the magazine with a light touch, giving his writers great leeway in what they wanted to say. The editors came in for an avalanche of criticism for their support for the war in Iraq, but unlike others who initially supported it, they (to their credit) stayed the course to the end.

Several reasons have been cited for the demise of the magazine: the difficult landscape for print publications, the increasing expense of those enterprises, and the disappearance of younger readers accustomed to looking for news online or in bite-sized increments. But there can be little doubt that the magazine’s editorial stance—all anti-Trump, all the time—played a large role in the loss of subscribers and advertisers that eventually led to the owner’s decision to end his financial support.

It does not require a marketing degree to know there would never be a large audience for a conservative magazine with a single-minded mission to bring down a right-leaning president. That audience was more or less what the editors banked on when they embarked on their anti-Trump editorial position even before he took the oath of office.

As the editors soon discovered, the market for their re-tailored magazine was an exceedingly small one. As one wag commented, “why should conservatives pay good money for The Weekly Standard when CNN and the Washington Post will call us fascists for free.” That is harsh, but not all that wide of the mark. Conservatives did not subscribe to the Standard in order to read what their neighbors were hearing on CNN or reading in the New York Times.

Against this backdrop, it was surprising to see many friends of the magazine cast blame upon Anschutz for withdrawing his subsidy or for turning down offers to sell it, as if the magazine had not been drowning in a sea of troubles, some of them self-inflicted.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, wrote that Anschutz had “murdered” the magazine and that in closing it he had committed “a cultural and intellectual crime.” The annual subsidy for the magazine was (he wrote) no more than a rounding error on his vast fortune, suggesting thereby that Anschutz’s decision to close the enterprise was an act of personal pique or revenge.

Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs magazine, endorsed this interpretation in a post on the website of National Review. David Brooks, who was present at the creation of the Standard, devoted a column in the New York Times to the closure of the magazine, repeating Podhoretz’s “murder” line and filling the piece with a host of snotty and gratuitous insults directed at Anschutz. In his view, the collapse of the Standard is a tale of corporate greed and ignorance.

“This is what happens,” Brooks wrote, “when corporate drones take over an opinion magazine, try to drag it down to their level and then grow angry and resentful when the people at the magazine try to maintain a sense of intellectual standards.”

Brooks goes even further to attack Anschutz for closing the magazine at Christmas time, even though such decisions are often taken at Christmas time because the holiday coincides with the end of the calendar year. According to these critics, the editors bear no responsibility for the collapse of the magazine, and therefore the owner had a responsibility to continue his support regardless of financial losses or the hemorrhaging of subscribers and advertisers.

In fact, Anschutz deserves thanks and a measure of gratitude for subsidizing the magazine to the tune of $30 or $40 million of his own money over a period of nine years, during which his funds paid the salaries of the editors, the fees of countless writers, and the weekly costs of production. By all accounts, he never interfered with the judgments of the editors as to what should and should not appear in the magazine, even when those judgments proved controversial, as in the magazine’s endorsement of the war in Iraq. It appears that he was even tolerant to a fault of the magazine’s self-destructive editorial line against Donald Trump.

It is hard to see what Anschutz gained personally from his support for the magazine; he did it as an act of public service in the belief that the magazine expressed a point of view that deserved to be heard. While $3 million or $ 4 million per year may seem like a “rounding error” to some people, it is in fact real money that Anschutz could have deployed elsewhere. Many organizations around the country could have made good use of a $3 million annual subsidy. Yet he stayed with the enterprise for nine years, quietly paying its bills and keeping the operation going. No matter what some say, Philip Anschutz cannot be blamed for the magazine’s loss of subscribers and advertisers, and ultimately for the collapse of the enterprise.

Truth to tell, Anschutz is not all that different from the benefactors who subsidize Commentary, National Review, National Affairs, and other conservative opinion journals. Most are wealthy individuals who made fortunes in finance or in business and contribute substantial sums to keep these publications going. No one forces them to do it; they make these contributions of time and money as a way of investing in the moral capital of the system that made their fortunes possible in the first place.

Many of those benefactors make business decisions every day as to whether or not to sustain investments in their enterprises, or to pull out of them. Some have withdrawn support from newspapers and opinion magazines when they disagreed with their editorial positions or did not think they could sustain themselves. Does this mean that they are cruel and insensitive people? Many on the Left would say “yes” because to them all wealthy people are suspect. It is surprising to hear “conservatives” imply judgments along similar lines. If this is what these editors think of Anschutz, what must they think of the donors who sustain their own enterprises?

The editors of The Weekly Standard had every right, perhaps a duty, to follow their principles regardless of costs, but it is most ungracious of them and their friends to insist that Philip Anschutz was obliged to pick up their tab.

Photo credit: Denver Post Staff Photo by Brian Brainerd via Getty Images

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About William E. Simon, Jr. and James Piereson

William E. Simon, Jr. is chairman of the William E. Simon Foundation. James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation.