Ron Unz’s 6-year tenure as Publisher at The American Conservative has come to an end.
Stay tuned for the official announcement and a characteristically thoughtful farewell letter, the length of which I suspect and hope will be no less than 5,000 words long.
So, there I was, doing my rounds on the internet, when I saw a link to Occam’s Razor over at Foseti’s, and went over to the original article over at National Review Online from August 1st to learn of a ‘riff’ (and talk of a ‘purge’) between Ron Unz, Publisher, and Daniel McCarthy, Editor of the The American Conservative.
Well, now this a golden opportunity to learn a little bit about the strange world of publishing political-perspective ideas, opinion, and what passes for ‘journalism’ in America.
The bottom line is that most of these outlets are real money pits nearly entirely dependent on contributions from a relatively small number of wealthy patrons (and sometimes some money laundered through many layers of proxies from the unwitting generosity of the
suckers taxpayers). In this way their internal dynamics and incentives closely resemble those of political parties, non-profits, universities, and charities. Keep the donors happy while achieving the maximum amount of influence and impact according to the preferred metric of the senior staff.
Now, all that was true even in the days before the web, but once upon a time before the internet, certain print outlets, newspapers and magazines could actually make money off subscriptions and ads. That age is quickly coming to an end with one institution after another succumbing to The Nothing, with perhaps a few ‘last-man-standing’ exceptions that can survive by harvesting the entirety of the remnant of the high-status national market – such as the New York Times. Certain ‘business’ publications might be able to stand on their own, such as The Economist, Wall Street Journal, and so forth, but you may also notice that they all tend to be tightly owned and controlled by extremely wealthy individuals.
But, besides those exceptions, most of them are perpetually in the red save for contributions. National Review and The American Conservative are no exceptions. If Buchanan and Taki have been there, what’s going on certainly isn’t about making money. Well, not from the audience.
The point is that you should be trying to understand what being a ‘publisher’ of such a publication really means, which is simply ‘chief patron’. It is not at all like a ‘producer’ of a film who is an investor and underwriter and who is expecting to make a decent return from his speculation. One is paid to be a producer, but one pays to be a publisher. And he who pays the piper picks the tune. Now, you may justly ask, what are they getting for their money? Well, who dances to the music? And see how they dance.
Well, it’s a little different than just paying for influence. See, when you or I buy something because we want to influence our friends, say a new fancy watch, well, it’s just consumption, and, unless you buy it online, you pay sales tax. But if what you buy if influence in the form of a money-losing magazine, well, what you do is set up some foundation which really puts the ‘non’ in ‘non-profit’ that accepts your tax-deductible charitable contribution and gives it away to some media outlet whose job is not propaganda, of course not, but merely improving social welfare through awareness and education. It’s an awesome scam people. As if you needed another reason to believe that we should eliminate the tax exempt organization and the tax deductible contribution.
Now, sometimes your chief patron can’t or won’t pay the bills any longer, and so you’ll need to find yourself another one. How in the world do you go about that?
Well, a lot of publications have found themselves in similar circumstances as of late. For example, and speaking of Lippman, he founded The New Republic which also loses a lot of money and just last year was bought by Facebook Billionaire Chris Hughes from Marty Peretz (the anti-Unz), whose essays I miss, as I will likewise miss Unz’s. Of course, let’s not forget Ms. Huffington and even the Koch brothers were expressing some interest in Tribune and the LA Times before they abandoned the project. Anyway, we could play vanity-press media mogul millionaires musical chairs all day. Which is kind of the point.
Now, coincidentally enough, The American Conservative has already gone through this deep-pocket-hunt before when it replaced neo-paleo-conservative (but more importantly, the extremely wealthy Avon-heir) Scott McConnel with software-millionaire Unz back in 2007. They both had a lot in common, especially their extreme displeasure with the status quo of American foreign policy, military interventions, and friendship with Israel, so it seemed a good fit.
I don’t know if TAC will be able to find another one like those (they’re a dying breed, one doesn’t call them ‘paleo’ for nothing), or if it really wants to anymore. The American Conservative was founded back in 2002 by Pat Buchanan and Judo-Champion Taki Theodoracopulos as an outlet to protest George W. Bush’s presidency and especially the coming Iraq war. Oh, but why beat around the Bush?
What it’s all actually about is their perception of the takeover of the elite respectable right by the neoconservatives and the gradual purge of the paleoconservatives from their mantles of influence over national affairs and their previous perches of power and commentating sinecures.
It’s a tragic tale, and the events were bound to generate a lot of bitterness. That’s all a long narrative, history, and debate, and now is not the time to dive into that dark and murky swamp. I’ll tip my hand slightly and note that I find most of those purges cowardly and contemptible, but worse, counterproductive. In general, institutions on the right should not be playing the ‘beyond-the-pale’ censorship game, looking at the opposition for cues on what is no longer permissible in public discourse. The answer, soon enough, will be everything you want to say.
But anyway, after Obama’s reelection, and with Iraq over and Afghanistan quickly winding down, and the right in a kind of identity crisis about its future, the whole paleo vs. neo struggle seems both peripheral and completely played out – overtaken by events. Resentments die hard, so they don’t seem to have noticed. It’s as pathetic as the Japanese Holdouts abandoned without communication on isolated Pacific islands. Somebody should tell them. The war’s over; everybody lost. You’d think antiwar types would be the first to achieve that insight. But the world is full of ironies.
Anyway, back to our story. Now, sometimes it is true that an old piper like McCarthy, who’s been playing a certain set of pieces for a long time, can get a bit miffed if the new guy paying the bills not only wants you to play new music, but also tells you to ‘take five’ as he takes the stage himself and proceeds to play five sets in a row. Who’s the piper again? And, strangely, your patron’s music-playing agenda seems to be less about getting the audience to dance (which was the whole point, wasn’t it?), and more about using the platform to position himself for his own future ambitions?
Well, that’s certainly irritating. Still, a ‘purge’ is an awfully strange way to demonstrate gratitude to someone who’s given nearly $200K of his own money to your magazine. Especially if you needed him to continue giving. Then again, not especially if you expected him to stop giving. How would you engineer it if all you really needed was a new Sugar Daddy – perhaps one of your other existing major contributors – to step forward and ‘save’ your publication? How indeed.
You might write these nice rich people an email with some spiced drama and … oh, but I’m getting distracted. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes.
So, this being the world of the incestuous relationships and the Ouroboros self-referential DC-media (the favorite subject of journalists is the inside gossip of the journalism business), I absorbed the contents of the National Review article with some mild skepticism. As an exercise, see if you can tell exactly who is playing whom with mild exaggerations and fabrications in this little drama, and remember – as the saying goes – if you can’t find the sucker at the table then you’re it.
In the same week, Amazon founder – top-tier billionaire Jeff Bezos – personally bought some good access to DC and friends in high places with his purchase of the Washington Post newspaper.
That kind of capitol hill influence is going to be good for Amazon – so, if you were thinking of reallocating your portfolio, consider it for a buy. After using the no-physical-presence sales-tax loophole for years (thanks for Quill, SCOTUS) in order to drive non-big-box brick and mortar stores out of business, their ‘same-day delivery’ campaign was bound to bring that era of undue advantage to an end. But what about the other online retailers? Can’t let them pull an Amazon on ol’ Amazon, can we? Of course not. What’s that you say? That as of May, The Marketplace Fairness Act is a mere House majority and Obama signature away from passage? Interesting. What a convenient time to acquire some political influence. Remember, it pays handsomely.
Now, the text of the bill says it won’t take effect until 90 days after enactment, so you’ve got some time to adjust. Still, if you were thinking of making some expensive purchases in the near future, I’d recommend accelerating your schedule. Personally, I took the opportunity to buy some expensive jewelry. See you in hell, taxman.
Then comes, only two weeks later, the Emir (Sheikh Khalifa) and Government of Qatar using horrible fossil fuel dirty money to buy their own way into the channel-flipping retinas of 40 million pairs of American eyeballs from Al Gore (of all people) for a princely sum (heh) of only half a billion dollars. All in an effort to gently and surreptitiously nudge the brains behind those retinas towards … well, for the moment, let’s just call it, ‘a certain perspective’.
They’ll be broadcasting out of a swank and expensive new headquarters in NYC (That Town), but naturally they’ve got a DC bureau (This Town) and their very own White House correspondent, Mike Viqueira, formerly of (MS)NBC (naturally). Al Jazeera America boasts about hiring hundreds of expensive but precariously-employed old Journalists (and all their digital Rolodexes and personal connections) away from struggling American Media outlets and hundreds more staff. It’s had trouble getting advertisers and still only has two, for only six minutes an hour of commercials. In other words – even after spending all that money, it still stands to lose – I don’t know, rough estimate – at least $100 Million a year.
All of this for a business model that seems to rely on their sole, principle comparative advantage, which is being able to get the best footage of berzeker Muslim rioters or enemy Jihadists by the ingenious contrivance of actually hiring them as cameramen. And reporters. And extras for the video. ‘Could you please point the RPG with a bit more of a Che pose? That’s it, fantastic. One more, from this angle… yes .. Yes! Make Aladeen to the camera!”
Boy, whatever the Qataris think they’re getting, it sure seems to be worth blowing a lot of money over to them. Unz didn’t blow through as much money, but he’s not sitting on an underground sea of delicious gigajoules. Then again, he might as well be, because I’d guess that Unz is pretty happy with what the Emir is doing. More on that in a bit.
Well, it’d been about three weeks and I hadn’t heard anything more about the ‘riff’. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps this wasn’t all some cheesy orchestration to flatter some new moneybags into saving TAC from Unz’s odious depredations (oh, also, it’s wretched finances) for the third time. But then Bryan Caplan posted an announcement on Econlog saying he’d be appearing with Vivek Wadhwa opposed to Unz and ‘TBD’ in an intelligence squared event
promoting open-borders debating the legitimacy of labor visas.
TBD? What, was Jason Richwine not available? I’m pretty sure he’s available. And I’m pretty sure he’d have something interesting to say about his recent personal troubles with employment. And, to make the point even clearer, the question itself addresses a nonexistent phenomenon because, unlike (Harvard-awarded) Dr. Richwine, or, say, John Derbyshire, the fellow who’s mowing lawns down the road despite his lack of authorizing documents somehow doesn’t seem to be having any trouble contracting with willing employers. No government trouble, that’s for sure. He’s also got kids here (already equipped with disturbing tattoos), so maybe it wasn’t all about labor mobility after all.
As an aside, here’s some free advice to open-borders proponents. Try to find a frame a little more clever, and a little less transparently insincere and ridiculous, as the attempt to bracket this vital discussion as somehow being about the wisdom of certain details of employment regulation. People should be able to work wherever they want and can find a willing employer – and then move to that place, find a mate, have kids and start a family, benefit from all manner of court-mandated government largesse, and … wait a minute. Could this possibly be about immigration and not really some mere ‘job’ which is unavoidably entangled with, you know, the rest of life? We know that modern life is a series of marketing gimmicks, but sometimes people forget that they’re not actually good at the game.
Anyway, I’m both competent and available for such TBD work, so if these people want Handle to argue alongside Unz at the debate, I’d be more than happy to lend my talents to the dialogue. I promise I’ll behave. I’m not rich or famous like everyone else at these events, but I can certainly hold my own against Caplan.
But let’s look up Unz’s biography linked from the debate’s page and lo and behold, what have we here? (Emphasis added)
Debate: Let Anyone Take A Job Anywhere
Former Publisher, The American Conservative
Ron Unz is the former publisher of The American Conservative, a small opinion magazine, and serves as the founder and chairman of UNZ.org, a content-archiving website providing free access to many hundreds of thousands of articles. He previously served as the chairman of Wall Street Analytics, Inc., a financial services software company which he founded in 1987. …
… In 1994, he launched a Republican primary challenge to incumbent Governor Pete Wilson of California, running on a conservative, pro-immigrant platform against the prevailing political sentiment, and received 34% of the vote. Later that year, he campaigned as a leading opponent of Prop. 187, the anti-immigration initiative.”
‘Former’. C’est un fait accompli, n’est pas? He’s still on TAC’s masthead, but if that’s how he’s marketing himself when he submitted his bio to IQ2 (probably months ago), then, I should say it stands to reason, that this has been brewing for a much longer time than the publication date of the NRO article, itself following on the heels of that notorious email?
Well, the bio itself is kind of interesting. Unz’s set of positions makes him highly idiosyncratic, but except for his opposition to bilingualism … well, let me put it this way. I’m not exactly prepared to say that this fight isn’t fixed from the start. Are you?
But I’ll certainly miss Unz at TAC. I admire his brilliance, success, and eloquence, and I have greatly enjoyed his essays over the years. I’m a quantitative sort myself, and so I appreciate his rigorous and statistical approach to important social questions. Unz.org and its archive is a gift to the world and he’s earned a permanent spot of honor in meinem haus just for that.
I think people around these parts should pay particularly close attention to the way he has been able to write honestly and repeatedly about some of his favorite taboo subjects involving Race, Crime, and Intelligence without being excommunicated from polite society. That’s impressive and we could all stand to learn from it. I wish him the absolute best in his new position as a public intellectual, and I hope his stint at TAC has propelled him to his desired destination. Hopefully he’ll rise above even wildly successful token conservatives like Brooks and Douthat while still being invited to cocktail parties.
Still, the whole affair is rather curious, wouldn’t you say? Why now?
Well, that’s nothing that a little forensic accounting can’t shed some light on. Mad props to the IRS and Foundation Center for putting all those Form 990’s online.
Let’s start with The American Ideas Institute – EIN 27-0311492 – the Foundation tax-avoidance shell organization that funds TAC. Here’s a link to their latest 990.
What can we learn from this?
- Contributions are $750K whereas subscriptions and ads are only $160K.
- Daniel McCarthy only makes $62K a year – that’s tough in the DC metro.
- Collectively, writers are only getting about $100K a year – peanuts.
- Printing costs a fortune – just as much as the writers get.
- Marketing ($35K) TAC cost more than TAC received in ads from other companies ($30K).
Now let’s turn to Unz’s own foundation which he has cleverly named… The Unz Foundation. (EIN 20-7181582)
Look at the second column of Line-31 on page 2. At the end of 2011, after having spent nearly $540K that year, the foundation only had $40,630 left in its accounts.
Unz’s foundation went broke about 18 months ago.
Go to part V on page 3 and you can see what happened. In 2006 Unz dropped $1,800,000 into his foundation and by the end of 2011 he spent it all plus whatever interest it had earned over that time. Now, it’s possible in 2012 Unz dropped some more pennies in his fund and continue to give them out, but I’m not going to give the IRS $10 for the privilege of getting a DVD (not an email? Come on USG!) and seeing his 2012 tax return before Foundation Center posts it. So, in the absence of other evidence, I’m going to presume it’s empty.
It was very predictable, given the pace of giving, and the way certain grants were written, that the foundation would go broke when it did, and I think the folks at TAC knew that. So, it was inevitable that they would need to start looking for a new publisher, and apparently it’s time.
One thing you can do it go back through all of the Unz foundation’s forms and see where all the money went. I’ve taken the liberty of going to the trouble of doing this for you and sometimes I’ve used the most recognizable name that is the effective recipient. Here are the results in order of total funds received.
- Dr. Gregory Cochran: $600K (10,000 year explosion, West Hunter, etc.)
- Newamul “Razib” Khan: $187.5K (Gene Expression, inter alia)
- The Randolph Bourne Institute, AKA, Antiwar.com: $170K
- TAC: $166K
- Thomas E. Woods: $126K
- Paul Craig Roberts: $126K
- Counterpunch: $120K
- Philip Giraldi: $86K (it would seem to me he doesn’t need the money!)
- Norman Finkelstein: $75K (The Holocaust Industry)
- Steve Sailer: $72K (be classy and don’t spread around his home address)
- Mondoweiss: $60K (more on which in a bit)
- Wikimedia Foundation: $40K
- Free Congress Foundation: $10K
- If Americans Knew: $10K
- Bill Hendon‘s POW project: $5K (More on this here and here)
- The Center for Libertarian Studies: 5K
- Ludwig von Mises Institute: $5K.
Well, you can tell a lot about what a guy believes by looking at how he gives away his money. I think it’s best to defer more of the speculative interpretations to the comments sections.
But in broad outline, Unz strikes me as somewhere along the Cato-George Mason University-Ludvig von Mises Libertarian spectrum with a strong dose of certain progressive tastes and sympathies thrown in (e.g. he once proudly signaled he rooted for Bradley the same way a lot of folks later did for Obama). I think he’d be very much at home with The American Scene crowd, and not with, say, Rush Limbaugh. There’s his gifts to LVMI, and CLS and Thomas Woods.
That being said, he has two obvious infatuations. The first is the genetic origins of human characteristics. You might say, Polite Human Biodiversity. There’s Cochran and Khan and Sailer.
And the second is a very obvious displeasure with the current, highly-interventionist and big-government system of American Foreign Policy, but most especially the United States Government’s special relationship with Israel. Despite his grandparents’ having helped to found the Jewish state, he seems to harbor a particular animus towards it and its policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians. His anti-Israel giving seems split between the old-guard elite paleos (like Buchanan, Roberts, and Giraldi) and the anti-Israel Jewish-Progressives like Finkelstein and Weiss.
To illustrate how convoluted the relationships between modern public-influence outlets can be, Let’s see how you give to Mondoweiss. Well, these days Mondoweiss is part of CERSC the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (EIN 36-4400754), which reports its main webpage as The International Socialist Review. I find this revealing. Anti-Israel feelings make for strange bedfellows.
Alternatively, Unz gave to Mondoweiss through The Nation Institute (EIN 13-6216903 – be sure to check out their I.F.Stone award, here are the 990’s) associated with The Nation magazine, and which in turn participates in the (somewhat Orwellian-sounding) do-gooder aggregation Network For Good (EIN 68-0480736). Just down the block in Bethesda, Maryland, naturally.
As far as I can tell from the documents (certainly not as clear or consistent as Unz’s) in 2009, the Nation Institute routed about $16K to Mondoweiss, and in 2011, NFG gave routed about $23K meant for Mondoweiss through TNI (page 217 out of 255 – a hell of a tax return!). That’s not a lot of money, and it leads me to suspect that Unz was one of that site’s major backers.
For someone who obviously feels so very strongly about it and supports some of the most vehement voices against Israel, I haven’t noticed him writing much about the subject. Here are several relevant articles from his own archive, but I’ve got to say, my impression is that they are all curiously tame compared to the company he likes to keep (on the payroll).
So, there you have it. Hopefully 3,800 words that are a little more enlightening than the “Unz departs The American Conservative; has fond memories; looking forward to spending more time with his family.” you’re likely to see emerge in the coming months.
Ach mein Gott, look at the time. Well, it’s time to time to turn down the lights in the Schloss, so I’ll be retiring to the boudoir when my Fraulein eagerly awaits my company.
Until next time, Auf Wiedersehen
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Why shades of Kennedy’s resignation letter to FDR. FDR would show it round as an example of how a Gentleman resigns. I’m glad Unz has a place in your heart.
Excellent leg work here.
TAC’s content has become so stagnate. Take Daniel Larison’s “commentary” during the last election. All he did was to take whatever Mitt Romney said that day and then say in a paragraph that it was stupid. TAC and whole “stand with Rand” movement like to think the tide of history is on their side, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Modern ‘journalism’ is a joke, and so is most of the MSM. Most ‘news’ print is dying a slow death, along with most other propaganda machines. The governmental support is just prolonging the agony…
There is some good stuff here and some undercooked stuff here.
The point that journalism is evolving towards a system in which it markets its owners’ ideas instead of its viewers’ eyeballs is important. It’s right, it’s clear to anyone who bothers to think critically about developments in the industry, but since nobody ever thinks critically in public, it is more than worthwhile to point out.
The idea that the struggle between the neos and the paleos is some unimportant, cynical spat over poorly paying commentator jobs, and that what’s really important is how much sales tax Handle will be paying is nutso. The paleos are clearly motivated by principle, not money. Sobran, Francis, Derbyshire, Sailer, Gottfried, and Buchanan could have reversed their declining fortunes any old time by just changing their tunes. They declined to do so. Their complaint is over the content of US policy and over the content of conservative commentary, not over who got what job—though Gottfried does use who got what job as a proxy for these other things quite a lot. On the flip side, “everything [Rich Lowry] want[s] to say” is whatever it is the saying of which gets him paid. There is no prospect of those scary lefties stopping him saying that. He might get fired someday for being such an **obvious** unprincipled lightweight, but it would never cross his mind to say something which could get him in hot water, so the issue never arises.
On substance, the paleos and neos fight about how many and which people the US will murder. This is a great deal more important than Handle’s tax bill. Syria and later Iran demonstrate that this question remains salient.
Similarly, the data on how Unz spends his money is fascinating. Thanks for collecting it. The “grant” to Cochran is a gift of $120K/yr for 5 years. The other grants to individuals are similar. What is that about? With the exception of Khan, he funds already successful critics of the status quo. Well, and Roberts. It looks like what Robin Hanson calls affiliative giving.
But the claims about the money drying up or the foundation going broke are, at best, incomplete. It would be like someone claiming that Handle is soon going to be immobile because his car’s gas tank is only 5% full. Gas tanks can be refilled as long as the car’s owner still has cash. Is Unz out of cash? He is rich. His attitude towards legal entities is like your attitude towards gas tanks. It’s only when estate planning that the legal entities really mean much. And even then, only sort of.
So, the break up of Unz and TAC still needs explaining, unless you know that Unz, himself is broke. More broadly, though, the existence of TAC needs explaining. I have forced myself to read it in the past. But, I should not have to force myself to read it. I should be its target audience. I am a non-interventionist, GOP-hating social conservative, with politics similar to those of Buchanan. I find the magazine to be relentlessly puerile and lefty. Why is it the way it is?
Wow … this was extremely interesting. I’ve always been curious about a lot of the things you discuss here. So thanks …
Good… we have been expecting you.
Giving more than 120k to Paul Craig Roberts is very interesting. Giraldi and Sailer too. Unz’s list is exceptionally hostile to Zionistan.
The 600k to Cochran is interesting given how vitriolic Cochran has been towards Unz lately.
For those who aren’t familiar with this particular fracas, here’s Unz’s own explanation which links to one of Cochran’s volleys.
When I say, ‘takes one to know one’, please accept that I know what I’m talking about concerning certain individuals’ reputations for being hard to work with. Jerks gonna jerk, and all that.
Nice research here, Handle. Only a few posts in, and already, you’ve got some stuff worth archiving.
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Reblogged this on oogenhand.
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Great post, almost as long as Unz’s will be. 🙂
Here’s the most recent gossip I’ve heard about TAC:
I always wondered why Unz shoveled so much money to Cochran. Not that he gave any money, but that he gave $600k. Apparently, they had a falling out and Cochran never received much of it though. (I’m not surprised that they had a falling out. I’d surprised if they hadn’t, considering the personalities of the two.)
The Form 990’s show the disbursements. If Cochran didn’t receive it, then Unz is guilty of tax fraud.
IIRC, Cochran said on his blog that he’s no longer getting money from Unz — this was perhaps a year ago. The grant was for five years, has that already passed?
Yeah, it terminated at the end of 2011. Unz had already increased the total from an original $500K to $600K, all delivered at least 18 months ago. Unless he’s giving outside the foundation or refilled it (I don’t have a 2012 990 yet) no one is getting money from him now.
Here’s some info on Jon Basil Utley, recently promoted from associate publisher to interim full publisher, but he’ll be 80 years old next year. Like I said, a dying breed.
This post was fascinating. Thanks for doing the hard work here!
Odd that Unz is affiliated with that spectrum of libertarianism, while his recent writings seem to come from the economic left. He supported raising the minimum wage (the only anti-immigration measure I can recall him supporting) and was banging the drum on inequality.
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