The 'Sully'-ing of American Journalism
Andrew Sullivan. Courtesy: Flickr user Trey Ratcliff
It is a measure, in some respects, of Andrew Sullivan’s success as a blogger that a column about his decision to launch an independent media enterprise, announced January 2, already feels out of date. “Blog time” is measured in hours, if not minutes—certainly not days, much less weeks.
Another achievement for which Sullivan may claim some credit is that the topic at the center of this column—the quality of Sullivan’s judgments over time—will likely not matter much. Unlike, for instance, Josh Marshall’s terrific Talking Points Memo, Sullivan’s site offers little original reporting. His judgments, therefore, are really the only criterion by which his work can be assessed. The fact that few individuals can be shown to have demonstrated worse judgment over the course of the past two decades, and risen higher as a result, is yet another example of the changes that Sullivan-style “journalism” has helped to bring about.
“Sully” originally came to public attention as the young, conservative editor of The New Republic. His five-year reign was characterized by so many disastrous decisions, it would take every word in this magazine, and then some, simply to enumerate them. But here’s a partial list: under Sullivan’s guidance, TNR championed, among others, Ruth Shalit, Stephen Glass, Steven Emerson, Charles Murray and Elizabeth McCaughey. It’s no easy matter to determine which of these charlatans did the most damage to the magazine’s reputation. (Indeed, it’s a measure of just how abysmally TNR’s editorial filter functioned under Sullivan that Camille Paglia calling the then–first lady “Hillary the man-woman and bitch goddess” doesn’t even make the top five.) This was a period of casual plagiarism, fabulism, racist pseudoscience, and deliberate lies aimed at the heart of liberal principle in general and the Clinton administration in particular by what was still considered liberalism’s flagship publication.
As a freelance journalist, Sullivan made waves by outing public figures without their consent and making medically unsustainable claims for the drug treatments he was taking (in The New York Times Magazine, no less). His recklessness reached a kind of weird apogee after 9/11, when his own personal panic led him to describe the tens of millions of Americans who voted for Al Gore as “the decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts,” who “may well mount a fifth column.” He specifically named yours truly as an alleged fifth columnist and suggested that others read my work “and you’ll see that I’m not exaggerating.” Alas, Sullivan did not take his own advice, as I supported the US attack on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and never said or wrote differently. (Sullivan also used the occasion to slander the late Susan Sontag in the same sentence, insanely inventing what he called a “constant attraction” to the “acolytes of Bin Laden”—and, later, Katha Pollitt, whose position on Afghanistan he compared to someone who leaves a rape victim lying in the gutter due to her short skirt.)
As the truth about George W. Bush and, indeed, the modern conservative movement revealed itself to almost everyone, Sullivan slowly reversed himself to the point where he now embraces many of the positions he once termed treasonous. Sorry to be personal about this, but, again, I once wrote a column pointing out that most pundits were far more sympathetic to Israel than to the Palestinians. Sullivan compared it to, I kid you not, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Not so long afterward, however, Sullivan switched sides and became an extremely caustic critic not only of Israel, but also of its neoconservative supporters (like his former self). This led former comrade Leon Wieseltier to accuse him of harboring a “venomous hostility toward Israel and Jews” owing to the fact that he was either “a bigot, or just moronically insensitive.”
Sullivan has moved steadily leftward over time but argues, like the French ex-Stalinist Pierre Courtade, that he was right to be wrong. As recently as 2007, when The New Republic lamented its role in publishing McCaughey’s dishonest attack on the Clinton healthcare plan, Sullivan bragged: “I was aware of the piece’s flaws but nonetheless was comfortable running it as a provocation.” And he still calls his support of Murray’s racist, eugenicist-based arguments “one of my proudest moments in journalism.” So it should hardly have surprised anyone to hear him declare, following Barack Obama’s less than stellar first debate performance last year, that the president had “just throw[n] the entire election away.” He added: “when a president self-immolates on live TV, and his opponent shines with lies and smiles, and a record number of people watch, it’s hard to see how a president and his party recover.”
Were Sullivan a great reporter with some screwy opinions, one could conceivably embrace the one and ignore the other. But speedy snap judgments are really all he’s selling. Yet if one reads the breathless coverage of his decision to launch an independent blog—to say nothing of the promotional copy from the publications that have hired him over the past two decades—one will find precious little discussion of the accuracy of the information in which he traffics. In this sense, Sullivan resembles his fellow British performance artist and celebrity scribe, Christopher Hitchens. Though a far more stylish writer than Sullivan, Hitchens, too, repudiated the balance of his life’s work without ever admitting having done so, much less explaining how he had come to be one of the people he’d spent a career eviscerating. Both of these charming British imports put their talent in the service of a journalism of “provocation,” as Sullivan terms it, untethered to traditional conceptions of evidence or even honesty.
But who cares? In blog time, all this happened in the prehistoric era, back when accuracy mattered more than speed and information more than attitude. It’s hard, if I may borrow a phrase, to see how the profession can recover.