The conservative New York Sun announces on its front page each morning that it reaches “150,000 of New York City’s Most Influential Readers Every Day.” I read in Scott Sherman’s sympathetic April 30 profile in this magazine that the Sun says it is selling 13,211 hard copies a day and giving away more than 85,000.

But if my experience is any guide, these numbers are about as reliable as a Bush budget briefing. I have twice received free Sun subscription offers, initially when the Sun began publication, in the spring of 2002, and more recently this past winter. Both times I signed up. In 2002 I got bupkes, though I called about it more than once. Between January 1 and Memorial Day, I not only hassled the circulation people myself; so did my intern, Mike, many times over five months. Over and over, the Sun‘s staffers insisted that I was getting the paper and just didn’t know it. Eventually about eight copies showed up one morning addressed to different apartments in my building. That lasted a day. (Ironically, one more showed up Tuesday morning, May 29, as this column was due.)

I have similar reservations about the paper’s purported sales figures, however meager. I did no sleuthing myself, but not only is this a business rampant with fraud, it’s also characterized by more shady-but-legal tricks of the trade than a border-based bordello. According to William Breen, for instance, who says he worked for a New York City wholesaler (and wrote a 2004 letter to Jim Romenesko’s blog, MediaNews), city news dealers paid just a penny per copy. That means it makes no economic sense to return the leftovers. The result, Breen claimed, was “their circ figures look great. Virtually every copy they print is ‘sold.'”

The Sun is supported by many famously savvy and unsentimental investors, including Richard Gilder, Roger Hertog, Michael Steinhardt, Bruce Kovner and Thomas Tisch (though its most prominent one, Conrad Black, is now on trial for myriad varieties of fraud). I’m sure one of them would be smart enough to explain why it’s so hard to actually obtain one of their newspapers, but during the Sun‘s high-profile 2002 launch, none was able to offer a convincing commercial rationale for creating a conservative highbrow newspaper in a liberal city that already had two highbrow papers and at least two conservative ones (depending on how you measure these things).

When its guiding spirit, Seth Lipsky, tried to explain the paper’s raison d’être to Sherman, he found himself not only ignoring Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post–which may be understandable, given its addiction to sleaze–but also the Wall Street Journal, which, while published in New York City, with an enormous New York-based staff and readership, Lipsky says is something other than a New York newspaper. Lipsky was also compelled to place the prowar Daily News, whose extremely involved owner-editor, Mortimer Zuckerman, is one of America’s most prominent supporters of the Israeli government and voted for George W. Bush in 2004, on the left side of the spectrum.

Given such contortions, it should surprise no one that so much of the Sun appears to exist only in its owners’ and editors’ neoconservative imaginations. Indeed, its investors–together with Lipsky, a refugee from Bob Bartley’s Wall Street Journal editorial page, and the founder of the English-language version of the Jewish Forward–appear to have little interest in publishing a newspaper in the traditional sense. Back in 2002, Daily News editor in chief Ed Kosner called the Sun “an intellectual vanity publication” with “a very small niche, the niche of weekly and monthly journals.” But Dissent could run for a hundred years on what these machers are paying for the Sun. Why go to the enormous trouble and expense of publishing a multimillion-dollar daily newspaper that (apparently) reaches next to no one, at a moment when investors are eagerly shedding their newspaper holdings and privately owned papers are just as eagerly shedding staffers? The answer, obviously, has nothing to do with profits or even readers; advertisers are not stupid enough to put their faith (and money) into imaginary circulation figures. But journalists are. And there’s the rub.

Lipsky quotes his mentor Bartley that it requires “seventy-five editorials to get a law passed.” It’s not clear whether those editorials require actual readers who care what they say. In the case of the Sun, which mimics Murdoch’s technique of blending editorials and news coverage in the same story, the intent is less to pass legislation than create tsuris for people and places of which it disapproves. Sherman aptly described the paper’s primary function as that of “a journalistic SWAT team against individuals and institutions seen as hostile to Israel.” During its first five years, these have included the Ford Foundation, which it accused of aiding Palestinian terrorism; Columbia University, accused of creating an atmosphere unfriendly to Jews; Kofi Annan’s office at the UN, accused of rampant corruption; and Harvard University’s Kennedy School, publisher of the famous Walt-Mearsheimer paper, likened to a David Duke neo-Nazi screed. It matters little that few sensible people would concur with the Sun‘s wild charges. (This is, after all, a paper whose editorial board thinks Dick Cheney should run for President in 2008.) What matters is the political value to the neoconservative agenda of creating the appearance of smoke, regardless of whether it’s connected to fire.

But I don’t want to harp on the Jewish-media-moguls-supporting-Israel angle, which hews a little too close to traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes for my taste. While it may explain the Sun‘s rise, it obscures the more salient fact that countless conservative propaganda factories are supported in America by literally billions in ideological investment. Their success in swaying gullible reporters in the MSM and elsewhere accounts, in significant measure, for the widespread misperception that the public has moved rightward in recent decades. (The past four decades of public opinion polling show exactly the opposite: The public has moved leftward as the political system has moved rightward.) The beauty of this operation is that all this can be accomplished–as the Sun demonstrates–without the participation of any actual readers.