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blogger that a column about his decision to launch an independent media enterprise, announced January 2, already feels out of date.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.)