The American Conservative, Unfused?

by Betsy Woodruff
There’s a rift between the publisher and the editor, over editorial decisions and finances.

A conflict at The American Conservative has led its publisher, Ron Unz, to claim he’s being “purged” from the magazine. And in an e-mail obtained by National Review Online, the magazine’s editor said he would resign if the board “would prefer that Ron Unz decide what we publish.

Until lately, Unz had his own blog on the magazine’s website, linked to on the homepage. That blog is no longer active, though its content is still on the site. He says he used to be able to post directly to the website but can’t anymore. And, according to Unz, a lengthy article about race and crime that he recently submitted for publication was rejected by the magazine’s editor, Daniel McCarthy, without much explanation. (Unz has published that article on his personal website here.) He tells me that he thinks he’s being pushed out because he tried to improve the magazine’s finances and management.

McCarthy’s e-mail, which he sent to the magazine’s board of directors on June 11, says Unz’s essay was rejected because it would “fatally detract” from the magazine’s attempt to promote “realism in foreign policy, a defense of constitutional civil liberties, and a humane Burkean conservatism.” 

Here’s the full text of McCarthy’s e-mail:

Sent: Tue 6/11/2013 10:40 AM

To: [undisclosed-recipients]

Subject: About Ron Unz & The American Conservative

Attached is a Ron Unz essay that I am rejecting for publication in The American Conservative.

As ever, it’s too long, but beyond that its subject is a distraction from TAC’s mission. We stand for realism in foreign policy, a defense of constitutional civil liberties, and a humane Burkean conservatism. This essay does not advance any of those mission areas, even indirectly. In fact, it would fatally detract from them at a time when Republicans (and disillusioned Democrats) are once again listening to the case for noninterventionism and restricting executive power.

I reject the essay without fear of losing financial support because Ron Unz has already ceased to be an active supporter of the magazine. He has made no contributions this year, nor has he ever fulfilled the traditional publisher’s role of assembling funding from other sources. Having relinquished the duties of publisher, he has instead, over the last six months, tried to assume those of editor. He has demanded excessive space for his own work in every issue, he has regularly insisted that his stories should take the cover, he has attempted to assign or accept material from other writers, and he has imposed a blog of his own—which he uses almost exclusively to promote himself—on the website.

Today Unz told me explicitly: “I think you realize perfectly well that over the last couple of years my primary concern with TAC has involved the proper publication of my own articles.”

I believe I have the full support of our staff, our major donors, and indeed the support of this board in upholding The American Conservative’s mission. If I am mistaken, and this board would prefer that Ron Unz decide what we publish, I will tender my resignation.

I am happy to answer any questions you may have about this or any other matter related to TAC. Feel free to contact me by email or telephone, [redacted].

Best regards, 

Daniel McCarthy

Editor

The American Conservative

Unz takes issue with a number of McCarthy’s points: He says he was TAC’s largest  donor in the second half of 2012 and its second-largest direct financial donor from 2011 to 2013. Regarding TAC’s mission, Unz says, The exceptions to McCarthy’s newly discovered guidelines are so enormous in number they completely overwhelm the rule.” And Unz says that, while he’s had the most cover stories (four) of any contributor over the past two years, his articles have also been the most successful on the website: four of the five most-viewed stories. In fact, he says, the cover story he wrote on college admissions, race, and meritocracy precipitated a flood of last-minute donations that kept the magazine from closing at the end of 2012.

Unz tells me that he became involved with The American Conservative toward the end of 2006. He says he liked its position on foreign-policy issues — he was very worried about President Bush’s foreign policy — and that TAC was one of the few publications taking a strong stance on that front.

He also says that, at that point, the magazine was close to going under. “I got involved and I sort of rescued TAC financially, and actually became the owner at that point,” he says. He tells me he’s provided 70 percent of the magazine’s funding over the past six or seven years.

In 2010, a few people persuaded Unz to turn the magazine into a nonprofit, he says. Since then, it’s expanded and increased its operating budget, but it isn’t taking in enough money to be sustainable, according to Unz. And, he adds, when you have a large operating budget, you can’t take as many editorial risks as you would otherwise because of fear of offending potential donors.

Unz says he also thinks the budget is being misspent.

“I checked with a few people I know who are bloggers for a few other websites,” he says, “and I found out that, based on traffic figures, TAC was basically paying a lot of its bloggers five to ten times the market rate.”

He also says that Rod Dreher generates close to half of the website’s traffic but is only paid “a very small fraction of TAC’s budget.”

“In effect, 80 to 90 percent of TAC’s expenses are totally inefficiently being allocated,” he says. “You can’t do that! When you’re desperate financially — in other words, when you’re at the point of almost going out of business periodically, when one guy is generating half your traffic and you’re spending close to a million dollars on everything else — you can’t do that!”

Unz tells me he started raising these concerns a few months ago. About two weeks ago, he says, after a talk with McCarthy about the magazine’s financial problems, the editor told him that his piece had been rejected. Shortly after that, McCarthy sent the above e-mail, and Unz lost his posting privileges on the website.

Unz says he thinks the editorial policy of the magazine is jeopardizing its conservative credibility — by publishing too many articles in favor of gay marriage, for one.

“If you want to publish Jon Huntsman’s piece on gay marriage, okay, I have no problem,” he says. “I think gay marriage is crazy, but it’s not an issue that’s my be-all or end-all. But, like, 20 articles supporting gay marriage? That’s too much. You’re not a conservative publication if you do something like that.

He also says the magazine is in danger of being seen as unserious.

“Some of the stuff TAC is publishing right now is so bad,” he says. “For three straight days their whole homepage was filled with articles about zombies and robots and cartoon characters and rock bands. Nobody will take you seriously if you publish that sort of stuff.”

“Maybe it’s the only stuff they can publish without paying people,” he added.

A former TAC employee tells me that the lengthiness of Unz’s submissions was a consistent source of frustration for the editors; the source says that the first draft of one of his pieces was 18 pages long, which would have taken up half of the magazine. He characterized Unz as not personable and inclined to become very upset when things didn’t go his way. He also says Unz grated on the staff and that there was a sense that they would ultimately have to decide whether his financial support was worth the stress. 

Another former TAC employee says such personality clashes shouldn’t be surprising.

“The magazine largely was founded to discuss conservative perspectives that they didn’t think were well represented by the other conservative magazines,” he says. “So that, in and of itself, opens [the magazine] up to being affiliated with people who are kind of quirky thinkers; and people who are quirky thinkers tend to have temperaments where they’re going to have trouble getting along at times, and they’re going to have disagreements, and they’re going to think their disagreements are of this earth-shattering significance, when maybe they aren’t.”

I spoke with McCarthy, who chose not to comment on internal issues within the magazine. When asked for his take on Unz’s statement that he’s been purged, McCarthy said, “I can’t guess what he might mean by that.” Other sources affiliated with the magazine referred me to McCarthy.

When I asked whether Unz was still the publisher, McCarthy said, “That’s right. His title is publisher.”

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

 

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