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Steyn’s way
Write, twist, smear, and sneer. Repeat! Meet Mark Steyn, the most toxic right-wing pundit you’ve never heard of.

WITHIN THE TIGHT little world of conservative punditry, there are lines of demarcation that are rarely, if ever, crossed. Respectable commentators such as Paul Gigot, George Will, and David Brooks work for respectable outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. When they appear on television or radio, they carry that aura of respectability with them. Right-wing carny barkers such as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Sean Hannity, on the other hand, play it strictly for laughs, even when they swear they’re not. And even though the Gigots and Wills and Brookses of the world may often agree with the freak-show politics of talk radio and the Fox News Channel, they would never sully their reputations by actually taking part.

Then there is Mark Steyn, a pungent columnist, essayist, and critic who’s not well known in the United States, but whose political screeds are published in English-speaking countries around the world. A native of Canada who divides his time among New Hampshire, Quebec, and London, Steyn is a self-described right-wing warmonger. Like a respectable conservative, he has some high-tone affiliations. Steyn writes obituaries of the famous and not-so-famous for the Atlantic Monthly. He pens theater reviews for the New Criterion, a conservative arts-and-culture journal with a vaunted reputation. And he reviews movies for the Spectator, a venerable, classy London weekly magazine owned by the Hollinger media empire, his principal benefactor.

But if Steyn’s sharp, clear writing, quick mind, and wide-ranging curiosity appeal to the pretensions of the intelligentsia, there is another side to him as well. Steyn may possess more depth and range than Limbaugh or Coulter, but he shares much in common with them. To wit: a shrill, mocking tone of moral certainty that consigns those who disagree with him to the status of appeasers or even terrorists; and a willingness to distort, misrepresent, and omit facts in order to advance his argument. And if you think he couldn’t possibly be as bad as, say, Coulter, whose shtick is to pop up on television and denounce liberals as "traitors," consider this: in perhaps his sleaziest column of 2004, a condescending dismissal of triple-amputee war hero Max Cleland, Steyn’s principal source was Coulter.

"He’s kind of a glib guy, and he’s a better writer than most of them. And that gets you a long way on that side," says Joe Conason, a liberal columnist for the New York Observer and Salon. "I mean, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter can’t write. The thing he shares with the rest of them, obviously, is that he has no idea of limits or boundaries or decency."

Consider a Steyn column that appeared on May 16 in the Chicago Sun-Times, a Hollinger paper that is the only American outlet for his regular political column. The Abu Ghraib prison-torture scandal was still fresh and shocking. Insurgents were battling with US troops. And a hapless 26-year-old American, Nicholas Berg, was beheaded by terrorists, who videotaped their gruesome crime. Steyn knew just how to rally the spirits of his fellow warmongers: by demonizing anyone who dared to criticize the war. He did that in two ways.

First, Steyn made a hideously unfair comparison, linking those who were demanding Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation to Berg’s executioners. Wrote Steyn: "We have the ersatz warriors, the ham actors of Washington — Senators Kennedy, Levin, Leahy, Harkin and others too fond of seeing their names in print to mention — ‘calling for Rumsfeld’s head’ at a time when America’s enemies have already got Nick Berg’s, and they’re swinging it around on camera for the snuff video they’ll be distributing as a recruiting tool."

Second, Steyn twisted the facts to make it appear that the liberal media are so unpatriotic that they readily believe lies about American soldiers. His example was the Boston Globe, which, as you may recall, had just published a photo taken at a City Hall news conference in which pictures purportedly of American troops raping Iraqi women were visible in the background (see "Media Log," BostonPhoenix.com, May 12–14). Never mind that the accompanying story expressed deep skepticism about the authenticity of those pictures; Steyn lumped the Globe in with the London Mirror, whose editor was forced out after it was revealed that his paper had actually faked photos of British troops abusing Iraqi prisoners.

[Correction: the Mirror itself did not fake the photos, but, rather, was the victim of a hoax. For a time, the paper continued to insist that the photos were genuine despite serious questions that had been raised about their authenticity.]

"In the last few days," he wrote, "the Mirror, a raucous Fleet Street tabloid, has published pictures of British troops urinating on Iraqi prisoners, and the Boston Globe, a somnolent New England broadsheet, has published pictures of American troops sexually abusing Iraqi women. In both cases, the pictures turned out to be fake. From a cursory glance at the details in the London snaps and the provenance of the Boston ones, it should have been obvious to editors at both papers that they were almost certainly false.

"Yet they published them. Because they wanted them to be true. Because it would bring them a little closer to the head they really want to roll — George W. Bush’s." Ah, yes. Back to the unfortunate Nick Berg, the meaning of whose death has apparently been revealed only to Steyn.

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Issue Date: June 18 - 24, 2004
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