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Steyn’s way (continued)

SO WHO IS Mark Steyn? According to his Web site, MarkSteyn.com, and other bits of biographical data I’ve been able to pick up, he is, despite his Canadian origins, the product of an English boys’-school education. His formal education ended with high school, and he worked as a disc jockey and BBC radio host before launching his writing career, about 15 years ago. He is ethnically Jewish, was baptized in the Catholic Church, was confirmed as an Anglican, and today attends an American Baptist church.

Steyn describes himself as "the one-man global content provider," and that is not inaccurate. His main source of income is the Hollinger chain, a worldwide media conglomerate run, until recently, by Conrad Black, now in trouble for allegedly lying about money, or lying about alleged money, or some such thing. Steyn’s political columns appear in a number of Hollinger properties, including the Chicago Sun-Times; the well-regarded, conservative Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph of London; and the Jerusalem Post, which is also conservative. He’s written for the Age, in Melbourne, Australia, in which Black at one time had an ownership interest. The non-Hollinger Irish Times carries his column as well. In the US, Steyn’s political pieces appear from time to time in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, National Review, the New York Sun, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Oddly enough, the English-speaking country where Steyn’s voice is least heard these days is Canada. The National Post, which Conrad Black founded in 1998 to compete with the dominant Toronto Globe & Mail, changed hands within the past few years, and Steyn’s column was dropped. The Post’s commentary editor, Jonathan Kay, is an unabashed Steyn admirer, calling him "brilliant" and comparing him to P.J. O’Rourke. Yet Kay also suggests that Steyn can be prickly to work with, recalling the time he changed "Mrs." to "Ms." in a Steyn reference to Abraham Lincoln’s wife so as to conform with the Post’s house style. "I don’t think he talked to me for a year after that," Kay says. "I took out a letter for political correctness, and that’s a grave sin in his book. I learned my lesson — I never changed a letter after that." Steyn’s only current regular Canadian outlet: the Western Standard, a new magazine that describes itself as "the independent voice of the New West."

Tucker Carlson, a commentator for CNN and, soon, PBS, who was recently attacked by Steyn as a "conservative cutie" who’s gone soft on the war, says of Steyn, "He’s kind of pompous. He’s obviously smart, he can be quite witty. I mean, I agree with a lot of what he writes. But the problem with being a columnist for too long is that a) you tend to repeat yourself and b) you tend to forget that you need to marshal facts to support your opinions."

Michael Miner, media critic for the Chicago Reader, says of Steyn: "I enjoy reading him. He writes very well. And he can be highly annoying. I’ve always sensed that he’s the quintessential Hollinger writer — very smart, very conservative, very sarcastic."

The nonpartisan media-watch Web site Spinsanity.org has whacked Steyn on several occasions — such as in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when Steyn strongly hinted that he wished a peace advocate could have been on one of the four planes that were hijacked, or, more recently, about a John Kerry appearance, of which Steyn wrote that "Kerry sounded awfully like America’s first French president." Spinsanity’s Brendan Nyhan told me by e-mail, "We’ve written several times about Steyn’s aggressive, inflammatory rhetoric and loose regard for logic and factual accuracy."

Steyn’s first love is the musical theater, something he writes about knowingly and with passion for the New Criterion. His 2000 book Broadway Babies Say Goodnight was described by Publishers Weekly as a "delightful, irreverent romp through seven decades of American musical theater from Show Boat to Miss Saigon." Steyn’s immersion in musicals may also explain why he — a macho right-winger who’s married with children — feels compelled to drop into his writing snarky little quips about gays. For instance, there’s this, from a December 2003 New Criterion piece in which he recounted the career of Frank Baum, creator of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: "Baum invented Oz while holding down his day job as editor of Chicago Show Window, a magazine for department-store window decorators — and no, he wasn’t gay: the original friend of Dorothy was not a Friend of Dorothy."

And neither, he wants to be damn sure you know, is Mark Steyn.

Perhaps the most important question about Steyn is whether his straddling act — his role as a conservative pundit whose intellectual chops have given him the respectability of the Gigot/Will/Brooks camp, but who trucks in slime of the Limbaugh/Coulter/Hannity variety — has given him a greater reputation than he deserves. The thing is, the guy really has got talent. His Atlantic obituaries, whose subjects range from Madame Chiang Kai-shek to Jack Paar, are witting, knowing, and altogether satisfying. "We approached him because he is a trenchant and funny cultural critic," Atlantic managing editor Cullen Murphy told me by e-mail. "His writing for us, fact-checked like the rest of the magazine, has always been highly accurate."

Yet the very respectability conveyed by an affiliation with publications such as the Atlantic, the New Criterion, or the Spectator has given Steyn a cachet for political punditry that he hasn’t earned. Conservative Web sites gush over him. Conservative and libertarian bloggers such as Glenn "InstaPundit" Reynolds link to him regularly, giving him an American readership that may be far larger than his meager number of US outlets would suggest. Steyn may not be well known to American readers, but what little they do know of him is likely to be favorable. It shouldn’t be.

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Issue Date: June 18 - 24, 2004
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