Those who wish to be deceived

Why is someone who took undercover money from the Malaysian government still on the masthead of Commentary?

Keith wants to know whether the marketplace will punish delusional media. I can’t say I’m optimistic.

Sure, some conservatives with liberal friends were humiliated by having gotten the election result wrong due to watching Fox News, but the core consumers of delusional right-wing news are probably more isolated than that.

I’m on the mailing list for National Review. (No, I can’t recall how that happened.) Some of its daily emails promote the latest pseudo-scandal about Obama, but others tell me about a mustard extract that cures cancer, offer me predictions on two “historic moves” in the foreign exchange markets, warn me of a “financial Pearl Harbor” based on “the evidence unleashed in the following investigation
that has already been presented to the Pentagon, CIA, and Congress,” announce the discovery of “4 Sneaky Hormones That Are Making You Fat and How to Stop Them Now,” … well, you see the pattern.

Increasingly, the right-wing press is a racket. (That’s always been true on the fringe, as with Ron Paul’s investment letters. But the line between fringe and mainstream conservatism has blurred, with no Bill Buckley in sight.) Its target audience is persistent suckers, people who subscribe to one phony financial advisory service and health newsletter after another. If you’re reality-based enough to notice, or mind, being duped, you’re not the victim they’re looking for.

Consider, if you will, the latest media influence-buying scandal. The government of Malaysia paid nearly $400,000 to promote attacks on Anwar Ibrahim, the dissident politician who supports democracy in Malaysia to replace the UMNO tyranny and who has come under fire from the ferociously anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic ruling party for supporting a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine problem.

Neither the main U.S. operator of the scheme nor any of the other right-wing journalists he paid to label Ibrahim an “anti-Semite” bothered to register as agents of a foreign power, which put all of them squarely on the wrong side of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. (DoJ decided to allow Joshua Trevino to register retroactively rather than prosecute him; no word about the others, but since they didn’t download any scholarly articles I’d guess they’ll be safe.)

Legal questions aside, everyone who took the Malaysian money deceived his readers and whoever published his work by failing to declare a financial conflict of interest. That ought to be especially problematic for Seth Mandel and for Commentary, where he is listed as an Assistant Editor. Commentary specializes in sniffing out anti-Semitism, especially among Jews who dissent from its pro-Bibi orthodoxy.

If the folks who run Commentary had any self-respect, Seth Mandel would no longer be on the masthead. But then if my bubbe had baytzim

Machiavelli had it right: for everyone who wishes to deceive, there is another who wishes to be deceived. The readership of right-wing media, and the voting base of the Republican Party, are slowly being purged of all those who do not wish to be deceived. But that won’t put them out of business.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

30 thoughts on “Those who wish to be deceived”

  1. It’s not impossible to believe that the right-wing is uniquely credulous, but wouldn’t you need to show that liberal newsletters don’t include advertisers who specialize in preying on the gullible? Seems to me that the Huffington Post is full of articles about crystal healing and homeopathy, but that isn’t quite the same problem.

    1. The Huffpo isn’t really comparable to the National Review, though. NR is, in theory, a seriou, proud, and even stately organ for the dissemination and advancement of Conservative ideas and orthodoxy, with a pronounced editorial voice and (presumably) no sideline in celebrity gossip and paparazzi shots. As such, it’s more comparable on the left to The American Prospect or The Washington Monthly or The Nation, depending on your preference and precise ideological leaning. Any of those might accept the most inane advertisements for inclusion in their magazine and on their website – they need the only, and The Nation in particular has a policy of not refusing ads based on content, as when Fox News bought a full-page, full-color spread on their back cover for several months. But none of those magazines would for a moment consider lending their imprimatur to organizations that transparently seek to defraud and abuse their readers, as Mark describes NR regularly doing.

      1. “only” s/b “money”.

        The geniuses at Apple desperately need to spend a few freaking minutes with a modern Android phone, and learn about Swype and about a decent spellchecker. An iPad is nice for browsing the web, but it’s inexcusably bad as a text-entry device.

        (also, how’s that edit function coming along?)

        1. Swype is one of the best things about Androids.

          Note that there is no “Damn You Swype” website as there is DamnYouAutoCorrect…

      2. Great points! I was trying to think of a very popular liberal source of trashy ads and content, and that’s what I came up with. But in terms of how the National Review positions itself (and the dignity it wants to believe it has), TAP and The Nation are much better analogues.

        Still, I feel it’s important to point out that there is a wide streak of gullibility on the left when it comes to certain pseudosciences, and I don’t think it’s fair to say the Right has a monopoly on “suckers” — though of course I wish that were the case…

  2. there’s an old term from cold-call marketing for a list of people who wishes to be deceived– a sucker list. it is a pity.

    being a native of texas and living in a somewhat rural part of the state, most of the people i know are staunch republicans who thought romney was going to pull it out at the last minute. my quiet assurance that he wouldn’t struck them as wishful thinking on my part (i am known at my workplace as a token liberal democrat). in the aftermath of obama’s victory i’ve only seen about 1 in 20 who found that to be a reason for any reflection or doubt, the rest have talked darkly about all the inner-city black precincts with no votes for romney. many have expressed a renewed hope in the republican party with justice scalia’s comment during the arguments about the voting rights act and their confidence in it being overturned. i’ve spent all of my adult life determined not to let them force me from this place of my birth and the birth of ancestors to the seventh generation but, as goethe or schiller once said– “Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens,” and i tire of the struggle as i move into my midfifties.

  3. Deception?

    I suspect we are living in the heyday of rogue science designed purposely to maximize confusion amongst the masses:
    The Salt industry is to Alcohol Manufactures as Cigarette companies are to Fossil Fuel Denialism.
    One could just as easily add to my list: As the gun industry is to the FoxNews/Limbaugh driven Republican party.
    All are of a similar piece.
    There are congruent corporate techniques buried inside all of them:
    A modus operandi that has been hyperpowered by the web.


    What is wanted is a new science of rogue corporatism that investigates these phenomena.
    And looks not only for general laws in regards to their means and ends (ways to measure/compare their social damage), but also looks for ways to inoculate the body politic.

    Time is of the essence:

  4. I’m not certain this is distinctively right-wing, judging by the ads on the respective pages (no idea what the emails are like).

    Just to compare, I have up Kevin Drum’s blog at Mother Jones, and the top right ads are eight, all fairly scammy-looking:

    If you are a smoker and live in … (e-cigarettes)
    Men are finding an unlikely testosterone booster…
    Residents qualify to become debt free…
    One simple rule to making a fortune overnight…
    Penny stocks…
    “Wonder weight loss pill”…

    1. See my above comment. Yes, Mother Jones accepts and runs advertisements from the dregs of the Internet – but they’d never endorse them and use their mailing list to send their pitches to their readers. I don’t think it’s a trivial difference.

      1. I agree that it is a significant distinction. It’s not visible to me, as I’m not on any of the mailing lists.

    2. “Wonder weight loss pill”…

      And the beauty is via the placebo effect they work well on a certain subset..
      And even miraculously well for a few.
      Of course this has always been the case.
      But the difference today is the existence of social media.

      Here’s a bit from a New Scientist’s article that started me thinking about the need for a science on rogue corporatism:

      James Mosher, an alcohol policy consultant in Felton, California, has analysed the marketing of the Smirnoff brand. He cites evidence that, in 2005, more than 10 per cent of US TV ads for Smirnoff Ice and Smirnoff vodka were placed against shows with an underage viewership of 30 per cent or more, breaching the industry’s own voluntary advertising code (American Journal of Public Health, vol 102, p 56). Several other big companies, including Bacardi and SABMiller, also breached this code. Diageo’s (World’s largest alcohol company) Smith disputes these findings, pointing to a 2008 report from the US Federal Trade Commission that concluded that the drinks industry has made “good faith efforts” to comply with its own code. With the action now switching to social media, this may already be yesterday’s debate. In 2011, for example, Diageo credited its “multimillion dollar strategic partnership” with Facebook for increasing US sales of five key brands by 20 per cent. “The use of new media channels to market alcohol is a clear area of concern due to their youth appeal, relative lack of regulation and the sheer volume of promotional messages,” concluded a 2010 report from the Institute for Social Marketing at the University of Stirling, UK. Critics fear that the industry has struck marketing gold. “It’s infinitely more powerful for a message to come from your mate than from Diageo,” says Gerard Hastings at Stirling.

      All of which suggests that the web has made the advertising effect built into the placebo effect “infinitely more powerful”.

    3. Sam, I gotta love the irony!

      I red your note, clicked over to Kevin Drum’s blog, and what did I see in the upper right-hand corner?

      A full-motion video ad for a Bentley Continental GT Convertible.

      Hmmm … I wonder if Bentley knows what return to expect on their investment, advertising to Mother Jones readers?

  5. The implicit assumption here is that the people running NR are smart enough to know that these emails are scams. Given the kind of stuff they publsih I’m not sure that’s a good assumption.

  6. “Increasingly, the right-wing press is a racket.”

    Increasingly? It’s been this way for a long long time. I think it’s Nixonland where Rick Perlstein discusses this in great detail in the context of the 60s and early 70s.

  7. I recall as far back as the 1970s my dad opining that the only people who should vote republican are millionaires, all the rest being suckers. I think that reality has not changed and if anything is more true today.

  8. Rick Perlstein gives you the definitive treatment of this question:

    “The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers points up evidence of another successful long march, of tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place—and the formation of a cast of mind that makes it hard for either them or us to discern where the ideological con ended and the money con began.

    “Those tactics gelled in the seventies—though they were rooted, like all things right-wing and infrastructural, in the movement that led to Barry Goldwater’s presidential nomination in 1964. In 1961 Richard Viguerie, a kid from Houston whose heroes, he once told me, were “the two Macs”—Joe McCarthy and General Douglas MacArthur—took a job as executive director for the conservative student group Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). The organization was itself something of a con, a front for the ideological ambitions of the grownups running National Review. And fittingly enough, the middle-aged man who ran the operation, Marvin Liebman, was something of a P. T. Barnum figure, famous on the right for selling the claim that he had amassed no less than a million signatures on petitions opposing the People’s Republic of China’s entry into the United Nations. (He said they were in a warehouse in New Jersey. No one ever saw the warehouse.) The first thing Liebman told Viguerie was that YAF had two thousand paid members but that in public, he should always claim there were twenty-five thousand. (Viguerie told me this personally. I found no evidence he saw anything to be ashamed of.) …”

  9. All of this makes me think of the recent paper from IBM, iirc, about why Nigerian Scam email messages have come to identify themselves as being from Nigeria. Although you may reduce the initial response rate, the vast majority of those you weed out weren’t going to pony up anyway. You could probably apply the same analysis to right-wing shibboleths: the crazier they get, the less time the grifters hae to spend on prospects who won’t pan out.

    This in turn suggests a new tactic for progressives who want to wean family and acquaintances off the stuff; not that many people enjoy being pitied as suckers.

  10. I get The Nation (a leftist weekly) solely for the top-notch cryptic crosswords, and their back-page ads are pretty specious, too.

    1. This point has been made several times now, even though its central thrust is just so completely obtuse as to inspire a suspicion of disingenuousness.

      There exist in this world a great many commercial enterprises that see their potential customers as being suckers and their natural prey (and also other commercial enterprises that are sincerely misguided, but are so utterly deluded that their customers consist entirely of suckers and the equally and compatibly deluded). These commercial enterprises seek to spread their message by placing advertisements where they can, especially if they can do so on the cheap. This means buying a lot of web ads and buying ad space in small-circulation political opinion and policy magazines. Heck, it’s quite possible that the subscribers of such magazines are an especially vulnerable lot: they are on average slightly older and slightly better off than is the average punter – and they’re more inclined to believe in the potential for transformational political or societal changes, which might mark them as being that much more gullible, perhaps especially those who hold out hope such can happen in a Progressive direction.

      So, yes: The Nation runs skeevy ads, and so does Mother Jones. I’d imagine Cat Fancy and The Turnip Twiddler’s Quarterly do as well. They have ad space to sell, and these marketers recognize their readers as being a relatively good bet, for the price.

      The difference is when the magazine ceases to be a convenient aggregating mechanism into which these abusive fraudsters can place ads likely to reach their intended class of victims, and instead the magazine itself forms a similar conception of its readers and gets in on the act. When the magazine sees its subscribers not as friends and fellow travelers, good people from whom great things are to be hoped, people who had the good graces and searing insight necessary to align themselves politically with this particular magazine – but instead sees their own readers as weak-willed ignorant fools, turkeys ripe for the plucking. There is a simply enormous, fundamental difference between The Nation selling ad space to people who despise The Nation‘s readers, and National Review directly demonstrating its contempt for, and its desire directly to victimize, its readers.

      If you really can’t see that difference, I’m sorry for you.

      1. There are also different levels of speciousness. E.g. the “collectible” coin and watch ads that Smithsonian runs, where at least you get something for your money, versus out-and-out scams.

  11. Some years ago, I made three trips to Malaysia and spent a lot of time with Malaysians because of a case I was working on. Fascinating country with interesting problems. As a result, I always look for Malaysian news but rarely see it outside of some British press.
    What I want to know is how many of the bought-and-paid-for writers actually had an opinion — let alone enough knowledge to have a worthwhile opinion — about anything having to do with Malaysia before they were hired?

  12. Conservative niche media isn’t the problem.It’s not intended to persuade anyone not already in that “niche”. It’s the so-called Mainstream practitioners that do the damage- by “Mainstreaming” a narrative in no way different except for it’s risible pretense of objectivity/expertise. For instance on the central question of the Economy name anyone aside from Krugman that isn’t a Keynesian Denialist. I watched about 5 minutes of one of the Sunday morning atrocities and every one of the “credentialed” pundits was wittering on about how “EVERYONE knows that entitlements are the cause of the deficit/recession”. In no way any less idiotic than Fox News or talk radio except that the lower level of vitriol makes it MORE dangerous. Brooks or Matthews do more damage by an order of magnitude than the army of Trevino clones.

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