Sun-Rise in New York

(The Nation, April 18, 2007)

One of the more damaging articles concerning the United Nations Oil for Food scandal appeared in a New York newspaper on November 26, 2004, under the byline of Claudia Rosett. In that article Rosett revealed that Kojo Annan, the son of the UN Secretary General, had remained on the payroll of the Swiss firm Cotecna, which had a UN contract in Iraq, for years after he had supposedly ended his relationship with the company. The piece had an instant ripple effect: Three days later William Safire devoted his New York Times column to Rosett's revelations and demanded that Kofi Annan resign from his post. Senator Norm Coleman, whose subcommittee was then investigating the Oil for Food program, joined the chorus two days later in the Wall Street Journal with a piece titled "Kofi Annan Must Go," a piece that also cited Rosett's reporting.

Rosett's article did not appear in the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal or the Daily News--all of which are routinely scathing about the UN--but in the New York Sun, a pugnacious conservative daily that sprang up in lower Manhattan a few months after the attacks of September 11.

When the Sun was born in 2002, media soothsayers predicted that it would never find a permanent place in New York's brutally competitive newspaper market and that the hearse would arrive within two years. But the Sun is still here, and on April 16 it will mark its fifth anniversary. Although it is funded by a coterie of wealthy individuals, published on a shoestring and edited by a tenacious journalist, Seth Lipsky, the paper is not a financial success: Last year Lipsky told journalism students at Columbia that the Sun lost $1 million a month. But those losses amount to pocket change for the proprietors, whose investment and ongoing commitment have yielded something else: a broadsheet that injects conservative ideology into the country's most influential philanthropic, intellectual and media hub; a paper whose day-to-day coverage of New York City emphasizes lower taxes, school vouchers and free-market solutions to urban problems; a paper whose elegant culture pages hold their own against the Times in quality and sophistication; a paper that breaks news and crusades on a single issue; a paper that functions as a journalistic SWAT team against individuals and institutions seen as hostile to Israel and Jews; and a paper that unapologetically displays the scalps of its victims.

Ten years ago I published a Nation cover story titled "Why America Needs a Labor Daily," in which I attempted to revive an idea that A.J. Liebling had floated in the late 1940s: that the American labor movement should create a daily newspaper to counteract the probusiness--and antiunion--bias of the mainstream press. A month later, Seth Lipsky, whom I had never met, invited me to his office at the Forward newspaper, situated in the Workmen's Circle Building on East 33rd Street in Manhattan. I found myself gazing at a bald, diminutive man who looked as though he had just stepped out of a Charles Dickens novel, a man whom Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker has described as "Pickwickian."

Lipsky is an intriguing figure in New York journalism. As a high school student he kept the masthead of the New York Times tucked away in his wallet. After graduating from Harvard he went to Vietnam as a combat reporter. In 1971 he launched a nineteen-year career at the Wall Street Journal, during which time he served on the editorial page under the late Robert Bartley and assimilated much of Bartley's ferocious intellectual and rhetorical manner. In 1990 Lipsky was hired by the Forward, once the bible for the Yiddish-speaking masses of Manhattan's Lower East Side, to produce a weekly edition of the paper in English. A neoconservative admirer of Ronald Reagan, Lipsky immediately ran into political difficulties: Early on he received a letter from the late Arthur Hertzberg, who declared that the editors of the old Yiddish Forward "did not create and maintain a newspaper of socialists and social democrats for their inheritance to become now, in English, an echo of the Wall Street Journal." Lipsky, whose heroes include Ze'ev Jabotinsky (the militant Zionist who admired Mussolini), Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, certainly did push the Forward rightward--a 1994 editorial called for the bombing of North Korea's nuclear facilities--but he also won praise for his editorial finesse. "No matter how conservative Lipsky may be on certain subjects, especially foreign affairs," David Remnick wrote thirteen years ago in The New Yorker, "his stewardship of the paper has been open and daring."

But Lipsky had higher ambitions than to publish a weekly edition of the Forward. He summoned me to his office a decade ago to encourage me to start a labor daily but also to boast of his own grand plan: to transform the Forward into a daily, one with a pro-union orientation in line with both the Forward's history and my blueprint in The Nation. His scheme seemed grandiose: A top newspaper analyst, John Morton, had told me that a new daily would cost $300 million, and I doubted that Lipsky, sitting in his modest office in the Workmen's Circle Building, could raise even a fraction of that sum.

I underestimated Lipsky. Three years later he left the Forward, and in 2002 he delivered on his promise to create a new daily (though not, alas, one that stands with organized labor). Today the Sun has four principal investors--men who, Lipsky notes, "are among the most successful financial investors in history." It's a group that includes Michael Steinhardt, Lipsky's former partner at the Forward; Thomas Tisch, a board member of the Manhattan Institute; Bruce Kovner, chair of the American Enterprise Institute and a man ranked by Forbes as the eighty-fifth richest American; and Roger Hertog, chairman emeritus of the Manhattan Institute. In an interview Hertog half-seriously quipped that, owing to the Sun's steady financial losses, his involvement in the paper is an example of "delusional behavior." But he proudly views the Sun as an idea factory for the elite and says he'll continue to support it into the foreseeable future. (Steinhardt made the same vow, saying, "It's money well spent.") "If you just did a random survey of opinion leaders in New York, whether they be cultural or political or business types," Hertog says, "I think you would find that a very large number read the paper." Sun watchers concur that Lipsky has captured a limited but influential audience. Says Fred Siegel of Cooper Union, "In New York and Washington it gets read by politicians and intellectuals, and by people in the think-tank world."

A few weeks ago I asked Lipsky why he launched a conservative daily in 2002, when New York already had two of them--the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. "If one drew a quadrant of New York newspapers," he replied, "there was a center-left broadsheet, the Times. There was a center-left tabloid, the News, and a center-right tabloid, the Post. But there was not, until the Sun, a center-right broadsheet." (He views the Journal as a national paper with a limited interest in New York City. But it's hard to agree with his assessment that Mortimer Zuckerman's Daily News, which has fervently supported the Iraq War, is a center-left publication.) Before Lipsky could launch his center-right broadsheet he needed someone to manage the newsroom, so he brought with him from the Forward a fiery young protégé, Ira Stoll, a Harvard Crimson veteran best known for his website devoted to the daily excoriation of the Times, Today Stoll is a busy man: When he is not supervising his fifteen full-time reporters or collaborating with Lipsky on the unsigned editorials (one of which recently urged Dick Cheney to run for President), he is endeavoring to complete a biography of Samuel Adams for the Free Press.

The editorial formula fashioned by Lipsky and Stoll is a peculiar mix of canned political ideology and spry reportage and criticism. Consider a recent issue, March 20, beginning with the front page. The main story concerns the latest developments in a major police shooting in New York, followed by a piece about New York City's public schools ("Schools Seeing Fast Rise in Bureaucrats"), a dispatch from the state capital ("Spitzer Nears Hospital Deal That Could Isolate Union"), an overview of the rift at the NAACP and a feature about a businessman's obsession with a 1906 Danish painting. The opinion pages, which usually feature William F. Buckley Jr., Cal Thomas and the scabrous Mark Steyn, contain two unsigned editorials--one calling for school vouchers, the other demanding an end to rent stabilization and rent control--alongside op-ed pieces lashing Human Rights Watch and French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin ("Oh So Civilized, Monsieur"). In the culture section readers are treated to an assessment of Ira Glass's Showtime debut of This American Life, a review of a concert at Carnegie Hall by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, a survey of dance photography, an essay about Hesiod and a review by renowned critic Gary Giddins of the DVD release of the film Muriel. All in all, a fabulous read for culture and a tendentious (though not uninteresting) one for politics.

It's only a slight stretch to say that Israel is to the Sun what gossip is to the New York Post or jockdom is to Sports Illustrated. A portrait of the historian Lucy Dawidowicz once hung in the Chambers Street office of the Sun, and her best-known book provided the Sun with the theme of its first editorial in 2002: "The War Against the Jews." For Lipsky and Stoll, it's a war that exists in perpetuity, and some of the Sun's most relentless crusading has been undertaken against New York institutions the editors view as hostile to Israel, Zionism and Jews. In late 2003 the Sun published a series of articles and editorials about the Ford Foundation, assailing it for funding Palestinian NGOs accused of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic behavior at the UN World Conference Against Racism, in Durban in 2001. The articles, which strongly implied that the foundation's top executives were anti-Semitic, jolted members of Congress into action, and Ford was eventually forced to alter its grant-making procedures in a way that disillusioned many of its admirers [see Sherman, "Target Ford," June 6, 2006].

In October 2004 the Sun published the first of twenty articles and editorials alleging that Jewish students at Columbia University were experiencing systematic harassment by anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic professors. Some of the stories ran under the tag line "Crisis at Columbia," and a typical headline declared, "Anti-Defamation League Director: University Fails to Protect Jewish Students." A number of Columbia's most distinguished (and longest-serving) Jewish faculty members dismissed the Sun's allegations as preposterous, but the Sun's drumbeat soon attracted the attention of the Daily News, New York magazine and the Times [see Sherman, "The Mideast Comes to Columbia," April 4, 2005]. What Lipsky calls "an enormous story" was born, and he is unapologetic about his paper's unrelenting coverage of Columbia: "Bob Bartley used to say it takes seventy-five editorials to get a law passed."

Occasionally the Sun uses tactics that would please the ghost of Walter Winchell. In March 2006 Lipsky walked by Ira Stoll's desk and heard him laughing. And with that laugh a Sun crusade was born. Stoll had been reading a Harvard University working paper by professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, of Harvard and the University of Chicago, respectively, titled "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy." The barrage began with a piece by reporter Eli Lake, who contacted David Duke and then produced a page-one story announcing that the Walt-Mearsheimer paper was "winning praise from white supremacist David Duke." (That story was headlined "David Duke Claims to be Vindicated by a Harvard Dean.") A few days later another Sun story insisted, with no evidence, that the two professors had "culled sections of the paper from neo-Nazi and other anti-Israel hate Web sites." (Walt and Mearsheimer dismissed the accusation as "absurd"; the link with David Duke, they said, is "guilt by association.")

In its zeal to demolish Walt and Mearsheimer the Sun also chased their colleagues--including Marvin Kalb, who, like Walt, holds a post at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. A Sun editorial noted that Kalb had recently petitioned the Newspaper Association of America on a historical matter pertaining to Jewish journalists trapped in Hitler's Germany, and went on, "Now--at a moment when Israelis and Jews everywhere are under attack in a global war against America and Israel launched by Islamofascists--the cat has got his tongue." The next day the Sun printed a front-page story, "Kalb Upbraids Harvard Dean Over Israel," in which Kalb proclaimed that the Walt-Mearsheimer paper "clearly does not meet the academic standards of a Kennedy School research paper." Kalb declined to be interviewed by The Nation. (The same editorial warned Harvard to get its house in order and added, "The Ford Foundation recently had its own learning experience.")

When I asked Lipsky to delineate the Sun's editorial priorities, he included in his list "the United Nations--its scandals, the anti-Israel maneuvering." The UN is indeed one of the Sun's most passionate and enduring obsessions. Lipsky employs a full-time UN correspondent, Benny Avni, who is a sharp thorn in the side of the UN hierarchy and who produced no fewer than 237 pieces in 2006. Edward Mortimer, director of communications under Kofi Annan, was continually exasperated by Avni's reporting: "I felt that he was systematically putting the most negative, conspiratorial interpretation on practically everything that happened at the UN." Few topics at the UN are off limits to Avni: In 2005 he somewhat gleefully reported that Mark Malloch Brown, then Annan's chief of staff, was renting a house from George Soros in Westchester. It was a purely commercial transaction, and Avni alleged no wrongdoing. But the Sun was keen to link Malloch Brown to Soros, who has a prominent place in the Sun's pantheon of villains.

Today Malloch Brown, who has left the UN, considers the story to be "totally unfair. It just fell way below minimum journalistic standards of research or ethics." In his estimation, the Sun is "a pimple on the backside of American journalism." But he accepts that the paper's obsession with the UN translates into influence. Regarding Rosett's reporting on Kojo Annan, he admits the Sun "does punch way above its circulation number, on occasion." He goes on to say, "Clearly amongst its minuscule circulation were a significant number of diplomats. And so it did at times act as some kind of rebel house paper inside the UN. It fed the gossip mills and what was said in the cafeterias."

As a business venture the Sun is not exactly flourishing. On its front page the paper proclaims: "150,000 of New York City's Most Influential Readers Every Day." But according to its latest audit, the Sun is selling 13,211 hard copies a day and giving away more than 85,000. (By contrast, the Daily News sells about 700,000 copies a day.) In an attempt to lasso subscribers in certain New York ZIP codes, the Sun recently offered free subscriptions for a full year, an unusual way for a newspaper to build circulation.

People who know Lipsky say that in 2006 he was very anxious about the Sun's future. Today that anxiety appears to have dissipated: He is enthusiastic about his paper's website and insists that "the print edition of the Sun is growing sharply, albeit from a small base. I'm highly optimistic." He likes to recite a famous saying from poker: "lose early, win late." The paper's survival depends almost entirely on Lipsky's ability to manage his wealthy investors, a task in which this journalist-entrepreneur has excelled and for which he is well suited. "The Sun could continue as long as Lipsky's investors are interested in continuing it," says Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker. "I'd expect to see it survive for several more years. And they'll get a boost if the Democrats win the next presidential election."