The Smoke Machine

SYNOPSIS: Krugman discusses Washington's right-wing scandal machine, why it exists and who funds it

In a way, it's a shame that so much of David Brock's "Blinded by the Right: The conscience of an ex-conservative" is about the private lives of our self-appointed moral guardians. Those tales will sell books, but they may obscure the important message: that the "vast right-wing conspiracy" is not an overheated metaphor but a straightforward reality, and that it works a lot like a special-interest lobby.

Modern political economy teaches us that small, well-organized groups often prevail over the broader public interest. The steel industry got the tariff it wanted, even though the losses to consumers will greatly exceed the gains of producers, because the typical steel consumer doesn't understand what's happening.

"Blinded by the Right" shows that the same logic applies to non-economic issues. The scandal machine that employed Mr. Brock was, in effect, a special-interest group financed by a handful of wealthy fanatics men like the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, whose cultlike Unification Church owns The Washington Times, and Richard Mellon Scaife, who bankrolled the scandal-mongering American Spectator and many other right-wing enterprises. It was effective because the typical news consumer didn't realize what was going on.

The group's efforts managed to turn Whitewater a $200,000 money-losing investment into a byword for scandal, even though an eight-year, $73 million investigation never did find any evidence of wrongdoing by the Clintons. Just imagine what the scandal machine could have done with more promising raw material such as the decidedly unusual business transactions of the young George W. Bush.

But there is, of course, no comparable scandal machine on the left. Why not?

One answer is that for some reason there is a level of anger and hatred on the right that has at best a faint echo in the anti-globalization left, and none at all in mainstream liberalism. Indeed, the liberals I know generally seem unwilling to face up to the nastiness of contemporary politics.

It's also true that in the nature of things, billionaires are more likely to be right-wing than left-wing fanatics. When billionaires do support more or less liberal causes, they usually try to help the world, not take over the U.S. political system. Not to put too fine a point on it: While George Soros was spending lavishly to promote democracy abroad, Mr. Scaife was spending lavishly to undermine it at home.

And his achievement is impressive; key figures from the Scaife empire are now senior officials in the Bush administration. (And Mr. Moon's newspaper is now in effect the administration's house organ.) Clearly, scandalmongering works: the public and, less excusably, the legitimate media all too readily assume that where there's smoke there must be fire when in reality it's just some angry rich guys who have bought themselves a smoke machine.

And the media are still amazingly easy to sucker. Just look at the way the press fell for the fraudulent tale of vandalism by departing Clinton staffers, or the more recent spread of the bogus story that Ken Lay stayed at the Clinton White House.

Regular readers of this column know that not long ago I found myself the target of a minor-league smear campaign. The pattern was typical: right-wing sources insisting that a normal business transaction (in my case consulting for Enron, back when I was a college professor, not an Op-Ed columnist, and in no position to do the company any favors) was somehow corrupt; then legitimate media picking up on the story, assuming that given all the fuss there must be something to the allegations; and no doubt a lingering impression, even though no favors were given or received, that the target must have done something wrong ("Isn't it hypocritical for him to criticize crony capitalism when he himself was on the take?"). Now that I've read Mr. Brock's book I understand what happened.

Slate's Tim Noah, whom I normally agree with, says that Mr. Brock tells us nothing new: "We know . . . that an appallingly well-financed hard right was obsessed with smearing Clinton." But who are "we"? Most people don't know that and anyway, he shouldn't speak in the past tense; an appallingly well-financed hard right is still in the business of smearing anyone who disagrees with its agenda, and too many journalists still allow themselves to be used.

I found "Blinded by the Right" distasteful, but revelatory. So, I suspect, will many others.

Originally published in The New York Times, 3.29.02