Media Matters

The Thinker as an American

The making of a braino conservative webzine.

By 3.31.04

Chalk up Tom Lifson as one of those callers to talk show hosts who turned into a media figure himself. "Tom from Berkeley" used to call in to Lucianne Goldberg's "Lucianne Live" show. "Then I became a regular caller, and she invited me in," says Lifson, the editor of the new Internet journal The American Thinker. He now makes a regular Thursday appearance with the famed literary agent-Clinton critic. "I've guest-hosted for Lucianne three times."

(The others? "Carl from Oyster Bay" flowered as Carl Limbacher, reporting for Newsmax.com. "Peter the Lawyer," Peter Mulhern a Rush Limbaugh caller from Annapolis on impeachment issues, wrote for the now-gone Washington Weekly with the late Edward Zehr. Mulhern now reports on Beltway doings for San Francisco's KSFO radio.)

Lifson, a management consultant who specializes in U.S.-Japanese issues, got an MBA from the Harvard Business School at about the same time as one George W. Bush. He also holds a Harvard Master's in East Asian Studies and a doctorate in sociology; he has taught both subjects at Harvard. He and long-time friend Richard Baehr (similarly credentialed via the M.I.T. route) found themselves trading e-mails on political and policy subjects, then sending those informal essays along to other friends. Baehr was writing a private e-list weekly column at the same time.

"It was already becoming a kind of tiny circulation webzine, so we thought we might as well put it up on the web where anybody could see it," says Lifson.

LIFSON AND BAEHR ADDED two more weighty academics to their original staff. Mary Davenport, a California-based OB/GYN, as the site's "about" page notes, "is a member of the board of directors of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists and strictly follows the teachings of the Catholic Church in her practice of medicine." Ed Lasky, a lawyer and MBA (Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern), now trades stocks for a living so he can opine and study more freely.

"We went up with our beta site in late November (2003) and it took about a month to see if it worked and to learn the ins and outs of the software. We had what we call our real debut on January 5."

The American Thinker's archive goes back to November 4, 2003. I first noticed the new journal through postings on Lucianne.com and Free Republic, in particular two articles: "Case Not Closed: Iraq's WMD Stockpiles," by Douglas Hanson, on March 2; and "The So-Called BBC," by Michael Morris, March 24. Hanson, a member of the Coalition Provisional Authority, makes a thoughtful, convincing case that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq owes primarily to a kind of management problem.

That doesn't make for easy summary or for an easy headline. It's typical of Thinker articles, as Lifson notes. "When you try to be thoughtful and fair, it's not polemical, and it's the polemical that gets picked up readily. And that's okay. Because we're not filling up advertising space, we don't have to please a large audience all the time."

The biggest breakthrough for the site so far came with the publication of Lifson's own "GWB: HBS MBA" on February 4. Rush Limbaugh read the analysis of George W. Bush as a Harvard B School grad on the air, and it resulted in the Thinker's first "six-figure hits," as Lifson says.

SO HERE'S THE AMERICAN THINKER, a kind of cross between the Manhattan Institute's City Journal (without the prestige) and the Council on Foreign Relations' Foreign Affairs (without the snores). It's not making any money, it's not paying contributors, and it doesn't expect to do either in the near future.

What's the point? Easy.

"Look, you have a site as well," Lifson explains. "The revolution is just getting underway, in terms of delivering news and opinion to the American public. There have been days when we've seen six figures of visitors to our site. The fact that you can do this with very low investment of capital is astounding. It would never have happened with print."

Lifson describes business history as "one of my passions." He studied with noted business historian Alfred Chandler at Harvard. "It took decades for the fractional horsepower electric motor to revolutionize production. Consumer accessibility is just beginning now with software. The Internet is the world's first two-way mass communication medium." And the active consumer Internet is only about ten years old.

Lifson remarks that he has recently read that about half of the United States population has now posted something on the Internet. "That has to be significant. How many people get news from websites?" Lifson remembers delightedly his first visit to a really outstanding library, at college, when he first got a chance to read foreign newspapers. "Now I can do that before breakfast. The (Internet) system is so obviously superior."

Lifson chuckles. "I'm not buying stock in any newspaper companies."

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.