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Split on Syria: A conservative magazine’s internal battle

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Sept. 2, 2013: Free Syrian Army fighters stand in front of buildings damaged by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the old city of Aleppo.Reuters

Howard Kurtz’s "Media Buzz" program will debut Sunday, Sept. 8 at 11 a.m. EST.

The prospect of war with Syria has sparked something of a civil war at National Review.

A number of the magazine’s leading figures have balked at an editorial endorsing U.S. air strikes against the Assad regime.

This, in my view, is a good thing. The most interesting magazines are the ones that let their writers go at it, rather than marching in lockstep. 

The New Republic was like that back in the 1980s. No-holds-barred debates are healthy, not just for the journalists involved but for their readers. Conformity is something of a snooze.

But the split at National Review underscores how the Syria crisis, one replete with no good options, has complicated life for ideological allies. Would their tone be different if George W. Bush was on the verge of lobbing missiles at Syria?

The shadow of Iraq also hangs over the media debate, as a number of commentators and publications who were cheerleaders for going after Saddam Hussein and his imaginary WMDs later felt embarrassed, and in some cases publicly acknowledged they were wrong.   

The National Review editorial (which preceded Obama’s announcement that he will seek congressional approval) made a forceful case on Syria.

“The outrage of our allies and the logic of the president’s own statements make it nearly impossible for him to escape acting this time," it reads. "If he did somehow find a way out, it would dangerously erode the credibility of the United States. The president can’t repeatedly make threats that prove utterly empty without inviting every bad actor in the world to laugh off whatever we say in the future, in potentially much more dire and important circumstances.”

But in what was labeled a dissent, NR’s Ramesh Ponnuru takes direct aim at that argument.

“Is that really a good enough reason for taking action that we otherwise would not?" he asked. "And wouldn’t strikes that leave the regime in place — that are not designed to topple it — also make those threats empty? There is also the constitutional point. This is not a military action that we are undertaking to defend ourselves from attack or to protect a core interest.”

Ponnuru concludes that “this is a war with no clear objective, thus no strategy to attain it, no legal basis, and no public support. I dissent.”

Among those who tweeted their agreement with Ponnuru’s piece were Jack Fowler, National Review’s publisher. So, the dissent at editor Rich Lowry’s publication runs pretty deep.

The Daily Caller pounced on all this, with J. Arthur Bloom digging up a 2003 blog post by Lowry, right after the invasion of Iraq, in which he called on the Bush administration to move next against Syria.

“When asked to comment on Lowry’s 2003 blog post calling for Syrian intervention, Fowler responded with an unprompted criticism of the Daily Caller. ‘We are all in the same boat. …Your particular place of employment has a peculiar obsession with the National Review. I don’t know what motivates it, and I frankly don’t care what motivates it, but I’m not playing into your little game here.’” 

Fowler added that there were some “psychological cures” for this obsession. 

“You know, get a life, corporately,” he said.

Talk about bringing out the heavy artillery. 

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the Daily Caller writing about this—and, unlike many in the online world, calling for comment. National Review sounds a tad defensive about an internal rebellion that it should be celebrating.

David Frost and Arab Journalism

Most of the tributes to the late David Frost have rightly focused on his brilliant handling of the Richard Nixon interrogation and his chats with all manner of world leaders and celebrities.

But when I last interviewed him four years ago, the subject was a more controversial one: his decision to join Al-Jazeera English.

Frost insisted in that CNN interview that he had thoroughly checked out the Qatar-based network, in Washington and London, and concluded it was “independent” before deciding to lend the channel his credibility.

What, I asked, about the parent network having aired those Usama bin Laden videos?

Al Qaeda sources “dropped them through the letter box,” Frost told me, and “once they decided to use them, so did the BBC, so did ITV, so did CBS, NBC, ABC. Everyone wanted them. And they just happened to be the lucky recipients, as it were.”

Frost was as charming and witty a journalist as I have ever met. Years earlier, during a stroll in front of the Watergate, we talked about the 28 hours he spent in 1977 with the only American president to resign his office.

Frost had paid $600,000 for the rights—at least $2 million in today’s economy—but brushed aside my questions about checkbook journalism. 

“After all, it was his life, so I don’t see why he can’t be paid,” Frost said. “NBC News was offering $400,000, or whatever.”

The British journalist felt he had to step into the role of prosecutor because Nixon “hadn't prepared to say anything was wrong, nothing was wrong, not even mistakes, on that first day.”

And even when Nixon admitted mistakes in the next session, Frost pushed him further. 

“It was the most heart-stopping moment for me, because I was saying, ‘Won't you go further than the word “mistake,” the word that seems to be not enough for the American people?" Frost recalled. "And he said suddenly, he stunned me and said, ‘Well, what do you suggest?’”

Frost obtained the only real moral accounting of the Watergate crimes from the 37th president, securing his place in journalistic history. 

And no politician will ever again subject himself to that kind of televised grilling.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.