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Mark Steyn on the plight of Lileks, the plight of the Conrad Black trial, and whether the election in France is good news or bad news.

Friday, May 11, 2007

HH: I begin as I do on those Thursdays when we are lucky with Mark Steyn, Columnist to the World, Lots to cover with you today, Mark. Welcome, always a pleasure to have you.

MS: Always good to be with you, Hugh.

HH: I want to start, because I think it was just last week that you were in Minnesota with one James Lileks. I wonder if you’re as surprised as I was by the Star Tribune’s sort of flopping about on the future of their business this week.

MS: Well, I think the fact of the matter is that if the Star Tribune really thinks that they’re using James Lileks’ talents best by getting him to do straight local reporting, then they deserve to go out of business. And of course, it’s an absurd thing. You know, the fact is James has a very particular voice, a very distinctive voice, very ruminative voice. I disagree with him on a lot of things. He doesn’t like show tunes, for example.

HH: I know.

MS: He has a strange antipathy to them. But he’s an absolutely beautiful writer. So you’ve got to give him a format in which he can write. And that’s really, actually, at the heart of what’s wrong with these newspapers, is they’re very boringly written. They’ve got boring headlines, they’ve got boring copy, and the idea that you have this guy on talent, right there in the building, and you decide to use him for what he’s absolutely worst at, is a tribute to the management that has reduced the American newspaper industry to the state it’s in.

HH: Well hopefully, they’ll change their minds. Speaking of show tunes, in the interview with Jon Voight, it came up that his first Broadway role was as Rolfe in Sound of Music opposite Mary Martin. So that…you may want to listen to that discussion.

MS: Yes, that’s interesting. I wonder if you talked him into singing a few bars of Lonely Goat Herd for you.

HH: No, I did not, unfortunately. I don’t think Rolfe was in the Lonely Goat Herd number, was he?

MS: Well, I think he was yodeling away in the background.

HH: Oh, I’m not sure. Now Mark Steyn, today, Reuters had a story out of the Lord Black trial, which made it sound like they came close to blows. What was going on there today?

MS: Yes, well, it’s very interesting to me, because the nastiest lawyer in the case is the Canadian guy. I mean, that is one of the funny things about this case, is that there’s all these American lawyers, plus a couple of lawyers from Toronto who have been given leave to appear before the Illinois Bar, as it were. And what’s interesting to me is that if you’re a foreigner, you watch all these legal shows, you’ve grown up on Perry Mason and all the ones they have now, and trial lawyer is a much scarier term than barrister, or QC, queen’s counsel. And yet, the bad cop in this trial is the QC, Eddie Greenspan, who’s a big barrister in Toronto, and sort of came out swinging and sneering, and doing all the things that we thought American trail lawyers did, but which in this case, at any rate, seems to be the preserve of the supposedly milquetoast Canadian contingent.

HH: And so what was he, who was he swinging at, and what was he swinging with?

MS: He was swinging at Conrad Black’s number two, who ran the Chicago Sun Times. He’s a guy called David Radler, and he’s a famous cheapskate. It came out emerged in this trial, he wrote a congratulatory e-mail to a minion who accidentally sold a paper in LaPorte, Indiana, to two different newspaper companies. And he’s…David Radler…if you think James Lileks, by the way, gets a bad deal from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, David Radler once called me up, the last time I spoke to him, and he offered me, he wanted to carry my column in some small town newspapers he ran. He offered me $3 dollars per column, and I was thinking oh, I wonder if that’s per newspapers. And he said no, that’s for the entire group.

HH: (laughing)

MS: He is not a man who believes in overpaying for media content.

HH: So did he bleed? Did he bleed badly today?

MS: Well, he basically admitted he was a liar time and again. He admitted he lied to the audit committee and the newspaper group, he admitted that he lied to the SEC, he lied to the FBI, he lied to the Department of Justice, he lied, lied, lied to innumerable different government agencies and investigators. And a lot of the prosecution’s argument hangs on his credibility as a witness.

HH: Oh, that’s a very good day for Lord Black then, I have to think.

MS: Yeah.

HH: Now Mark Steyn, you were mentioned this week on Jay Leno’s show. I want to play that for the audience, and then get your reaction. Here is Jay Leno on the Tonight Show.

JL: I don’t even understand this apology. You know, you do something wrong, you apologize. “The Ottawa Citizen and Southam News wish to apologize for our apology to Mark Steyn, Steyn published October 22nd. In correcting the incorrect statements about Mr. Steyn, published October 15th, we incorrectly published the incorrect correction. We accept and regret that our original regrets were unacceptable, and we apologize to Mr. Steyn for any previous distress caused by our previous apology.” Think a lawyer wrote that?

HH: Mark Steyn, what are you doing on Jay Leno? What’s going on?

MS: I always love that. That actually ties into the Conrad Black thing. That comes from the good old days when he owned all the newspapers up in Canada. And I was a columnist for the National Post up there, and another columnist who I had a kind of feud with had, I argued, grossly libeled me in a column. So I called this kind of mid-level executive, and demanded an apology. And the guy thought I deserved an apology, but he gave me a rather sort of cheese paring one, and not on the terms we’d agreed. As you know, these things are usually agreed. So I flounced off in a big queeny huff, and simply ceased writing for all of Conrad Black’s newspapers.

HH: Oh my.

MS: And so then, this executive realized he was in big trouble, and they came groveling back to negotiate things. And I said there’s no money, there’s no…you haven’t got enough money to make me come back. And he said, so he goes, what would make you come back? And I then dictated this apology, more or less, off the top of my head. And he said to me, you’re joking. We’re going to look like a bunch of idiots. And I said you should have thought about that before you wrecked the first apology. And that is, by the way, again, to bring everything back to James Lileks, that is how I would advise him to treat the Star Tribune.

HH: Well, you know, writers everywhere stood up in their cars and cheered right now, because very few have the ability to walk away and have the employer grovel, Mark Steyn.

MS: Yeah…no, no. Well, actually, funny enough, Conrad Black’s wife, Barbara Amiel, who’s a marvelous columnist in her own right, was a columnist at the Times of London, was the first female newspaper editor of a North American metropolitan daily. But Barbara said to me, she goes, what I always love about you, Mark, she goes, is the way you just, you’ve got a wonderful way of dealing with editors and management. And I think the Ottawa Citizen was on the receiving end of it that time.

HH: Well now, let’s turn to politics. Al Sharpton managed to slander all the Mormons in America, including the one who plays on the Rutgers basketball team this week, by saying they don’t believe in God. Did you follow that story?

MS: Yes, I did. You know, what is disgraceful is that we actually have to talk about Al Sharpton as a figure of consequence in American public life, because this is a disgusting man. And I resent the way you’re obliged to say the Reverend Al Sharpton every time you mention him, because in a sense, he’s a political figure for whom this is a kind of handle of convenience, yet we are obliged to take with great respect his own religious identity when he doesn’t accord the similar respect to those of other faiths. And I think this was a stupid and ignorant remark. The fact of the matter is, I’ve become a big demography bore as you know, Hugh. The fact of the matter is that Mormons have one of the fastest, highest fertility rates in this country. Simply put, Mormons are on course to overtake blacks as a percentage of the American population in a couple of decade’s time. It will not be possible when Mormons are running for public office to make these kind of cheap insults about them.

HH: Now let me ask you about, speaking of demographics, France, Sarkozy’s election. Are you an optimist…is this encouraging to you? Someone asked me this yesterday. Will Mark Steyn finally go to bed happy, and I said I don’t think so. Demography is not the stuff of political elections.

MS: Well, I think also, the fact of the matter is that whether or not he is France’s Reagan, or France’s Thatcher, the reality is that the electorate in France are not where the British and the American electorates were in 1979 and 1980. Yes, the French think there’s too much crime, and yes, they’re unhappy with Muslim rioters and all the rest of it, but they’re still wedded, essentially, to the over-generous, lavish social welfare programs that make the future of the state simply untenable. You know, London is the 7th biggest French speaking city in the world now, because so many young, talented French people have concluded there’s no economic future for them in France. They’ve moved to London. My corner of London has been practically colonized by the French in the last ten years.

HH: And so is there any possibility of systemic reform in France? Or is this a mere Indian summer on the road to eclipse as a Western democracy?

MS: Well, I would bet, I hate to say this, because there’s lots of aspects of France that are very agreeable. You know, I love the wine, I love the cheese, I love the women. I mean, it has many fine qualities. But the fact of the matter is I think you’d have to say it was more like the second. The French state, if you think the bureaucracy’s obstructive in Washington, the bureaucracy in France is entrenched at every level. And it makes it very difficult to have systemic reform.

HH: Mark Steyn, always a pleasure,

End of interview.

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