From 1967 until the late 1980s, the magazine featured the writings of authors such as Thomas Sowell, Tom Wolfe, P.J. O'Rourke, George F. Will, Malcolm Gladwell, Patrick J. Buchanan, and Malcolm Muggeridge. During the 1990s, the magazine was better known for its reports on Bill Clinton and its "Arkansas Project," funded by businessman Richard Mellon Scaife and the Bradley Foundation. The American Spectator has carried articles by Thomas Sowell, a regular column by economist and celebrity Ben Stein, as well as former Reagan aide Jeffrey Lord, conservative health care consultant David Catron, and editorial director Wladyslaw Pleszczynski, as well as occasional articles by P.J. O'Rourke.
After operating under the name The Alternative: An American Spectator for several years, in 1977 the magazine changed its name to The American Spectator because, in editor Tyrrell's words, "the word 'alternative' had come to be associated almost exclusively with radicals and with their way of life." In fact, Tyrrell had started the magazine as a conservative alternative to the student radicalism at the nation's universities in the 1960s. American Spectator is not affiliated with The Spectator, a British magazine of somewhat similar format and conservatism.
The publication gained prominence in the 1990s by reporting on political scandals. The March 1992 issue contained David Brock's criticism of Clarence Thomas accuser Anita Hill. Brock and his colleague Daniel Wattenberg soon aimed at a bigger target: Hillary and Bill Clinton. A January 1994 article about then-President Bill Clinton's sex life contained the first reference in print to Clinton accuser Paula Jones, although the article focused on allegations that Clinton used Arkansas state troopers to facilitate his extramarital sexual activities (see Troopergate). It only referred to Jones by her first name and corroborated few if any elements of her story. This article was the basis for the claim of damages in a sexual harassment lawsuit, which started the chain of events resulting in President Clinton's impeachment.
David Brock recanted his accusations upon his departure from the conservative movement. He also denounced his Anita Hill article in his 2003 book Blinded by the Right: the Conscience of an Ex-Conservative. He implies that Rush Limbaugh's coverage of his Anita Hill article instigated advertising on Limbaugh's network, which resulted in a large increase in the magazine's circulation. He also implies that this caused the magazine's content to move "away from thoughtful essays and scholarly reviews and humor pieces" to "hit jobs."
For his part, Wattenberg eventually incurred the displeasure of many fellow conservatives when he belatedly admitted that he had killed a story about rumors of Clinton fathering a child out of wedlock as a result of his relationship with a young African American woman. Wattenberg actually tracked down a videotape of the woman being interviewed by an unnamed third party who asked her what Wattenberg described as "softball" questions, but he never was able to interview her himself. Wattenberg's rationales for killing the story were that he had no proof that the story was true and that the woman's testimony was unconvincing. He said that she "seemed like a junkie." The story was revived in 1999 by Matt Drudge.
Internal strife eventually led to the departure of long-time publisher Ronald Burr after a disagreement with Tyrrell led Burr to call for an independent audit of the magazine's finances. The departure of Burr and several prominent conservative figures from the magazine's board of directors resulted in conservative foundations pulling much of the funding the nonprofit had relied on to pay high salaries to Brock and Tyrrell, as well as to fund direct-mail campaigns needed to keep up the monthly's circulation. Faced with a budget crisis, the magazine, then led by publisher Terry Eastland, a former spokesman in the Reagan Justice Department, laid off staffers and cut spending significantly. The magazine also struggled to pay legal bills incurred from an investigation launched against it by the Justice Department for alleged witness tampering in the Whitewater investigation. The Justice Department investigation led to revelations about the "Arkansas Project," a campaign by businessman Richard Mellon Scaife to discredit the Clintons by funding investigative reporting at several conservative media outlets.
As shortfalls continued, George Gilder, a longtime supporter of the magazine, who was newly wealthy from an Internet business, purchased the magazine with the goal of turning it into a profit-making glossy with significant media buzz. Numerous staff members, demoralized by the ever-looming budget crises, were laid off or departed after Joshua Gilder and Richard Vigilante took the reins and vowed to reach a new technology- and business-savvy audience. Circulation and budget losses continued and even increased in the Gilder era, and at one point the entire Washington-based staff, other than Tyrrell and executive editor and web site editor Wladyslaw Pleszczynski, were laid off as operations were moved to Massachusetts, where the rest of George Gilder's businesses were based. In 2003, George Gilder, who had lost most of his fortune with the bursting of the Internet stock bubble, sold the magazine for $1 back to Tyrrell and the American Alternative Foundation, the magazine's original owner. Later, the name of the owner was changed to the American Spectator Foundation. The magazine then moved operations back to the Washington, D.C. area. Later that year, former book publisher Alfred S. Regnery became the magazine's publisher. By 2004, circulation hovered at around 50,000.
In 2013, the magazine reverted to a tabloid format, reflecting the roots of the magazine, which was originally published at a large size. For most of the 1990s and all of the 2000s the Spectator had been published in a traditional magazine format.
In 2011, Assistant Editor Patrick Howley published a piece detailing his infiltration of a Washington, D.C. protest. In the article, Howley asserts his aim to "mock and undermine" the protest against American Imperialism, and writes in the first person about his experiences protesting at the National Air and Space Museum. This article, and the methods detailed within, was condemned by two left-leaning publications The Guardian and The Atlantic Monthly's "Atlantic Wire" blog, and one economically conservative publication (The Economist), because they believed the correspondents who worked on the story had conflated journalism and politics. Matt Steinglass of The Economist wrote that Howley "winds up offering a vision of politics as a kind of self-focused performance art, or perhaps (to say the same thing) a version of Jackass."
This section needs to be updated.(August 2016)
The magazine has not released a print version since the July/August 2014 issue. A September/October PDF-only version was finally unveiled on the magazine's website in mid-November, though the masthead still claims that it is "published monthly, except for combined July/Aug and Jan/Feb issues," with a note from Editorial Director Wlady Pleszczynski admitting that "...we have some problems of our own." Pleszczynski added that the issue "was ready for release well over a month ago but for reasons affecting many a print publication these days couldn't be published on actual pages and after considerable delay is now being released in digital form only."
The American Spectator Facebook page now[when?] refers to itself as a "News/Media Website," though the website itself appears to still accept subscriptions for a print version.