by Barry Edelson


Hail Tina Brown, Queen of the Zeitgeist


Another domino, Newsweek, falls into the hands of the publishing barbarians


Learning that Tina Brown is going to be the editor-in-chief of Newsweek is a bit like finding out that your former spouse is going to marry someone you know and move in down the street. The very thought of it makes you cringe. Even if the proximity of your ex doesn't affect your life directly, just knowing about it leaves you with a deeply unsettling feeling.

When Brown took over as editor of The New Yorker in 1992, the readers of that venerated publication shuddered in fear and disgust. Those who expected that the zeitgeist queen would effectively destroy the inchoate quality that made The New Yorker unique were not disappointed. The problem was not that the magazine changed, but the particular way that it changed. Previously, The New Yorker opened the minds of its readers to a human landscape of astounding complexity, inviting us to discern for ourselves the wonders of a universe through the lens of deeply thinking and highly experienced observers. The reader's price of admission was his own seriousness. Brown's New Yorker was more like an endless inside joke, in which the reader was not so much invited as dared to recognize and appreciate the latest pop idol, up-and-coming novelist, or iconoclastic painter — or be left out of the party. Respect for the talents of writers, musicians and artists was replaced by gasping adulation. The price of admission was, well, the cover price of this week's edition.

If this sounds like merely a matter of style, or even a distinction without a difference, the effect on readers was profound. It's not as if the magazine hadn't spent the previous half-century introducing the world to previously unheralded literary talents, but it had done so without the self-congratulatory regard that comes solely from a competitive compulsion to discover the NEXT BIG THING. Wallace Shawn's New Yorker, when it published an unknown author, was essentially saying to its readers, "In our considered judgment, we think so-and-so is an important writer; maybe you'll agree, maybe you won't; let's discuss it." Tina Brown's New Yorker shouted, "We're publishing this person, so he must be important, and if you don't agree, then you are hopelessly out of touch." She was not merely content to keep a discreet finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist; she was determined to define it, to take credit for doing so, and, the worst sin of all for someone who claims to be a journalist, to insinuate herself into it.

Brown responded to her critics by suggesting, essentially, that they were stuck in the past. But one need not have been flash-frozen in the 1950s to dislike the magazine's newfound obsession with trendiness. Her message was unmistakable, and unmistakably hostile: this is the way the world is now, whether you like it or not. Well, Tina Brown's world is not everyone's world, and certainly not the world of most pre-1992 readers of the magazine. Before the Brown era, discovering The New Yorker was an exercise in humility, particularly if one first read the magazine as a high school or college student. The point of reading the magazine was to measure one's own intellectual inferiority against those of its impossibly erudite writers, who knew more about politics, society and culture than the aspiring reader could ever hope to know. (Garrison Keillor once said that he started writing for The New Yorker when he was 18, only the magazine wasn't aware of it at the time.) Once the magazine became less a tribune of enlightenment and more a source of mere entertainment, it lost its aura of importance.

Some of this may be attributable to the readers' own maturity, but the failure of a magazine to stay ahead of its readers' expectations is hardly a reason to change direction so drastically. Brown would perhaps argue that she has always been devoted to the written word, and that she has been one of the few editors in the magazine world to have kept good writing alive amid the general deterioration of the public's appreciation for the English language. Even if this is true, it is beside the point. Introducing a higher standard of fiction and nonfiction at Vanity Fair, where Brown had a stint as editor before shifting over to The New Yorker, may very well have elevated that publication to a loftier sphere, but introducing nude photography and hyperactive paeans to pop culture into The New Yorker had no justification except shock value, which is no justification at all. Playboy also publishes a worthwhile and well-crafted article on occasion, but no one has ever confused it with The National Review. Only David Remnick's comparatively sober stewardship since 1998 has swung the pendulum back to some degree, and rescued The New Yorker from becoming just another slick product at the newsstand.

If the Tina Brown phenomenon is so irksome to bi-coastal readers of a progressive bent, how must the hyped-up inventions of New York and Los Angeles look to distant dairy farmers and factory workers? If we think that the rest of the country just isn't paying attention to what comes out of the centers of politics and culture, then we must come up with some other plausible explanation for the rabid anti-elitist backlash we are experiencing at this very moment. We need look no further for reasons why liberalism has lost its moral compass and its philosophical force than in the celebration of cultural superiority that has been caricatured within the fortress of commercial publishing. It is hard to imagine anyone who represents exactly what is wrong with serious magazine publishing than Tina Brown, who has built an entire career on the premise that it is possible to be both the progenitor and guardian of the zeitgeist, even as her relentless pursuit of this imaginary essence leads her ever farther from the public square where most of the rest of the people congregate.

Grace demands that Tina Brown should be sent good wishes on her assumption of command at the venerable Newsweek, but history insists that it may not be venerable much longer. Like The New Yorker, Newsweek under Tina Brown may eventually find itself on firmer financial footing and gain a wider circulation, but it is almost guaranteed to be unrecognizable as Newsweek. If the solution to the crisis in print journalism is to take established publications and transform them into colorized imitations of their former selves, then we would do better to let them die, and allow the forces of creative destruction to replace them with some other media that have some respect for what remains of an intelligent American readership. Perhaps Newsweek must change in order to survive, but handing the reins to Tina Brown isn't change, it's suicide.

November 21, 2010


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