Friday, January 30, 2015

The New New Republic?

UPDATE: In a Huff Post Live chat with Marc Lamont Hill, newly appointed New Republic Senior Editor Jamil Smith, who is African American, asked that readers give the magazine a little time to rebuild before declaring it dead.

Roughly a little over a month ago The New Republic imploded. The now 101-year-old mainline liberal publication, founded in 1914 by Progressive journalists Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and Walter Weyl, with the financial support of members of the Whitney family, and which had changed ownership many times over the years, found itself hemorrhaging writers as a result of editorial changes pushed by its newest owner, Chris Hughes, an out gay, Facebook-cofounder, Harvard College graduate, near-billionaire, and Obama campaign internet strategist, who purchased a majority stake in the magazine in March 2012.

With the Harvard tie he is hardly out of place TNR; the Washington-based magazine has had a long history of white male Crimsons, beginning with Croly and Lippmann, up through avowed racist owner and publisher Martin Peretz, and editors Michael Kinsley, and Andrew Sullivan, filling its pages. Hughes, however, is a product of the new Silicon Valley world and its "disruption" ethos, though these ideas did not immediately manifest themselves when he bought the magazine. He kept its editor, Franklin Foer, a returnee to the magazine after a prior stint from 2006 through 2010, and TNR most continued as it had, advocating a mainstream liberal--often varying degrees of neoconservative (as in its pro-Iraq War stance under Peter Beinart), neoliberal or mildly libertarian ideology at times--approach to politics, economics and culture. It also continued as a magazine staffed mainly by white Ivy League graduates, with some rare exceptions.

Chris Hughes and Franklin Foer
(© James Estrin/New York Times)
Throughout the magazine's 100th anniversary year, tensions were mounting. The New York Times reports that TNR, an acronym Hughes urged staffers to nix in favor of The New Republic, was losing "$5 million per year," a small sum compared to his overall fortune, admittedly, but nothing to sniff at either. Despite Hughes's push for higher traffic, some longtime staffers, like literary editor Leon Wieseltier, continued to champion TNR's traditions and longstanding format, publicly airing comments of this sort at the magazine's centenary celebration last November. By hiring Guy Vidra, a former Yahoo exec as CEO, one month before the ceremony, however, Hughes indicated as clearly as possible that he was going in a new direction. Hughes' and Vidra's new plans include removing "Liberal" from the masthead, truncating the publication schedule from 20 to 10 issues, moving the editorial offices to New York and transforming the publishing venture into what Vidra has described as "a vertically integrated digital-media company." (As The New York Times puts it, Vidra said that he intended to "break shit.") Hughes' decision to pursue this route allegedly accelerated after his husband, Sean Eldridge, Political Director of Freedom to Marry, lost his Congressional race for New York's 19th district by 30 points.

In December, Hughes ousted Foer, and appointed Gabriel Snyder, a former Bloomberg, Atlantic Wire and Gawker staff member, in his place. The mass exodus, of Wieseltier and others began, with concomitant denunciations by a wide array of TNR writers, including an open letter signed by a luminaries' list (Robert Reich, Hendrik Hertzberg, Jeffrey Rosen, Andrew Sullivan, Sean Wilentz, etc.) that appeared on Facebook.  So extensive were the losses in human capital that the magazine had to suspend print publication during December, though it has continued with its online presence throughout the internal tempest.

Not all critics sided with Foer, Wieseltier and Reich; some, like the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, highlighted the magazine's mostly monochrome editorial staffing and its sometimes horrendous racist history, about which I'll say more in a few paragraphs. But in general, the attacks, from a wide array of quarters, on Hughes in particular, were damning, which left me wondered how he and TNR would recover.

It now appears that TNR is again up and running, with new staff under Snyder, though on its site no masthead is yet accessible. From Facebook I learned that acclaimed poet Cathy Hong Park will be in charge of poetry, a welcome shift from the past. (TNR certainly could stand to publish more poetry and fiction--and perhaps even playlets and cross-genre works--as it once did.) Whether there will be other staff members who are not white and not male, as well as non-staff contributors who break the longstanding TNR political and cultural l remains to be seen, though a scan of its current pages suggests that this is happening. At any rate, TNR will prove its commitment by sustaining any changes, and I don't expect that when it comes to politics and economics it will be trending in the direction of Socialism, let alone Trotskyism. Its owner has those many millions to protect (from taxes), don't forget.

One could argue about all of this, WHO CARES? I remember saying this about TNR back during the early 1990s, during which former editor Michael Kinsley, now a confirmed contrarian, was appearing on CNN's Crossfire show and writing TNR's TRB columns, and a friend who would later briefly work for the Clinton administration reminded me of the conservative-within-liberal politics influence that any number of its writers and staffers have had in Washington. It was, in fact, allegedly "the in-flight magazine of Air Force One" during Bill Clinton's presidency, and its importance didn't end in 2000. To repeat, Hughes, the owner, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, has close ties to the current President of the United States. But you need only look at early 2000s editor Peter Beinart's full-throated advocacy for George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003, which played a crucial role in amplifying the case for and push towards war. (Beinart has since, thankfully, come to regret his hubristic stance.)

Or one could point to Jonathan Cohen's campaign, cited by various DC journalists and politicians, for the passage of Obamacare, which counts of one of President Obama's great successes, to underscore that TNR, despite its smallish subscriber base of 45,000, has consistently played a central role in the Democratic Party's--especially Democratic Leadership Council/neoliberal--political and legislative echo chamber. Kinsley wasn't the only staffer to make the leap to the broader public arena. One could quickly cite former editor and (neo-) conservative Andrew Sullivan, whose TNR notoriety included promoting the supremacist Charles Murray-Richard Herrnstein Bell Curve tome, as another figure whose tenure at the magazine led to an outsized voice in the public, especially official Washington, discourse. As a post-TNR blogger, Atlantic staffer and author, he was invited to meet and advise President Barack Obama along with other "liberal" journalists very early in the president's first term, in 2009.

Whether TNR can possibly have that same role remains unclear.

An article posted within the last few days, however, represents a positive step in TNR's process of at least beginning to come to terms with some of the worst aspects of its past. On January 29, TNR published South Asian Canadian, Toronto-based journalist and comics critic Jeet Heer's insightful, historical reflection, "The New Republic's Legacy on Race." As any person of color familiar with liberalism can attest, an economically, politically and socially open-minded approach does not guarantee good or progressive racial politics, or a challenge to racism, white supremacy, sexism, classism, or many other corrosive ideologies. Heer notes the magazine's mixed history on racial issues and racism within its ranks. On the one hand, it can point to periods of enlightened publishing policies and discourse, Heer notes, during the Civil Rights Movement; on the other hand, there is the 38-year Marty Peretz era, whose stench still perfumes any discussion of TNR.

Heer shows, as other commentators online have noted, that not only was Peretz notorious for uttering anti-black, anti-latino, and, especially, anti-arab and anti-muslim comments, but he infused the magazine with a racist, neoconservative, hyper-Zionist ideology that its pages often reflected. Sometimes his editors and writers, like Kinsley, did not so much agree with him as mostly remain silent publicly about the magazine's toxic rhetoric. Why did so few of these liberals not speak out against Peretz, even after leaving the magazine? In the case of Sullivan, the attacks on affirmative action, black intellectuals (which was in essence a trashing of Cornel West) and the push for the Bell Curve material, or with late editor Michael Kelly, who supported Bush's Iraq War folly, the support for Peretz's perspective was nothing less than that of a true believer. Heer doesn't stint on the magazine's editorial ignominy, noting the centrality of racist stereotypes, downplayed in some of the commentary about both, in articles by notorious disgraced plagiarists Stephen Glass and Ruth Shalit.

2008 covers
Moreover, despite the publication of some black and other writers of color, many of them conservatives in politics, culture or both, during the Peretz era and after, the magazine's record on hiring and publishing staff who were not white has been abysmal. (See that luminaries list, which had few women on it as well.) Many online defenders have mentioned Dayo Olopade, who had an excellent five-year run as one of TNR's best younger talents, but can anyone name any other black, asian-american or latino writers--and if so, beyond one or two--who came to wider public notice because of their work at TNR? On top of this, its coverage of cultural issues has been terribly limited, especially for a magazine based in Washington, of all places. Art critic Jed Perl, and literary critic Ruth Franklin, outside of a few instances (eg. Perl on Ai Wei-Wei, Franklin on Zadie Smith), seldom or only irregularly covered exhibitions or books, respectively, by artists of color, especially Americans.

Both Perl and Franklin are gone now; will their replacements be any better? Will they come from a broader pool of writers or still mainly be Ivy seedlings? Will the magazine, in its ideological push to replicate contemporary Silicon Valley modes of operation and in its shift to the East Coast capital of hypergentrification and displacement, let alone Wall Street's lair, New York City, be able to rethink its neoliberal and sometimes neoconservative drift, or at least provide platforms for dissenting Left voices, even if it is not about to replace The Nation, Mother Jones, or other more progressive organs? And now that it is based away from DC can it possibly have the same political and legislative influence it had? Will it be as close to the next president, Democratic--or Republican--as it has to the most recent three?

Will people soon be saying who cares? about TNR? Or will it gives us all reasons, good, bad or otherwise, not to?

No comments:

Post a Comment