Saturday, December 06, 2014

Requiem for a TNR Dream

When Chris Hughes bought a majority share of The New Republic two years ago, I tolkd folks to "count me as a supporter." This may not have been one of my best decisions.

I haven't been a regular reader at TNR for awhile now -- Jonathan Chait was my must-read author and he's moved over to NY Mag. But I am a regular irregular reader, if that makes sense, and so I do feel invested in its success. My own relationship with The New Republic echoes that of many of the folks I've been reading over the past few days. As a high school debater I found it lively, engaging, and unpredictable -- all qualities I aspired to myself. It certainly was a "formative influence" on me -- for good and for ill (I can certainly attribute my pronounced hawkish tendencies that persisted through most of my college years to the magazine). And at least some of my blogging style -- most notably how I title my pieces -- was very consciously modeled off of my TNR reading. While I don't exactly identify with it, I can't help but give a nod to how Michael Lerner described his college-age self (I'm paraphrasing from memory): "I was a New Republic reader -- I saw through a lot of bullshit, but I didn't really have any interest in the broader structures of power and domination in the world."

Aside from being comfortably ensconced within the mainstream liberal tradition, TNR's most notable quality was its contrarian streak. This was a blessing and a curse. At its best, the magazine challenged its readers to take unexpected and controversial ideas seriously, and created a forum for debate and argumentation that was unrivaled anywhere. At its worst, it elevated genuinely mediocre ideas to a prominent platform with a smug grin about how it was "provocative". The magazine often took great glee in poking its own coalition; so much so that it sometimes didn't matter whether the poke was justified.

Unfortunately, as you may have noticed, The New Republic appears to be in a state of chaos following a mass exodus of upper-level staff and contributors. The instigating event appears to be the departure of well-respected editor Franklin Foer, who was replaced by former Gawker chieftain Gabriel Snyder. That Foer heard about his replacement through external sources added insult to injury (though it did allow him to announce his resignation rather than being fired). Longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier joined Foer in exiting, and soon a majority of TNR's upper-echelons (and a large quantity of their contributing editors) jumped ship as well.

My first reaction to this was that everybody seemed to be overreacting. To be sure, my first exposure to the breaking story was in Gawker's nyah-nyah post "White Men Upset Wrong White Man Placed in Charge of White-Man Magazine." Aside from the obvious partisanship, this seemed more than a bit cherry-picked (did Julia Ioffe, Hillary Kelly, Rachel Morris, Judith Shulevitz, Anne Applebaum, Ruth Franklin, Sacha Scoblic, Helen Vendler, and Jennifer Homans all get sex-change operations?). But my next thought, of course, was what could possibly be such a big deal as to be prompting this torrent of "RIPs" for the magazine? Everybody seemed to be overreacting. I like Franklin Foer well enough (I've never met him, but How Soccer Explains the World is an enjoyable read), but editors come and go. How we moved from "a leadership shake-up" to "the death of an American institution" eluded me.

The other half of this story appears to be boiled-over discontent at the way Hughes and his minions have been running the company -- basically a blizzard of nonsensical biz school jargon and tech-speak that evinced a conscious disrespect for the magazine's tradition and the value of genuine long-form journalism generally. The nightmare was that Hughes was going to try to convert TNR into a Buzzfeed lookalike with content reduced to a blizzard of attention-grabby but contentless niblets. That the magazine's new CEO reportedly complained that he got bored if he had to read more than 500 words in an article is certainly enough to give any TNR loyalist an aneyurism.

I want to be hopeful. After all, despite its rep Buzzfeed (and Gawker) have actually been moving towards interesting long-form journalism of the sort TNR long exemplified. There seems to be a convergence in the industry, and TNR might be well positioned to exploit that convergence. Yet some epistemic humility on my part is in order. I'm not a member of the media industry, and I don't have any inside information on the magazine. The people who do? Are panicking, and fleeing the magazine in droves. When two-thirds of your masthead cuts ties in the space of a few days, that's a genuine red flag. And it's not clear if TNR's rump staff will be able to right ship.

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