Over the weekend, Tina Brown was on the Bill Maher show talking about the the barbarity of the Taliban, social media, the chance that heaven might just possibly exist, and drone strikes. These are all topics that the Daily Beast or Newsweek have recently covered, but which Brown herself, merely as the editor of these publications, would have no particular firsthand knowledge about.
As for Muslim fundamentalism, “culture,” she said, airily, “can be changed.”
Social media, the famously technophobic Brown declared, means that even in oppressed societies “women can get a voice.” As far as heaven, the article that she ran in Newsweek recounting a doctor’s come-back-from-the-dead experience, was “the only time”, in her almost 40-year career, “I have ever been moved by a piece.”
And drones, well, if it had been Bush, instead of Obama, ordering them into action, he would have been impeached (even having politically prospered through several unsuccessful wars).
Bill Maher, host of Real Time on HBO: “The Obama administration has been heavily targeting whistleblowers – true – and information activists. What can we do to hold the government accountable for this harsh crackdown?”
Tina Brown, editor of Newsweek: “I mean, he’d be impeached by now for drones, if he was George W Bush.”
Maher: “Impeached? No.”
Brown: “Yeah, don’t you think?”
Maher: “Impeached, by who? Who would …”
Brown: “I think if this was a Republican president, the outcry about drones would be far greater.”
It is possible that, on another kind of show, such unvetted opinions, would just float into the ether. But Maher, when he sees the advantage to look smarter himself, always sidles in with a wink or mug or guffaw or expression of supreme incredulity, making Brown, in this instance, look especially exposed and dumb.
The obvious question – on the surface, quite a puzzling one – was what was she doing here. Most publications send their writers out to defend or explain their work. Editors either keep wisely silent or stick to their own area of expertise.
In Brown’s case, though, she was out front to promote a magazine, Newsweek, which mostly no longer exists. Its physical form was shuttered and most of its staff fired, leaving only a pallid digital shadow – a kind of bait-and-switch act (she offered a mocked-up cover for the nonexistent magazine). which perhaps nobody else could have pulled off with a straight face.
The other reason, of course, was to promote herself – a career, it would not be entirely unfair to argue, that, like Newsweek, has lost its form and purpose. One theory about her determined self-promotion is that the Daily Beast and Newsweek (such as it is), only have a limited amount of time left before their ultimate humiliation, and Brown does not want to go down with a sinking ship. Hence, now would be the propitious time to jump.
Another is that she is the only one left. She has fired so much of her staff, and so many others have quit in disgust, that everybody left is so full of self-loathing and uncertainty that, really, she is the only one who can be trusted to represent the enterprise without breaking down in tears. It is down to her.
In her singular insistence, she has become quite a bellwether figure of the media apocalypse, causing many people in our business (at least, of a certain age and New York-centricity) great anxiety and existential dread. In one sense, hers is a cautionary tale. Tina Brown has gone from perhaps the most popular person – popular in a high-school sense – in the journalism business, to a lonely figure.
Her final Newsweek covers, of which heaven being real was one, were a desperate attempt to revive the buzz she was once famous for. She is gamely or ridiculously trying to keep up the pretense without much support, leaving her wide open to Bill Maher.
In another sense, though, many people seem to blame her for the deluge. This is partly because she has left so many people in her wake. Dashed expectations, diminished careers, broken promises: in project after project, for almost 15 years, she has risen through the failures while so many of the people with her have fallen.
It is quite unusual for an editor to be so separate from the fortunes of his or her enterprises. But for many people, this seems to be the current and cruel reality of the business: a few inexplicably succeeding, rewarded with new opportunities, the rest in free-fall.
In Brown’s case, it is all the more galling because she is no one’s idea of a quick-change artist, or adaptable creature, or not-to-be-denied visionary. Almost anyone would be better-qualified, or more temperamentally suited to reinvent the business than her. Yet, the opportunity she has been given again and again.
Nobody personifies old media like Tina Brown. In that sense, she is certainly an astute player, brushing off the Newsweek calamity in an interview in New York Magazine – not her fault at all; and, by the way, not an end but a beginning.
Jon Meacham, the last editor to fail at saving Newsweek, walked the plank for it. Tina Brown can somehow ignore that it no longer exists.
Partly, it is that she is just so indefatigable. And shameless. Pay no attention to reality: she’s the editor of Newsweek, debating the great issues of the day.
In a sense, of course, this is just business as usual. She’s a boss, like many others, willing to say most anything to save her own skin. Living another day is her goal.
But in another sense, she has been around so long, and with such a demanding claim on our attention, that she has become something of a Nixon-like figure, who just won’t be forced off the stage. She somehow remains at the center of her profession, which has to explain to itself why she survives in it, why she yet embodies it, and what this says about the business itself.
And that is beyond us.
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