Over the past twenty-four hours, as the dramatic shakeup at the New Republic has unfolded–top editor Frank Foer and literary editor Leon Wieseltier out, media veteran Gabriel Snyder in at the top, mass resignations by staff and contributing editors–I have read plenty of meditations, written both for public consumption and private discussion, of the magazine’s legacy in policy journalism. This is a battle so complicated it makes George R.R. Martin’s War of the Five Kings look positively comprehensible, with some factions flying the flag of the New Republic’s record on race, others racing into battle to defend its recent contributions to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and plenty of fierce fighting over foreign policy.
But because it’s my job to call attention to these things, let me file a small brief in favor of the priority the New Republic placed on culture.
I’ve lived and worked in Washington for almost nine years, and in that time, I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to write about culture for many of the policy-oriented magazines in town. And it was interesting to see these various publications try to figure out how culture coverage fit with their reporting and commentary on policy and politics.
At the American Prospect, I got great editing from Ann Friedman, who turned an early lament of mine about the lack of superheroine movies into something worth publishing, and the Prospect has published a lot of interesting reviews of culture, often with a liberal hook, by the long-time critic Tom Carson. At the behest of Paul Glastris, I wrote about the clever design of “NCIS” franchise and the show’s interests in mediating the American relationship with Israel for the Washington Monthly, which was interested in culture as an expression of larger policy trends. For a while, I did a podcast with Asawin Suebsaeng, who at the time was a reporter in the Washington bureau of Mother Jones, where we probably spent as much time talking about Michael Bay as a stylist as we did about the politics of culture.
More recently, Ezra Klein’s explainer journalism start-up, Vox, found a great match for its model in culture editor Todd VanDerWerff (disclosure: we know each other socially and professionally). VanDerWerff is former television critic who is adept both at dissecting the text of an episode of television or a movie to help readers clarify their passionate reactions to it, and who also has a gift for explaining the relationship between shifts in entertainment industry business models and what people are seeing on screen, reading on the page or hearing in an audio stream.
But what I found compelling about the New Republic’s approach, including on the occasions I got to write there, was the publication’s simple confidence that culture was an important subject that required no justification to sell to readers.
You didn’t have to have a policy hook, or even the draw of Misty Copeland’s rising star, to write about dance there, as Jennifer Homans, the magazine’s dance editor who resigned today, did so beautifully. Culture could provide answers that policy analysis could not, as it did in Rebecca Traister’s marvelous “I Don’t Care If You Like It,” a synthesis that drew on everything from Esquire’s beauty metrics to Amy Poehler’s rebellious, dirty sense of humor, to the criminalization of parenting to explain how women have been kept subject to men’s opinions. I return to that piece at least once a week. I don’t necessarily agree with Jed Perl on the politicization of art, but we are of accord that the fate of art matters even if it shifts no policies.
This is a philosophy that guides a lot of more general-interest publications, including the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books where Daniel Mendelsohn, among my favorite living critics, brings the same attention to Greek poetry and the spasms of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” on Broadway. But it’s a bit rarer, I think, among Washington publications that think of themselves as policy-oriented, or in sections like op-ed pages where culture yields pride of place to policy and politics.
Whatever happens in this very new era for the New Republic, I hope Snyder has the good sense to preserve that sensibility, to treat culture not as a mere subsidy to policy journalism but as an equal participant.