There were plenty of warning signs that the tech-savvy new management of the New Republic respected neither the intellectual property nor its intellectual inheritance. But, for every move that might have served as an alert, there was a compensating sign that the new team was not actually going to smash the vibrant historical jewel it had acquired. Then a new chief executive, demanding a “vertically integrated digital media company” powered by a “straddle generation” of journalists, removed the two top editors, precipitating the resignation of at least 58 of the 87 names on the masthead.
TNR’s history is not without blotches. Its owner during the late 1940s into the 1950s was a comrade in the Cambridge University Soviet spy ring named Michael Whitney Straight. (In thanks for which service I hung his portrait in the loo.) Later, on my 37-year watch, there was the Stephen Glass embarrassment, in which a young reporter fabricated several stories — a crime for which he is still being punished 16 years later. We published a one-sided, tendentious piece by Betsy McCaughey opposing the Clintons’ health-care plan and an excerpt from “The Bell Curve” that was ferociously contested not only among the magazine’s denigrators but also among its staffers, who, in the spirit of argument, published several articles criticizing it in the same edition. I believe these were judgment calls. Some staffers thought they were betrayals of ideals. I thought they were instances of self-critical liberalism. And none were wholesale repudiations of the New Republic’s philosophy of morally committed, intellectually informed thought. And they were long ago.
What isn’t so long ago is the centennial of the magazine, celebrated with a black-tie gala organized by its owner, Chris Hughes, last month, barely two weeks before the publication unraveled. It was, by most accounts an upbeat affair. I wasn’t invited thanks to an op-ed I had written in 2014 noting what I believed were signs that the magazine’s new ownership had begun privileging glossy covers and fashionable subjects over TNR’s traditional commitment to the principled democratic pluralism of Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, Rebecca West and others. One sign of what was in store was a decision by the owner to put an end to editorials. Since its founding, the New Republic has been “a journal of opinion,” but now it would have no steady moral or intellectual commitments. What it now has instead are attitudes, and attitudes are uncongealed—sticky but not strong. They are subject to fashion, and fashion is unpredictable.
During my ownership, the New Republic was a liberal magazine even as I was drifting temperamentally more than a bit to the center. Still, I encouraged the editors and writers to follow their beliefs, within certain limits: one person’s politics should not dictate everyone else’s. We had our many differences over policies; as former editor Hendrik Hertzberg noted in a recent reflection, he and I ended more than one conversation shouting obscenities at one another and slamming doors. But we argued. Discussion and debate were core to our mission and our identity. That spirit is not much in evidence today: Featured stories on TNR’s Web site in the past two weeks include “Stop Checking Your Email So Often. It’s Stressing You Out,” “Black Friday’s Weak Sales Numbers Are Meaningless. Cyber Monday’s Will Be, Too,” and “How to Dig a Perfect Grave: A Day with Britain’s Top Undertaker.”
This open environment attracted talent — talent who stayed and who influenced my views as well as the magazine’s stances. Leon Wieseltier, for example, who has been the culture editor for decades, was already a luminary of America’s high culture when he got the position in his thirties. I respect him more than I am keen to admit. And the just-deposed editor, Franklin Foer, who shies away from conflict as I cotton to it, has a literary style and editorial imagination so felicitous and also so strong that it influenced his writers almost without pushing. Still, when he pushed he pushed; and he pushed back on me, too, though maybe not always sufficiently. So it was a disappointment to read that Hughes, phoning into a staff meeting on Friday after the wave of resignations, did not take questions. There is no pushing here.
Long ago, my PhD supervisor at Harvard, Adam Ulam, the great historian of communism, characterized my politics as “the extreme left of the right and the extreme right of the left.” His words suggested what I believed then and continue to believe today: Liberal hopes need to be matched by conservative caution. A magazine that has lived for a hundred years is a precious institution; where is the caution? It is not at all a shame if millionaires or billionaires simply support it. Some wealthy people pay for sports teams. Other wealthy people own madly overpriced art.
But Hughes wants to preside over an “integrated digital media company,” and he has recruited a former captain of Gawker for the task — yes, Gawker! This is a long way from the robust, probing, capacious and tolerant liberalism that the magazine’s founders envisioned and that so many talented journalists and intellectuals have labored for so long to uphold.