The New York Times today has a fascinating story about how former Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith has reinvented herself as an acclaimed poet. The end of Smith’s newspaper career was ugly, and reporter Rachel Swarns spares no details. But Smith was always a talented writer, and her tale of redemption is inspiring.
I don’t have much to offer on the meltdown of The New Republic except for a few inchoate thoughts. Many people have written many things, but it seems to me that the one essential read is Lloyd Grove’s piece in The Daily Beast. Now then:
1. Despite owner Chris Hughes’ excruciatingly awful behavior last week, it still isn’t clear to me why everyone resigned. When then-owner Marty Peretz fired editor Michael Kelly in 1997, mass resignations were threatened, but only one writer — media columnist William Powers — actually walked out the door. Kelly was an enormously popular, charismatic figure, but maybe the lack of solidarity was in recognition of how far he had dragged the supposedly liberal magazine to the right. Still, does no one want to see if there might be some positive aspects to Hughes’ plan?
2. And yet — if Hughes wants a digital media startup, why didn’t he just do it instead of buying TNR and turning it into something else? That makes no sense. And yet again — if Hughes is looking for the kind of print/online/events strategy that has transformed The Atlantic, as media-business analyst Ken Doctor argues, how could that possibly be a bad thing? I’d be the first to admit that I don’t like The Atlantic nearly as much as I did when it was a staid, Boston-based monthly. But it has managed to combine success, influence and seriousness, and that’s nothing to be scoffed at.
3. During Peretz’s long ownership, TNR was derided not just for its lack of diversity but for its hostility to any steps aimed at ensuring racial justice. I wrote for TNR twice. The first time, in 1998, was about the departure of Boston Globe columnists Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle for fabricating, and Barnicle for plagiarizing as well. When I received the edited version of my piece, I saw that someone had inserted some harsh anti-affirmative action language. (The idea was that both Smith, an African-American, and Barnicle, an Irish-American, had been beneficiaries of some sort of affirmative-action mindset.) I was appalled, and fortunately was able to get the language removed before publication. But it showed what kind of thinking prevailed at TNR.
4. Among the former TNR editors lashing out at Hughes is Andrew Sullivan, who, among other things, once gave over the cover of the magazine to the authors of “The Bell Curve,” a racist tome that argued that black people just aren’t as intelligent as whites. Sullivan also published an infamous, falsehood-filled article by Betsy McCaughey that trashed the Clinton health plan and may have contributed to its defeat. Sullivan did far more harm to TNR than Hughes, but now he’s seen as a defender of tradition. (For more on the sins of TNR during the Peretz era, see Charlie Pierce.)
5. Probably the worst thing you can say about Hughes is that he decided to blow up The New Republic just as it was rediscovering its footing as a liberal journal. Editor Franklin Foer, by all accounts, was doing a fine job before Hughes fired him. But what is the role of a magazine like TNR in the digital age? The policy pieces in which it specialized are everywhere. Hughes could have kept it going as a small, money-losing journal, of course. But there was a time when TNR was an influential small, money-losing journal. Those days are long gone, as Ezra Klein notes at Vox. You can’t blame Hughes for wanting to try something different. If his behavior had been less reprehensible, maybe he could have brought his talented staff and contributors along for the ride.
You may have heard that a journalistic scandal is unfolding at the Cape Cod Times. A 59-year-old reporter, Karen Jeffrey, left the paper after editor Paul Pronovost and publisher Peter Meyer concluded she had fabricated sources in at least 34 stories dating back to 1998. Jeffrey had worked at the daily since 1981.
According to the apology that the paper has published, the fabrications appear to be restricted to “lighter fare,” and that Jeffrey managed to stick to nonfiction when covering hard news. That might help explain how she got away with it for so long. Then, too, fictional sources don’t call up the editor to complain.
Still, you have to wonder if anyone either inside or outside the newsroom harbored suspicions. This is a big deal — as bad as Mike Barnicle, Patricia Smith and Jayson Blair. The only difference is that Jeffrey’s downfall is playing out on a smaller stage. Count me as one observer who would like to know more.
Rupert Murdoch, believe it or not, actually owns the Times, a consequence of his having bought the Wall Street Journal and its affiliated properties five years ago. Boston Herald owner Pat Purcell, a Murdoch protégé, is involved in managing the Times and other Murdoch-owned community papers.
Jeffrey’s reign of error began many years before the Murdoch era. But it will be interesting to see whether Purcell is heard from as this story unfolds.