From the moment that he bought the Atlantic Monthly in 1999, David Bradley has perpetrated the notion that the venerable magazine had been getting by on little more than its reputation. Bradley does it again today in the New York Observer, explaining to my former Boston Phoenix colleague Tom Scocca how he and his first editor, the late Michael Kelly, saved the Atlantic.
SCOCCA: “This is the problem Michael and I used to fret about: What’s its purpose?” said Mr. Bradley. After “what Michael Kelly used to call a great 19th century,” Mr. Bradley said, The Atlantic through the decades had fallen behind a speeding-up news cycle. “It retreated in ambition,” Mr. Bradley said. “And it retreated from the news.”
Thus does Bradley continue to add insult to the terrible injury he inflicted earlier this year, when he announced that he was moving the century-and-a-half-old Boston landmark to Washington, merging operations with the National Journal, which he also owns. (Too bad Oliver Wendell Holmes didn’t name the magazine the Bostonian rather than the Atlantic.)
There’s no question that Kelly and his successor in job if not in title, Cullen Murphy (whose tenure at the Atlantic predated Bradley’s arrival by 15 years, and who’s leaving at the end of this year), did some good work. Thanks to Bradley’s deep pockets, they were able to bulk up the magazine with more newsworthy, timely articles and more big-name writers. But despite a slew of National Magazine Awards (choose “Atlantic Monthly” at “Magazine Title”) under both men, the magazine certainly hasn’t been perfect. I’m not a fan of the redesign Kelly oversaw, finding it more old-fashioned than the still-fresh design he threw out. Articles are longer and more bloated than ever; a piece I might take a gander on at 5,000 words turns into “sorry, no time” at 15,000 or 20,000 words. And then there is the traditionally liberal Atlantic’s increasingly neoconservative bent, a trend that can certainly be attributed to Kelly, and – according to Scocca’s article – perhaps to Bradley as well, given his youthful support for the Vietnam War.
As I think back over the years, the Atlantic articles I remember the most tend to be those published under Kelly’s predecessor, William Whitworth: Ellen Ruppel Shell’s horrifying report on mad-cow disease, published in 1998. William Calvin’s warning that even slight global warming could lead to a tipping point that would plunge Europe into another ice age, also published in 1998. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s “Dan Quayle Was Right,” from 1994, which helped transform the debate over the benefits of two-parent families. The Atlantic won nine National Magazine Awards during Whitworth’s tenure, including the big one, for general excellence, in 1993.
And if Whitworth’s Atlantic was not quite as on top of the news as Kelly’s and Murphy’s, it made up for that by being more consistently surprising. Certainly I never would have read a feature on the crisis in seminaries had it not arrived in my mailbox in 1990 (“The Hands That Would Shape Our Souls,” by Paul Wilkes).
Other than Bradley’s unforgivable decision to move the Atlantic out of Boston, his tenure has been a positive one. But can we please dispense with the fiction that the magazine had become irrelevant before Bradley swooped in to save it? It’s a different magazine from the one he bought from Mort Zuckerman – better in some ways, not so good in others. For Bradley to suggest otherwise is insulting to those of us who are longtime readers.