An unexpected tale of love and redemption

We all have our favorite movies about journalism. Best known are the heroic films, which portray reporters as indefatigable warriors on behalf of truth, justice and the American way. At the top of that particular heap are “Spotlight,” “The Post” and — at the very pinnacle — “All the President’s Men,” which inspired a generation of young journalists. For those who like a bit more nuance, there’s “Absence of Malice.” And if you prefer pure entertainment to instruction or uplift, there’s “His Girl Friday,” a romantic romp starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

I’ve enjoyed all these movies. But I have to admit that my favorite film about journalism is “Shattered Glass,” a docudrama about a troubled young man named Stephen Glass, who concocted an increasingly outlandish series of articles while he was working at The New Republic in the 1990s. Exposed at last, he was drummed out of the business. It was the sort of scandal that proved defining for a small publication like TNR.

Indeed, I was somewhat startled over the weekend when I saw the magazine described as “at the time an influential journal of the center left.” At the time. It’s been a long decline for a magazine co-founded by Walter Lippmann; I understand it’s doing better these days. And though there are multiple factors responsible for its marginalization, most of which have to do with the explosion of digital opinion journals, it was the Glass scandal that provided the magazine with its first swift kick down the stairs.

“Shattered Glass” never made the big time, but it’s long since become a staple of journalism ethics classes. (I don’t know why; “don’t make stuff up” can be dispensed with during the first 10 minutes of the first meeting of the semester.) People in journalism have long been passionate about it as well. I was once asked to take part in a panel discussion and found myself sitting next to Marty Peretz, then TNR’s owner and editor-in-chief, who, of course, is portrayed in the film. I remember telling him something like, “I agree with you about the commas.” (If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what I’m talking about.) I don’t think he laughed.

All this is by way of my introduction to a story that you must read if you haven’t already. Titled “Loving Lies,” the piece — by Bill Adair, the creator of PolitiFact and no thus coddler of journalists who fabricate — appears in a digital publication called Air Mail, which has been around for a couple of years even though I hadn’t previously heard of it. (Since I first published this in the Members Newsletter, I’ve learned that it was co-founded by former New York Times journalist Alessandra Stanley and former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter.) The quality looks to be quite high, as I would expect of an outlet able to commission a piece from someone as accomplished as Adair.

If it seems like I’m dancing around the main topic, it’s because I am. I don’t want to write any spoilers here. I will tell you that it’s one of the most moving stories about love and redemption that I can remember reading in a long time, and even that’s more than I ought to say. Just read it. You’ll need to provide your email address, but it’s absolutely worth doing so.

This post was first published as part of last week’s Media Nation Members Newsletter. To become a member for just $5 a month, please click here.

Some thoughts about the meltdown of The New Republic

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.

TNR’s new owner crosses a line with Obama interview

magjump2-popupThe New York Times goes deep on The New Republic’s latest reinvention. I wrote a couple of pieces for the venerable magazine many years ago, and I wish it well. But I also wish Times reporter Christine Haughney had explored a conflict of interest in TNR’s relaunch: the participation of new owner Chris Hughes in a major interview with President Obama.

I don’t necessarily begrudge Hughes’ wanting to play a role on the editorial side of TNR. It’s now his magazine, and previous owner Marty Peretz was a legendary interferer — sometimes for better, usually for worse. TNR is a small place, and it’s unrealistic to expect the publisher to exercise the same sort of restraint as, say, the publisher of a major daily newspaper.

But Hughes, the 29-year-old co-founder of Facebook, is also the “former online campaign adviser” to the president, as Haughney puts it — and by all accounts the key person in building Obama’s 2008 online presence. In April 2009, Fast Company ran a long profile headlined “How Chris Hughes Helped Launch Facebook and the Barack Obama Campaign.”

The TNR interview with Obama was conducted jointly by Hughes and the magazine’s editor, Franklin Foer. So what kind of hard-hitting questions did Hughes ask? Here they are:

Can you tell us a little bit about how you’ve gone about intellectually preparing for your second term as president?

Have you looked back in history, particularly at the second terms of other presidents, for inspiration?

You spoke last summer about your election potentially breaking the fever of the Republicans. The hope being that, once you were reelected, they would seek to do more than just block your presidency. Do you feel that you’ve made headway on that?

You inspired a lot of people in your first presidential campaign, and with your books, by talking about a new kind of politics. And now, four years later, it’s a time in Washington that’s characterized by nastiness more often that not. How do you reconcile those two things four years in?

It seems as if you’re relying more on executive orders to get around these problems. You’ve done it for gun control, for immigration. Has your view on executive authority changed now that you’ve been president for four years?

The last question is about Syria. I wonder if you can speak about how you personally, morally, wrestle with the ongoing violence there.

A not-uninteresting group of questions. To be fair, I’ve included all of them so that you could see the meaty as well as the fawning. And Hughes and Foer elicit substantive answers from the president. Nevertheless, given Hughes’ background, I found myself asking if he might have been tougher if he were interviewing a president he hadn’t worked for.

This is no more than a minor misstep. The real challenge facing TNR is that it is trying to carve out a niche in a world that has utterly changed since it was — at least in the movie “Shattered Glass”“the in-flight magazine of Air Force One.” The Internet has made all but a tiny handful of political opinion magazines irrelevant.

Getting TNR back into the game will be a daunting task. Hughes just made it slightly more daunting. I hope he comes to realize that himself.