When news broke yesterday that Franklin Foer, the editor of the 100-year-old New Republic, had been pushed out under duress, and that the venerable magazine—now in the hands of a new, technophilic CEO who comes by way of Yahoo News—planned to reshape itself as a far twitchier creature, poised to produce “content that will travel across all platforms,” the response in media circles was swift and furious. It also offered something of a flash portrait of the anxieties of modern journalism.
As one might expect, there was anger and mourning from the magazine’s loyal alumni. Jonathan Chait, a former TNR writer now at New York Magazine, quickly posted “A Eulogy for the New Republic.” Ryan Lizza, a former TNR-er now at The New Yorker, asked via Twitter that his name be immediately removed from TNR’s list of contributing editors. Others soon followed suit. Foer is respected and beloved by the TNR diaspora. Chris Hughes, the 31-year-old Facebook tycoon who bought the magazine in 2012, is not. “Frank Foer isn’t leaving TNR because he wasn’t a good enough editor,” wrote Chait. “He’s leaving because Chris Hughes is not a good enough owner.”
It’s no surprise that people who’ve worked with and adore Foer would be offended by his abrupt ouster, and displeased at the radical remaking of the magazine they knew and loved. (Disclosure: I have written for TNR on a couple of occasions, and worked with some of the people mentioned in this piece.) But there was generalized disdain from other corners, as well. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, articulated the concern widespread among a certain, largely older, perhaps crustier, slice of the journalistic world. “If the clichés of new media are being used here to paper over the undermining of an institution of real rigor and intelligence,” he told the New York Times, “people should describe it for what it is, which is a terrible loss and an outrage.” Tina Brown tweeted, “Gloomy news about #TheNewRepublic. So sick of callow, know all ‘innovators.’ ”
Whence all the handwringing over changes at a teensy political magazine? The New Republic as an institution has a long, storied history. Its pages have been home to deeply considered essays and legendary bylines. But Hughes’ new CEO, the former Yahoo News executive Guy Vidra, seems bent on ditching TNR’s ruminative style. Instead—those close to TNR who read between his lines fear—he’s hoping to emulate modern, quick-hit outlets that thrive on churning out less meaty work from squadrons of inexperienced writers. Hughes’ new editor, Gabriel Snyder, is formerly of Bloomberg Media and the Atlantic Wire, and hails from the whiplash world of reactive Web journalism—not the staid, chin-stroky milieu of a century-old journal of opinion.
In statements to staff, Vidra has vowed to “break shit” and has called himself a “wartime CEO.” At the magazine’s recent centennial celebration, he mispronounced Foer’s name. It doesn’t help that Vidra speaks in jumbly tech jargon that sets many journalists’ teeth on edge. In announcing yesterday’s shakeup, he claimed these changes were part of “re-imagining The New Republic as a vertically integrated digital media company.” Vertically integrated? Are they going to, like, mine their own pixels? It’s one thing for journalists of a certain age to warily watch the BuzzFeeds ascend from afar—it’s another feeling when the insurrection overruns one of your own, formerly impregnable ramparts.
A splinter group—a backlash to the backlash—has suggested that Snyder might be an interesting choice to lead TNR into its brave new digital future. And to be fair, some of the rending of garments is overblown. TNR’s influence had long been on the wane. It will live on, it may modernize in helpful ways, and, one assumes, will continue to publish good work—though at what frequency and just how good remains to be seen. Much of the rage (the majority of TNR’s staff resigned today) probably derives as much or more so from the way Foer was treated as it does from ill ease about the direction the magazine is taking.
But this wasn’t yet the end of the response. Soon, an entirely different sort of reaction emerged. Over on Twitter, the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “Sorry whenever journos lose jobs, but some of us colored folk will always remember @tnr with mixed feelings.” He retweeted more harshly expressed sentiments from others, along similar lines. The distaste here stems in large part from TNR’s 1994 publication of excerpts from The Bell Curve—a despised and discredited work on race and intelligence written by the sociologist Charles Murray.
It’s a totally fair criticism. Publishing those Bell Curve excerpts was a grave and hurtful error. But pinning this crime on the entire magazine, in perpetuity, feels extreme. Do we really wish to celebrate the downfall of TNR’s current iteration because of editorial missteps from the TNR of two decades ago? People like Foer, Chait, and Lizza didn’t work there then. And Andrew Sullivan, the editor behind the grievous decision, later went on to work at the Atlantic as a colleague of Coates. This didn’t spur Coates to resign, as best I can tell.
Nor should he have been expected to. I didn’t stop working for Slate when, for instance, Christopher Hitchens defended Donald Rumsfeld in these pages—as distasteful as that was to me. A magazine is permitted to pursue provocative ideas, and to air conflicting ideologies, if the work is approached in good faith. If you’re not making some regrettable mistakes, you’re probably not trying hard enough to be a venue for interesting ideas.
And then we come to Gawker’s take: “White Men Upset Wrong White Man Placed in Charge of White-Man Magazine.” It ridiculed reactions like those of Chait and Lizza, and other white male journalists, because—well, it wasn’t totally clear. Because they were white men, I guess? Whatever its addled argument, the story is simply incorrect, to the extent that it claims only dudes care what happens at TNR. The piece’s evidence is a series of tweets written by men. Yet one might just as easily post tweets from female journalists expressing fondness for the bygone TNR regime. Here, let’s do it now:
The things I liked best about working for TNR: people cared about their principles, & were menschy. Frank first among them, on both counts.— Noreen Malone (@NoreenMalone) December 4, 2014
The clichés of new media are being used here to paper over the undermining of an institution of real rigor and intelligence.--David Remnick— Judith Shulevitz (@JudithShulevitz) December 5, 2014
Oh dear. @TNR was a great gymnasium for young writers, and my first job in journalism. Wishing the whole staff well.— Dayo Olopade (@madayo) December 4, 2014
Notice, for example, that @TNR’s digital media editor quit. That should tell you something about the old v new narrative.— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) December 5, 2014
So proud of the work we did @tnr and grateful for my brilliant, funny, decent colleagues. It was a joy and an honor to work there.— Rachel Morris (@RachelMorris) December 5, 2014
It’s also fair to note, in this context, that Gawker is owned by a white man. And that not so long ago it replaced one white male editor with a different white male editor. Following directly on the heels of a few more white male editors. Does that make it a “White-Man Magazine”? Former Gawker-ite Choire Sicha—also the former white male co-editor of the Awl, who handed over that editorship to yet two more white men—tweeted, in response to the mass resignations, “Sweet, sounds like a dozen journalism jobs just opened up that don't have to be filled by overly pedigreed white men.”
If Coates’ response was reasonable, and about TNR’s past, this one felt myopic, and more about TNR’s present. It’s hard for me to understand why one tribe of progressive, well-educated, white, east coast journalists is so gleeful at the misfortune of another tribe of progressive, well-educated, white, east coast journalists. The Internet has an astonishing, often depressing ability to turn any topic into a fevered, reductive spat about race, or gender, or both. Sometimes this is understandable. Or even, on occasion, fruitful. Here, it is neither.
But too late. Journo Twitter has already divided itself into warring factions. In one camp: people saddened by what they assume will be the demise of the nuanced, probing, intellectual TNR. In the other camp: people eager to douse the final embers of what Gawker termed a “historically racist” magazine.
Yesterday, someone I know lightly dismissed the Gawker story as “#gawkerbeinggawker.” But by that token, one could argue that publishing excerpts from The Bell Curve was #tnrbeingtnr. The very sensibility that makes a magazine interesting and vital—interrogating difficult, uncomfortable subjects in the case of the New Republic; using an inflammatory tone to burn hallowed shit down in the case of Gawker—can sometimes curdle into something less useful and more poisonous.
I haven’t always loved the New Republic’s take on the Middle East (to put it lightly), or the white, male-dominated tinge of its upper masthead. Nor do I wish to defend certain chapters in its checkered editorial past. But problems akin to these have been shared by other publications, including Gawker, the Atlantic, and, yes, Slate. TNR, at its best moments, has been a place where one could find ideologically diverse, morally provocative, thoughtfully constructed journalism. It now seems it may be headed down a different path. To any thinking journalist, that should be a shame. We have enough flip, amped-up takes. We’d be well advised to preserve the more constructive, serious voices that are still hanging around.
After his initial tweets, Coates became more measured in his response—praising several TNR staffers, empathizing with those who’ve lost jobs, and even writing that he’d learned a great deal from Andrew Sullivan when they worked together. But those sentiments were buried by followers gleefully retweeting his more pointed criticisms, and piling on with their own, far less considered yelps of outrage. That sort of response to the end of the old TNR—the reductive shouting, the polarized tribes, the narcissism of small differences in the progressive media world—provides perhaps the best reason to mourn what TNR once represented.