Unsolicited advice for the Atlantic'sneweditor.

Media criticism.
March 7 2006 7:29 PM

The New Atlantic Monthly

Unsolicited advice for James Bennet, the magazine's incoming editor.

The Atlantic Monthly

If kindness can oppress, then count Atlantic Monthly owner David G. Bradley as one of the great tyrants of our day. A gracious, deferential, generous, self-effacing, patient, and excessively polite man, he may be the first media mogul—he owns the National Journal Group —to practice nonstop goodness.

He doesn't yell. In fact, a lingering throat ailment keeps him from speaking loudly. He has no enemies (whom I can find). Every act of decency—and there are plenty—he commits comes wrapped in an apology, and if he doesn't offer an apology, he extends an equally bizarre request for forgiveness or permission. And then comes the flattery, which he spreads like frosting over cotton candy. Bradley illustrates Clay Felker's observation that formal manners are a marvelous way of fending off people—without offending them.

But Bradley is not soft. He made his millions in the consulting racket and appears to have been born with an iron ass, which endows him with a superhuman stamina for enduring the long meetings that he loves to convene. No decision in the Bradley universe is too important or so trivial that it can't be studied, researched, analyzed, and ultimately postponed, tabled, and deferred in favor of a new round of study, research, and analysis.

Take, for instance, Bradley's appointment of New York Times reporter James Bennet as the Atlantic'snew editor last week. Michael Kelly vacated the slot in September 2002, and the position had been empty since that date, although Managing Editor Cullen Murphy ably fulfilled the duties.

Some time last summer, Bradley commenced what he called his "listening tour" to fill the position and, according to the Times,burned through 200 hours of interviews with 80 journalists drawn from a list of 250 influentials in search of the right person before settling on Bennet. One measure of Bradley's overreach was that his tour almost snared me. Last fall he e-mailed me and asked would I, could I, meet with him. I said sure, but it would have to be on the record because I write about the press, and he wrote back to say that was fine … and then the meeting never happened.

Which brings us back to the job facing Bennet: An outstanding journalist and almost as good a human being as Saint Bradley, Bennet will benefit from his employer's high regard for talented journalists. At Bennet's disposal are remarkable writers at the top of their form—William Langewiesche, James Fallows, Mark Bowden, and Clive Crook, to name a few—which means that even a dunce could pilot the Atlantic to journalistic greatness. So, Bennet's editorial problem won't be the usual one, of insufficient resources and the lack of commitment from the top for greatness. His problem will be the one that has bedeviled every New York Yankees manager and general manager since George Steinbrenner took over the team: How do you manage the boss, who won't and can't stay out of the dugout?

If it doesn't give you an aneurysm, think of Bradley as the good Steinbrenner, a sort of "Kindbrenner." Bradley is decent where Steinbrenner is foul and angelic where Steinbrenner is wicked, but in recruiting and assembling a team largely of his own choosing since Kelly stepped down, he's pulled a Steinbrenner. In journalism, recruiting the staff is a job that usually goes to the editor, so the helm Bennet assumes is a level lower than ordinary. By Bradley's design, Bennet is less a conceiver of the magazine than an executer of Bradley's vision, and therein lies the trouble.

When Bradley purchased the Atlantic in 1999, he told the Boston staff, "For those of you to whom I've not introduced myself, I'm David Bradley. I'm the man who is not bringing the Atlantic to Washington." At the time, Washington Post's Howard Kurtz asked him about his "vision," and he responded, "It's not yet clear to me that I've got something special to contribute to it." But he can't plead an absence of vision anymore, having staffed out the magazine and reneged on that no-move promise last year. He's gently (of course) demolished the old quirky and fusty order that was the Atlantic and created a new Washington institution in his own image. More overtly than the usual vanity mogul, Bradley is his magazine's auteur and soul. George is the Yankees, David is the Atlantic.

When Bradley told the Times that in Bennet he found somebody who was still in his "vertical hour"—that his career was still climbing—he was also confessing that he had had it with somebody (Kelly) whose Atlantic profile eclipsed his. Nothing makes Steinbrenner madder than when Joe Torre gets credit that Steinbrenner believes is his.

Most editors rumble with their owners, which is as it should be. But how do you fight somebody whose personal style gives you no handhold? In that sense, Bradley is the anti-Marty Peretz, who is all handles and argument. So, one of the tasks awaiting Bennet will be telling Bradley that his approach to running a magazine devoted to narrative journalism is flawed and having a good retort when Bradley answers that the same system netted him $142 million when his company went public in the late 1990s.

Having divorced itself from Boston, the Atlantic threatens to become another Washington wonk magazine. Bradley's tendency for tendentious wonkery was revealed two years ago when he turned over most of the magazine's "State of the Union" special coverage to the thinkers at the New America Foundation. It wasn't journalism. It wasn't even the high-caliber National Journal-ism that the Atlantic's sister publication produces weekly. Just because NAF stopped producing the SOTU package doesn't mean that Bradley learned his lesson. Bennet will have to stay up late at night fending off Bradley's affinity for such high-mindedness.

It's only natural to compare Bennet with Kelly, and the good news is that he's more than up to the face-off. To make it brief, in the June 18, 2000, New York Times Magazine, he wrote about the marketing of Hillary Clinton in a piece that equals anything by Kelly, and his steady hand covering the riot that is the Middle East also inspires. But nobody inside or outside the magazine will believe that Bennet is in charge until he makes a few dramatic hirings and firings. An article that demolishes the worth of leadership committees, focus groups, corporate retreats, "breakout sessions," or consultant tradecraft will prove that he, and not Bradley, is in charge.

If I channel Bradley correctly, I think he hopes to make the Atlantic Monthly—make that the Decamonthly, as it only comes out 10 times a year—a luxury good that justifies its high price, like designer water. No thinking magazine on the newsstand occupies this niche, and I suspect that, having raised subscription and newsstand prices, Bradley will start referring to the Atlantic audience as "members" instead of readers. As long as it's a club to which Bennet feels comfortable belonging, this could be a good thing.

This article has been long on diagnosis and short on prescription because I'm not sure where a 10-times-a-year magazine fits in an Internet world. If luxury idea magazine is the direction, the Atlantic should read like literature and look like art, making every issue an event. Magazines with those ambitions kill a lot of pieces. Oh, by the way, James, while you're at it, try to capture the early 21st-century zeitgeist.

Working for a publisher who expects every experience to be positive can be draining, so I hope Bennet is up to it. When Michael Kelly edited the Atlantic,he endured Kindbrenner's many meetings, the lengthy option-exploring conversations, and endless drawings of org charts, flow charts, and 3D grids plotting substance, quality, and time. After three years of decisional gridlock, Bradley-fatigue set in and Kelly returned to the writing life. As it turned out, the nicest, most considerate man in the universe was a narcissistic and needy bore.

*******

Send your Atlantic prescriptions to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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