Saturday, August 11, 2007

Trouble at the New Republic

It seems the New Republic is in trouble again with faked reporting. The last incident was the 1997 Stephen Glass episode that proved highly embarrassing, especially as it came not long after the firing of editor Michael Kelly. This case couldn't come at worse time for TNR, which is facing declining subscriber base, readership, and advertising revenue. The whole world of conventional journalism seems to be dying, in fact. Publications can't coast the way they did even ten years ago. We no longer live in a cozy world of clubby journalism, where major mistakes in reporting can be overlooked. Online journalism, including bloggers who are often as good as and sometimes better than "professional" journalists, will swarm all over you and fact-check your ass before you even can get a word in. This phenomenon is accelerating conventional journalism's decline. If the news media were any other industry, the news media would be demanding that it be regulated to death by government. That wouldn't solve journalism's problems, which stem from its increasingly concentrated and homogenized business structure, personnel, and worldview, along with its dependence on advertising for revenue.

Some of the New Republic's problems are peculiar to it. It was owned for over three decades by Martin Peretz, before he recently opted for a three-way co-ownership deal. It's clearly been owned and dominated by one person for too long. Like a once-great sports team, the magazine is well past its glory days of the 1980s and early 90s when it enjoyed a set of brilliant editors and writers and unusual influence in politics and culture. Andrew Sullivan was the editor at the end of this period and started off well, but the magazine began to drift when he withdrew from it for health reasons. The late Michael Kelly (later editor of the Atlantic) replaced him in 1996. Older and more experienced, he brought a definite point of view and antagonized Peretz with his criticism of Peretz's former student, Al Gore. After Kelly's firing in 1997, the magazine began its downward drift. Kelly was replaced by a succession of editors younger and less experienced - for that reason, less threatening to Peretz, but also less able to give the magazine a definite direction. It also increasingly suffers from an identity crisis. The magazine's niche was "neoliberal" before that became the dominant Democratic paradigm under Clinton. In the late 70s, it was new and dazzling. In the 80s, it hit its stride. By the late 1990s, it seemed stale, and since 2000, it has come under powerful assault by the left wing of a shrinking Democratic party, enraged by Bush and the rise of neoconservatism, which provides a more appealing big-government synthesis than liberalism.

TNR's response has not done it any good. In spite of his generally sound political instincts, Peretz cannot shake his obsession with proving that he's still a liberal believer, his tiresome name-dropping, and his infaturation with Gore. The last hurrah of neoliberalism was its initial support, later retracted (over and over), for the Iraq war. The editors cannot seem to shake the need to prove its left-wing bona fides (over and over) to its predominantly liberal readership impatient with TNR's three decades of foreign policy hawkishness. Its domestic political reporting has degenerated into narrow partisan hackery and has to compete with the more seasoned political reporters of the Weekly Standard. Even TNR's once-vaunted books and arts section shows increasing weakness - flabby writing, narrowing scope of interests, petty obsessions elevated beyond their limited importance.

The larger problem is that TNR, to survive in a much more intensely partisan Washington, has to toe the Democratic line and less and less follow its own independent thinking. To operate in conventional political journalism in Washington, its writers have to follow the herd of overwhelmingly liberal conventional journalists. These forces can't help but to kill its independence. Increasingly, it sounds little different from the poorly informed, liberal-cocoon chatter you get from the New York Times.

That's how it was snookered into the current scandal of fake Iraq war reporting. See here, here, here, here, and here, for a round-up, in which TNR exhibits all of the worst features of left-liberal establishment journalism. If TNR does not disown this journalistic malpractice, it's finished as a serious publication.

If you pay attention only to conventional journalism these days, you're living in cloud-cuckoo land. If you pay attention to both it and to the best independent voices of the blogosphere, as well as read some conservative and center-right publications, you'll be far better informed about the world, even if you suffer from some cognitive dissonance. A more radical step would be to stop paying attention to conventional journalism at all, at least as far as politics and related topics go. You'll seem oddly out-of-the-loop on the latest scandal (more likely, pseudoscandal) or flipped manhole cover on the local interstate (that's what local news is for). But you will slowly purge your mind of the poisoned junk food that is mainstream political journalism today. Nutritious food will replace it, and you'll start to think for yourself again. Think of it as a fasting-colonic regimen for mental hygeine.

Meanwhile, what TNR needs is new owners and more experienced editors. It needs to more aggressively position itself as straddling the print and online worlds, with an injection of fresh blood from the latter. Above all, it needs to consider the opposite of what the venerable Atlantic did recently when it moved from Boston to Washington: move outside the Beltway to somewhere saner.

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