Goodbye to My New Republic, and Yours

Thursday’s news is a body blow for the American left.

By Nathan Pippenger

I think I first realized that The New Republic was home while arguing over burnt coffee at one of downtown D.C.’s charmless corporate cafes. I was less than a year out of college and applying for the high-stress, low-pay job of being a “reporter-researcher,” but the meeting was not a job interview. Instead, it was a meet-and-greet arranged by a journalist who had been a generous mentor to me. To give you a sense of just how generous: The meeting—and argument—were with the magazine’s then-editor. Thankfully, I was brimming with all the confidence of naif; it never occurred to me that I had no business arguing one-on-one with the editor of The New Republic about international politics. And I was given no reason to feel intimidated: When our discussion turned to the magazine’s recent editorial on Libya, I expressed points of disagreement. My points were met with passionate counterpoints. I offered historical examples and was met with historical counterexamples. I shifted to moral and philosophical arguments and was met with moral and philosophical rebuttals. The conversation offered so many examples of what I now regard as vital parts of intellectual life: The boisterous, democratic willingness to argue with any worthy interlocutor, even some know-it-all 22 year-old. The electricity of principled, challenging disagreement. The respect of exchanging reasons for our opinions, instead of simply ignoring, condemning, mocking, or running roughshod over those with whom we disagree. The willingness to speak morally and ethically, if need be, and to refuse the ironic wink now expected to accompany any gauche acknowledgment that there are some principles we believe in deeply and cannot abandon. I didn’t have the job yet. I wasn’t sure if it would pay enough to cover basic living expenses. But I had to have it.

As the above story might indicate, The New Republic was a smaller operation a few years ago, running on a staff threadbare enough that the top editor would go out and meet a prospective low-level hire for coffee even before an interview had been scheduled. But it was a tight-knit group, and they put out a hell of a magazine under miserable financial strain. Cutbacks had made it a thinner publication, but it still published provocative political analysis, excellent international coverage, and a books and arts section as erudite and essential as any in American letters. So it must have appeared as a godsend when Chris Hughes, who fell backwards into nearly a billion dollars as Mark Zuckerberg’s college suitemate—er, as a Facebook co-founder—approached the magazine’s leadership as a potential new backer. It’s hard to overstate the role TNR has played in developing contemporary American liberalism, but even in good times that project has been less than lucrative. A good financial backer is a hands-off one: if they have a bit of self-awareness, they understand that owning a magazine confers prestige, not editorial expertise.

Chris Hughes does not have this self-awareness, and lacking the latter, he has now lost the former. Yesterday, confirming my fears, word emerged that editor Franklin Foer has resigned after apparently losing an internal struggle. That news was sad, but what accompanied it was unthinkable: Joining him in resignation is Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor and force of nature who, probably more than any other single person, has shaped the sensibility and voice of the magazine for the last 30 years. Leon is a divisive figure (he relishes in that), but whatever you think of him, TNR is inconceivable without him. It will not, cannot, be the same magazine when he is gone.

As if to crudely, stupidly rub this in, Hughes’s team sent a memo to the staff that simply must be read. Since I have so many friends and former colleagues still at the magazine, and since I worked there during his purchase, I have reserved public judgment about what is obviously a delicate and fluctuating situation. I didn’t, for instance, point out the marketer-speak infecting the insipid new “About Us” statement that followed his takeover: “The New Republic covers politics, culture and big ideas from an unbiased and thought-provoking perspective.” A couple of things: first of all, The New Republic is not unbiased. We’re liberals. That’s why the magazine exists. And secondly, a “perspective” can’t be “thought-provoking.” The phrase makes no sense, and no self-respecting journalist would have written it.

Nor would any self-respecting journalist have anything to do with the vacuous technobabble spilling from CEO Guy Vidra’s ominous internal staff memo. “We are re-imagining The New Republic as a vertically integrated digital media company,” Vidra beams, before announcing a wave of imminent firings (“changes to staff structure”) due to the fact that Hughes is using his money to cut the magazine’s publication frequency in half, to just ten issues per year. Not to worry, though: Vidra promises devotion to “content”—that ugly word used by people who think the value of writing is measured in pageviews. For a window into Vidra’s (and, by extension, Hughes’s) real journalistic values, consider this anecdote reported by Politico: In a recent staff meeting, Vidra informed writers that “that he found the magazine boring and had stopped reading longform articles.” That, ultimately, is what is meant by people who speak in terms of “content,” and the universally understood truth of the Internet era is that this “content” is just a vehicle for advertising revenue. “28 Baby Pandas Who Really Just Can’t With This” is always a better vehicle than a long retrospective on Vaclav Havel, and so it will always triumph. For the last several months, my assumption had been that Hughes and his team were using buzzier content—which now proliferates on the website—to subsidize the more serious work appearing in the print edition. It wasn’t the prettiest solution: The website had devolved noticeably to keep the print magazine afloat. But it seemed to work for a time. Now, with the print edition’s frequency cut in half and its editorial core ripped out, I have very little hope for even that outcome.

That hopelessness captures my reaction to this gut-punch of a news story. I’m sad to see what’s becoming of a beloved magazine, and I’m anxious for the talented writers still there. But I’m deeply, deeply worried for American liberalism. Make no mistake: This is a cultural, intellectual, and political disaster for the American left. The New Republic wasn’t perfect, but it was an institution, and institutions can’t simply be rebuilt or replaced. There is nothing else in American letters quite like it, and I don’t know if it will ever recover from what has happened this week. It was once the magazine of Woolf, Orwell, Keynes, Niebuhr, Schlesinger, Dewey, Walzer, Judt, and so many others whose thinking and writing has formed the intellectual tradition we try to carry on. Which self-respecting intellectual would write for it after today? Chris Hughes has dealt our tradition a body blow. I wonder if he has any idea.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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