Ron Radosh

The Long, Slow Death of The New Republic

Late yesterday, the owner and publisher of TNR, Facebook magnate Chris Hughes, ended the publication as we know it.

Just weeks after their gala 100th birthday bash held in Washington, D.C., at a cost of over $150,000 — attended by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, chaired by Bill Clinton, and with a performance by Wynton Marsalis — Hughes immediately announced an extensive executive change that spelled the magazine’s quick demise.

He fired the prominent literary editor Leon Wieseltier and the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Frank Foer. You can read the details in today’s New York Times, as well as in articles by Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine, Dylan Byers in Politico, and in Lloyd Grove’s revealing column at The Daily Beast. The one place you will not read anything about it is on TNR’s website.

To replace the old guard, who had some continuity with the magazine’s traditions and who had managed to sneak into its increasingly vacuous stories some serious content (such as Robert Kagan’s cover story on the importance of exercising American power in the world), Hughes brought in new management. He announced that the new CEO will be Guy Vidra, who previously worked at Yahoo, and he appointed as editor-in-chief Gabriel Snyder, who was an editor at The Atlantic Wire. Then, he announced that he was cutting TNR’s bi-weekly publication schedule in half, making its print magazine a monthly, and was moving its offices to New York.

When Hughes bought the publication, as the Times story notes, he said he was motivated to purchase it because he had a great interest in “the future of high quality long-form journalism.”

I knew at the time that the result of his takeover would be the magazine’s demise. In a PJ Media column, I wrote: “I am not too optimistic about its future.” At that time, Richard Just was running it; he had just met with Hughes and convinced him to purchase TNR, hoping that he would save the magazine. Shortly thereafter, Hughes fired Just and convinced TNR’s old editor Frank Foer to return as editor-in-chief.

I believed that TNR would become a shill for the Obama administration. This was made clear quite soon. I also believed that the magazine would never publish serious articles that critiqued the ideology and politics of liberalism itself:

So, I am not optimistic about the fate of the new TNR. The last thing we need is a magazine slightly — very slightly — to the right of The Nation. … this is a swan song and sad goodbye to the old TNR. I wish the magazine well, and perhaps I will turn out to be very wrong. But as a natural pessimist, and for good reason, I only expect the worst.

Now, the worst has come to pass. As the Washington Post reported, and was tweeted earlier by Michael Calderone: “More than a dozen senior editors and a longer list of contributing editors quit on Friday following the resignation of editor Franklin Foer and literary editor, Leon Wieseltier.”

The list included its most prominent and serious writers, including its long-time legal affairs editor Jeffrey Rosen; contributing editors Anne Applebaum and Paul Berman; historians Sean Wilentz and Robert Kagan; and senior editors Noam Scheiber, Judith Shulevitz, and Jason Zengerle, among others. The list includes almost every single writer or editor who made TNR what it was.

Why should we care? Despite my own disagreements with TNR’s old-style liberalism, in its heyday — under the editorship of Marty Peretz (whom the editors who stayed on wrote out of the magazine’s history and completely ignored) — TNR had moved back to the fierce Cold War liberalism that became its mainstay. It was anti-Communist, tough on foreign policy, and pro-Israel. It also featured major intellectual articles of a serious nature, often probing ones that cut against the grain. Even under Hughes, some of those working at TNR tried to hold true to its old stance.

Writing about this period in the New York Times, reporter Jennifer Schuessler put it this way:

During Mr. Peretz’s tempestuous three-decade reign, whose door-slamming fights were recalled (mostly) fondly in an article in the anniversary issue by a former editor, Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Republic enraged many on the left, including many on its own staff, with its support for the contras, the anti-Communist insurgents in Nicaragua; an excerpt from “The Bell Curve,” Charles Murray’s 1994 book on race and I.Q.; and its full-throated support, later reconsidered, for the Iraq war. (Mr. Peretz, who attacked Mr. Hughes last year in an op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal, is not invited to the party, Mr. Hughes said.)

As for Peretz, writing in the Wall Street Journal after Hughes’ takeover of the magazine, he bluntly said that he could “no longer recognize” the magazine he had run since 1974. As for the new owner Chris Hughes, Peretz accurately noted that the man was no intellectual: “Mr. Hughes,” he wrote, “is not from the world of Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann, the old-school liberals who founded the ‘journal of opinion’ in the hope that it would foment in its readers ‘little insurrections of the mind.'” Then he added the final insult: “The New Republic has abandoned its liberal but heterodox tradition and embraced a leftist outlook as predictable as that of Mother Jones or the Nation.”

It’s worse than that. Hughes recently told reporters that he considered TNR to be not a magazine, but a “vertically integrated digital media company,” perhaps something along the lines of Politico or Buzzfeed. As owner and publisher, he has a right to do what he wants with his money. But he has quickly abandoned the promises he made when he bought TNR, to make the magazine relevant and to continue true to its intellectual traditions.

The current crop of departing editors should not have been surprised at this turn of events. The new course was clear from the very first day Hughes took it over. I recall him announcing that he was going to set up nationwide TNR coffee shops, starting in the major East and West Coast cities, where people could drink coffee and eat pastries and get TNR mugs, shirts, as well as the magazine itself. That crazy idea never came to fruition. But it was a harbinger of things to come.

Once an intellectual force of old-style liberalism that ran challenging articles policymakers, politicians, and the press had to contend with, it has now disappeared forever. Already, in its place, have been fluff pieces like a recent cover story about Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek. Perhaps a magazine similar to the old TNR will be funded by an intelligent multi-millionaire who will buy it and give its old editors a perch from which to resume their work. Or perhaps they will be hired en masse by another existing magazine, which will switch its format to one similar to the old journal of opinion. There are plenty of floundering outlets whose editors are brainstorming how to keep their print magazine in existence in a new digital era.

Without such a development, it is time to give TNR a final good-bye. TNR, which once had among its editors and writers people like Charles Krauthammer, Mort Kondracke, Fred Barnes, Jamie Kirchick, Chuck Lane, and other serious and probing journalists, is gone forever. We have Chris Hughes to thank for its end.