Casablanca, Meet The New Republic!

December 6, 2014

Getting ready to leave Casablanca (one way or another, and with a companion to be named later), Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) makes a deal with Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) to sell Rick’s Café Américain. Sam the piano player (Dooley Wilson) and others have to keep their jobs, however. The deal gets done, with Ferrari noting to Mr. Blaine that “Rick’s wouldn’t be Rick’s without them.”

I thought about that scene when I read Facebook Prince Purges The New Republic:  Inside the Destruction of a 100-Year-Old Magazine by Lloyd Grove for The Daily Beast. I also heard about the changes from my friend Sam Kleiner, who writes wrote for the magazine, and read Huge Shakeup at The New Republic: What Does This Vanity Publisher Want? by Erik Wemple, media blogger for The Washington Post.

The skinny is that Chris Hughes, who made a billion or more as a Facebook founder/first spokesperson, bought The New Republic more than two years ago. Apparently, he fired editor Franklin Foer in the last few days, causing the departure of what appears to be the entire masthead. Writers for the magazine included Leon Wieseltier (literary editor for decades), along with Jonathan Chait, William Deresiewicz, John Judis, Ryan Lizza, Jeffrey Rosen, Sean Wilentz, and many others. All gone! Ad Age reports that the magazine will miss its next issue because of the exodus.

The New Republic was founded 100 years ago. It offers bi-weekly commentary on politics and the arts, leans Left on the spectrum on most matters, except for Israel and the Middle East. The writing is always first-rate, and the magazine provides an excellent mix of topics and ideas. (I’ve subscribed on and off for years, and have cited to it here a few times.)

So what’s going on here? Per Peter Finocchiaro for The Huffington Post in March 2012, in Facebook Co-Founder Chris Hughes Buys The New Republic, Mr. Hughes stated:  “We will look to tell the most important stories in politics and the arts and provide the type of rigorous analysis that The New Republic has been known for.” Even back then, though, he was talking up Internet platforms, and very recently announced a cut from 20 to 10 print issues and a move from DC to New York.

So, did everyone leave because of these changes? Hard to imagine, and those who quit deny these changes motivated the resignations. Instead, the reporting shows a culture clash, along with a lack of respect, both ways. Mr. Groves reported that TNR staffers thought Mr. Hughes was “passive-aggressive and averse to confrontation.” He also writes that multiple sources told him “Hughes came to think of his writers and editors as ‘spoiled brats’” and really disliked Mr. Wieseltier. Mr. Wemple’s reporting tells the same story, mostly.

In Casablanca Mr. Blaine may have had no buyer options other than Signor Ferrari. For sure, though, a culture clash was coming, for big, old, crooked Ferrari was not going to get any loyalty from Sam, Abdul, Carl, and Sacha. You know it and I know it!!!

So I guess I wonder here:  1—Why did Mr. Hughes buy this magazine? 2—Who’s on the right side of the angels here? 3—Does Mr. Hughes have a plan which will likely improve the magazine? 4—Does any of this matter?

I can answer No. 4, and provide one little insight regarding No. 2. On No. 2, I had dinner with Jeffrey Rosen a few years ago at the Tucson Festival of Books. He’s a big deal in the field of legal education, a go-to commentator on constitutional law issues, and as nice and down-to-earth a man as you’ll meet. So if this situation got a resignation out of him—by the way, he told me he loved doing legal journalism—I’m thinking the writers and editors may be more right here.

As for No. 4, the answer is “hell yes.” We really do need the mix of publications and outlets that make up our journalistic landscape. Newspapers and magazines are struggling, and if we end up with cable television, National Public Radio (maybe), and a few national newspapers, we will all suffer. Really we will!

P.S. Among my readers are several professional journalists. To the extent by which you are willing, please weigh in here. I’m an amateur on this subject.

Update:  Here’s Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, plenty angry and with some new facts. The New Republic is dead, thanks to its owner.

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