The Nation's Pulse

Killing Time

A once great newsweekly grows weaker and weaker.

By From the May 2009 issue

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It isn’t newspapers alone that seem dazed by the challenge of just staying alive amid the ruins left by technological revolution. A less-noticed casualty is the venerable newsmagazine—70 or 80 pages each week of allegedly discerning interpretation and analysis, aimed at the educated, middle- to upper-middle- class reader, serious in his concerns, or mostly so; interested, glancingly at least, in a wide range of current topics; at worst, desirous of passing himself at the clubhouse or the church door as more than your average beer-guzzling know-nothing.

Oh, those days! As you’ll know or intuit, they are no more. U.S. News & World Report, formerly a weekly, is a monthly digital magazine, with “embedded video and audio podcasts.” Newsweek, long owned by the Washington Post, is reportedly contemplating a makeover as a shaper of thought rather than a reporter of events. Time marches on, but…

The “but” is considerable, revealing as much about Americans as about the journalism they commission through the deployment of their money at newsstands and subscription offices. Or elsewhere. The Henry Luce style of magazine writing discourages the personal, but I would fall short of the present mark if I were not to disclose my lost romance with Time. Time, which came into my parents’ household (along with Life) during the ’50s, taught me to read and, in reading, react: punch back, cogitate, or just laugh. The old Time wasn’t junk food. The new Time—for all its red-bordered sense of importance and its profitable standing in the marketplace, is pure Quarter Pounder with cheese and fries. The dumbing down of America is what it represents.

It’s been coming on a while. I can’t quite remember when I quit subscribing to Time. It might have been the mid-’70s; likely earlier, when its sparkle faded altogether. “[O]ur mission at Time,” confesses Time’s present editor, Richard Stengel, “is to help you navigate this new world.” Dammit, sir, it’s a good thing I already know a bit about the world, because the new Time would be content if I just wandered around to my heart’s content.

In today’s journalism market, the newsmagazine isn’t about news. No, no, it’s about views and tastes—of which everybody, apparently, has some. Time in its heyday, under its surviving co-founder Henry Luce, had views aplenty, generally of the centrist Republican sort. It so happened that underlying those views was an appreciation of wisdom and culture, which appreciation is missing almost entirely from the present Time.

The old Time spoke to an audience (according to a 1939 poll) comprising 60 percent businessmen and women and 18.5 percent professional persons—doctors, lawyers, and the like. “Our journalism,” said Luce, “is concerned with the middle and upper-middle class”—a class one might assume was burdened with education, curiosity, and taste.

Ahead lay the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with their peculiar obsessions, such as the equivalency of all knowledge areas, the need to dismiss standards in learning, and, feeding those obsessions, the technological style in news-gathering and presentation: everything fast, everything knowable the minute you want to know it. The old Time, and the other newsmagazines, were framed on the need to know and understand a broad range of events and ideas. What you want to know these days is pretty much up to you, the lonely voyager through oceans of blogs and websites. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

Newsweek’s reported quest to become an interpretative authority makes sense within the modern context of technology-driven journalism. But technology doesn’t account entirely for the decline of Time. Education does. Culture does.

JUST A MINUTE HERE. What is going on at Time? I checked the March 16 edition. It sure wasn’t the Time of yore: sophisticated, self-confident. This was a Time looking not so much as to inform its reader as to send him away with a friendly squeeze of the arm.

We started in the March 16 edition with “10 Questions.” Go ahead—ask the “Interview Subject of the Day”—on this occasion, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Read a feature story about George W. Bush, “home” at last in Crawford, Texas (despite his pur- chase of a nice ritzy spread 100 miles north in Dallas). Then “Briefing”—odds and ends of knowledge. Then a series of unrelated quotations—“Verbatim.” A little later, a 166-word (I counted) book review. Followed by a six-page feature on the health crisis, a feature on women’s finance guru Suze Orman, a feature called “The Curious Capitalist,” a review of the movie Watchmen (citing the new Time’s citation of that eponymous comic novel as one of the 100 best novels since 1963!). Then the running feature (so I gather) “Nerd World,” by Lev Grossman. Then a closing essay on “Cell-Phone Second Thoughts.”

It works. I guess. The New York Times’s Richard Perez-Pena says, “While U.S. News and Newsweek struggle financially, Time generated a profit of near $50 million in 2008, in part by sharply cutting costs, according to Time Inc. executives….” In part, perhaps mostly, by keeping the product nice and low-grade: a cut above People (founded by Time’s owners) but not too large a cut.

If not itself totally, outright “dumb,” the new Time is an underachiever. Thus, perhaps, the present educational product has rendered our culture. The old Time’s hallmark was authority, stylishly, amusingly rendered; sophisticated to a degree; serious when necessary, and that was most of the time, but withal bright, funny. Not highbrow, not even aspiring to that status, but certainly (the critic Dwight Macdonald’s coinage) middlebrow: at that, high middle, on a par with the classes that made up much of its clientele.

Just for beans, I checked to see what Time had published 50 years earlier than the issue just cited. The cover story—are you sitting down?—was on Paul Tillich, the German-born Protestant theologian then teaching at Harvard, architect of “a towering structure of thought form which currently commands the littoral of theology. The concepts which are his raw materials may be as hard to grasp and hold as a handful of dry sand, but the edifice he has built with them is densely packed and neatly shaped against the erosion of intellectual wind and wave.”

It was the old Time’s way in the old days to use Easter as the occasion for a cover story on theology. For which there was a market. That would be a chunk of my point. There was a market for this material— one that top-drawer writers like Whittaker Chambers, Archibald MacLeish, Stephen Vincent Benét, and James Agee supplied at one time or another. Time was the willing seller to the willing buyer who is presupposed as the driver of commerce. People wanted this stuff, or anyway said they did, in response to Henry Luce’s exhortations.

THE PASSING OF THE OLD TIME, and its replacement by the Time of “Briefing” and “Verbatim” is more cultural reflection than journalistic debasement. The culture doesn’t want that old stuff right now. Particularly it doesn’t want authority, which was Time’s hallmark. Time, in its early days (Luce and Briton Hadden, a pair of Yale graduates, founded it in 1923), advertised itself as a “magazine devoted to Summarizing Progress.” It framed its stories in narrative form, with a delightfully idiosyncratic style that the New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs parodied in 1936 as “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.” Time, one chronicler writes, “was a magazine of extremely confident young men”—the “arbiter of the great center.”

What if you didn’t like the great center? “Like” wasn’t required. Some education was, nevertheless; some interest in topics capable of being drawn out at length rather than briefly slapped on the rear end and sent off to make way for more topics. Nor was Time afraid to bring up particular topics on the mere ground that they weren’t on the blogs, there being no blogs then, nor disposition on the part of Time’s editors to imagine the audience, not the editors, drove the train.

Time’s editors, the all-seeing Henry Luce at their head, certainly drove, certainly pronounced, certainly declared and affirmed. Now, at Time, they ask. Questions and queries fill the new Time: Tell us what you want to know and we’ll find out, that sort of thing; the thing that journalists in all occupations spend more and more precious time and space doing, wondering all the while whether it’s good enough. It may not be. Authority isn’t popular in modern America, but you can’t do without it for long, a point the present mess in Washington, D.C., over economic policy illuminates and reinforces. Backward our minds yet may reel to dimensions of experience when taste and judgment were stronger things than whim and gee-I-dunno-what-do-you-think?

No one ever had to ask Henry Luce what he thought. You paid him to tell you—and you ended up kind of liking it.  

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About the Author

William Murchison is a Dallas-based columnist for Creators Syndicate. His latest book is The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.