It’s a little unfair to judge a magazine based on its debut issue. The Radar that appeared last week to considerable hoopla, however, was not, actually, its first issue but its third, following a two-year hiatus. And during those two years, Radar was mentioned so frequently in the Observer, the Times, the Post, and Gawker that it might as well have existed—it was using up its precious media air supply. For that matter, the first first issue of Radar was a kind of de facto relaunch of Tina Brown’s defunct Miramax magazine, Talk—Talk’s editorial director, Maer Roshan, is the founder and editor-in-chief of Radar.
Being simultaneously brand-new and yesterday’s mashed potatoes is an awkward quantum state. Just as the magazine finally gets financed and starts publishing for real, Schadenfreudian New York media arbiters are inclined to declare this ingenue so over, a virgin and a whore.
But what about the actual magazine? Does it justify the kerfuffle? Is it any good?
There are lots of good things in it. I loved the nude porn-magazine photo of Mrs. Donald Trump, and wanted more. I enjoyed learning that Jennifer Lopez hated the documentary that her record company hired D. A. Pennebaker to make about her. Concocting a cheap, deliberately stupid knockoff of Damien Hirst’s shark-in-a-tank-of-formaldehyde was pretty funny. The pieces reported from Iraq were first-rate. And it was brilliant to ask 40 TV-news professionals whom they consider the stupidest, meanest, and vainest anchors.
But Radar’s fundamental problem is that all of it—the good, the bad, the mediocre—is extremely familiar. There is not a moment of shock or wonder, not a whiff of the strange or novel. At a time when glossy journalism tends to be very dull and similar, Radar is, alas, a wholly recursive exercise in recombinant magazine-making. We have seen every bit of it before.
Some we have seen before in Radar. The summer 2003 issue had Paris Hilton on the cover, with a cover essay arguing that today’s celebrities are second-rate, and a dopey story about “gay” animals. The next and latest issue—summer 2005—has Paris Hilton on the cover, with a cover essay arguing that today’s celebrities are second-rate, and a dopey story about “gay” corporate logos.
It’s one thing to rip off oneself; almost everyone does that, although usually not in such instant, shameless fashion. But this new cover story isn’t as good as the first iteration; it’s both more duh-obvious and conceptually fuzzy. Zeitgeist-tracking pieces like these are the soufflés of journalism, either delicious and impressive or, like Radar’s, flat, edible but not much fun.
Nine of the ten long features could easily appear elsewhere—GQ, Esquire, Vanity Fair, the Times, some of the women’s magazines. And if, like Radar, you posit yourself as the smartest, hippest, sharpest truth-teller in a room full of earnest weenies, you cannot afford to pack the front of your quasi-debut issue with glossy-magazine Styrofoam. You can’t resort repeatedly to lazy, second-rate journalese like “power lunching,” “pens an intimate portrait,” “penned a [screenplay],” and, in a could-run-absolutely-anywhere rundown of six forthcoming books, declare that “summer . . . is for zoning out.”
Reading a great magazine is like reading a great book, with the clear sense on every page that a skillful control freak with a Big Idea is in charge. But reading Radar, when I encountered two expensive gatefolds with six unexceptional full-page portraits of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, I only wondered . . . why?
Combining the serious and the funny in one package can work fine, as The New Yorker has demonstrated for 80 years. But it will not do, if irreverence is a defining principle of your self-conception, to default to the strenuously jaunty auto-humor of alliteration and puns: In Radar are “couture cutups,” “supermodel smackdown,” “amateur axman,” “malapropist mewling,” “The Real Diehl,” “The Tools of Attraction,” and “Knauss On Fire.” And when actual humor is attempted, it is unforgivable to publish cretinous joke-book tripe, such as the comedian Jeffrey Ross’s squib about the secretary of State: “Condi . . . was having her lips surgically removed from the president’s ass.”
“I think magazines today,” Maer Roshan told the Sun, “are much too serious.” Does he mean serious in the sense of running long, complicated stories about climate change and the Middle East? Or serious in the sense of eschewing humor? Either way, he’s wrong: In my lifetime, there has never been more unserious major-media tonnage—in both senses—than right now.
And now that almost every media channel supplies amusing and unflattering bits of information about the famous—“Page Six” and half the Post, the Times’ “Boldface,” Us Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, the mainstreamed Star and Enquirer, this magazine, the Observer, Gawker, Wonkette, E!—what is the unique selling proposition of Radar’s ration of scurrilous, smirky gossip?