So, Tina, who did you vote for?
You know who I voted for.
Yes. Powered by utter contempt for what was happening on the other side. Not powered by wild enthusiasm so much as wild running away from the other man. Harry’s been in a rage with Romney for the last six months.
When did you and your husband become citizens?
After 9/11: 9/11 made me a New Yorker. I decided I cared so much about this country that I was kidding myself that I was ever going to go back to the U.K. It was time to get married.
But you’ll always be regarded as a Brit. And not just a Brit, but someone who was part of, or led, the British invasion of American journalism—Anna Wintour and so on. Graydon Carter isn’t technically British, he’s Canadian, but he has certainly given Vanity Fair an Anglophile sensibility—all those duchesses every month. I’m afraid Americans would include Rupert Murdoch, although he, of course, is Australian. What is it about British journalists thriving here? Is it just our Anglophilia?
I think British journalists do well in America because the newspaper culture there is so strong—telling stories and presenting them readably is in their DNA. British newspapers get a terrible rap, but they are brilliant in their presentation, most of them, so full of vitality and literary wit. Never has more talent been put to such meretricious ends.
What do you make of what’s going on over there politically? Prime Minister Cameron proposed an austerity plan, and, because of the parliamentary system, he could actually impose it. But that seems to have been a mistake. Meanwhile, here, Obama’s reelection is being taken as a firm rejection of austerity. Do you have a view on who’s right?
Austerity is for masochists, but there have been enough of them in the House to frustrate Obama’s modest attempts to promote growth. Maybe everyone will now see the light—I hope so. But maybe we’ll all cartwheel over the same austerity cliff.
As for the fiat you imagine David Cameron can promulgate, don’t underrate the effect on a British prime minister’s capacity to impose anything when he gets sliced and diced in Parliament at question time. A few lousy performances and he could lose the support of his backbenchers. A president doesn’t have to face anything like that, nor a press of such feral appetite.
When you took over Newsweek, after Sidney Harman bought it and brought you and Barry Diller in as partners, everyone I talked to had the same reaction: If anyone can pull this off, it will be Tina, but no one can pull this off. That turns out to have been correct.
I think it was a romantic gamble that there was still life to be had for Newsweek. We felt that for the Daily Beast—such a frisky digital brand—to have a print platform as well would be great. And, actually, that proved to be true. But every piece of the Zeitgeist was against Newsweek, combined with an unfixable infrastructure and a set of challenges that really would have required five years in an up economy to solve.
What was your vision for it?
I’ve always been very enamored of European newsmagazines—the Spiegel kind of magazine, which has an energetic, high-low approach to news. But those magazines also need a lot of pages—there’s something about the way a magazine looks and feels when it doesn’t have advertising that is unbelievably disappointing, both as an editor and as a writer. Pages are not meant to be adjacent to one another. They need the advertising to give it body and fullness. There was always that sense of Newsweek being not the full-bodied thing that it ought to be.
It seemed wan.
Yes, it always seemed wan, and that affects the way you read it. That was one of the big problems.
What were the others?
Well, let’s face it—when I look back on it, taking over Newsweek, it just seems completely insane, actually. Within the first few months, one of the partners dies—before we’d even really gotten the office straight. I came into a situation where pretty much every senior member of management had departed. That was one of the big differences between Newsweek and The New Yorker. When I took over The New Yorker, there was a very, very good, smart staff in place.
At The New Yorker, there were people you couldn’t get out the door.
That was a different challenge.
But at Newsweek we came in and there was no executive editor, no managing editor, no news editor, no Washington editor, no features editor. I mean there was, really, nobody. There were some fantastic people in copy and some young writers, but there was no management infrastructure. We had to kind of fling in the already overstressed Daily Beast staff, then had to try to merge these two cultures. Many on the Newsweek staff were taking buyouts, except they hadn’t yet taken them, so you didn’t know who was going and who was staying. And there was the Arab Spring—you know, the biggest news moment that we’ve seen in the last five years.
Did the Harman family make any commitment to keep it going?
The commitment was made by Sidney, but Sidney died. Jane Harman loyally stuck by things for a while, but this was never her passion. She was supportive, I think, for a time, but no one had asked her whether she wanted to become a press baron. I mean, there’s no reason why she should—that was what her husband wanted to be. Had he stayed alive, I’m sure he would have invested more. But who knows?
And how long has Barry Diller given you?
Barry doesn’t talk in those terms. Barry backs things that he believes in, and he’s a huge believer in the Beast. He’s always been a huge believer in the Beast. He sees it as something, which it is. He sees it as growing in leaps and bounds and believes it is going to be a very valuable property. He’s very committed to the Beast. And he’s been very supportive of Newsweek, even though it was meant to be a joint venture and turned out not to be—the death of Sidney Harman was an enormous change.
Was it really losing $40 million a year?
I’m not supposed to reveal the exact numbers. But I will tell you it cost $42 million just to print Newsweek.
Before you’ve even engaged one writer, or one copy editor, or one picture editor. Forty-two million dollars.
That’s sort of a good piece of evidence for the idea that magazines ought to go online.
That was the thing. We just looked at it in the spring, and everything, every trend, suggested this was never going to change. It’s not like you felt it was a temporary advertising situation.
That was exactly what I thought back in 1995, starting Slate. And then it didn’t happen.
No, but you were very prescient.
I was too prescient.
It took longer, but usually these things do take longer.
Newsweek, in its heyday, had correspondents all over the world.
You know, it was very funny—when I looked at the document of sale, it was like the vestiges of the great galleon it had been. It was like that wreck of the Titanic in the James Cameron film—they’re swimming through the rooms, and you see the chandeliers. Every so often, you would swim around a corner and see a chandelier—things like private dining. You suddenly realize, this was an era when there were things like private dining rooms.
When [Washington Post publisher and Newsweek owner] Kay Graham arrived in a foreign city, she was really like the State Department—the Newsweek bureau would be there to greet her. And that Newsweek bureau would immediately get her an interview with, you know, Ferdinand Marcos.
She had a private chef at Newsweek. And when she wasn’t in town, I remember the editor at the time, Bill Broyles, got to use the chef.
How much of that is unnecessary?
It’s totally unnecessary.
But it did add to what made up Newsweek.
Absolutely. No, it did, listen—it was very grand.
So what’s going to happen? You’re not going to be able to do that.
No, we’re not. But Newsweek still has a great deal of access and power. You go to Brazil, you go to India—we have a hugely global footprint. You can get an interview with anyone overseas on the basis of being part of Newsweek. It still has a great deal of impact.
And I think we’ve done a very good magazine. I don’t know whether you’ve been reading it—probably not—but it’s very good. There was a lot of talent here. But it’s like having a refrigerator on each foot—to have this carapace of the print magazine and all its problems, and all its legacy of unsolved issues. Once we shed that, we’ll just be able to focus on the content. I find that very liberating, personally. I think many of the staff do, too.
And the plan is to charge?
Yes. We’re looking very strongly now at this metered-access model.
And that is?
When you charge for every fourth or fifth piece that you get. Did you ever consider doing that for Slate?
No. We said, ‘This is very interesting, we’ll go second.’ And then we didn’t. So the Daily Beast—
The Daily Beast is on fire. We hit 19,800,000 uniques in October.
Nineteen million, eight hundred thousand. The goal was fifteen by the end of this year, so we’re way past our goal. And we’re only in November.
And how many does Arianna Huffington have?
You know, I haven’t checked lately. I’m too excited about my 19,800,000.
Do you honestly not read the Huffington Post?
I do read it. I do read it.
So what do you think of it?
I think it’s got great stuff in it. I think there’s stuff in it that ain’t so great, too. But, you know, the site is very alive.
Do you think she’s figured out something?
She figured it out first, which I think is the smart thing.
What was it?
I think she understood how to create a community very quickly. She also figured out how to get everyone to do it for nothing, which was probably the cleverest thing of all.
I think Arianna’s terrific. We’ve been friends since she was at Cambridge and I was at Oxford. We shared some of the same boyfriends.
Oh, God, I wouldn’t possibly share that with New York Magazine and Michael Kinsley.
Well, how did you get to your 19,800,000?
The great thing about the Beast is that it’s an aggregated community now—all very smart, eclectic people. The last four years have really been about assembling all these talents. They file when they’re asked, and they file when they’re not asked, and they’re there for us. We grow them all the time.
One thing I love about the Beast is that any major news event throws up another bunch of talents, inevitably. I mean, it could be a tsunami somewhere—when that happens, you have to quickly find new writers. Because you haven’t got those writers. And then those writers stick.
Wasn’t the IAC Building flooded out during Sandy?
Yes. Armpit-high water in that Frank Gehry lobby, and all the tech screwed up by the flooded basement. Staff were scattered all over the city, with about one in three e-mails arriving every two days—which caused its own special chaos.
It’s a very joyful enterprise, the Beast, compared to print. It’s hard work, but it’s so much less stressful. Because all the boundaries of print just feel so incredibly old-fashioned now—the need to do things in a certain shape, in a certain mix, by a certain time of the day in the week. All of that just seems so incredibly burdensome now.
You get a call at 10:30 in the evening saying you’ve got to kill three lines.
All of that.
And then half an hour later, you’ve got to add two.
That’s exactly right. And then you’ve got to come back to tweak it because X happened.
The Petraeus story broke on Friday, and by Monday, Newsweek had a pretty impressive package put together.
It feels horrible that something as piffling as what came out in a few sizzly e-mails should bring such a major figure down, after all those years in the theater of war. I can see why he felt he had to resign, though, because the honor code of the military is so strong in him, and as director of the CIA there is something uniquely embarrassing about being caught in indiscretion. I hope his penance is short and dignified and he returns to something commensurate to his gifts, as soon as possible, and somehow patches it up with his sadly embarrassed wife.
But this story is moving so fast and furiously, everything said here could be out of date in a few days. It’s already clear it’s so much more than a love triangle. I keep feeling the Libyan consulate debacle will surface somewhere.
What do you think about the resignation itself?
Just incredible that another giant bites the dust. A reputation is a hazardous thing to have in the age of so much media. The story is so tragic and fascinating—all that drive and asceticism and sacrifice and service. He pushed himself so hard, it was, perhaps, bound to happen.
I remember seeing a picture of him right after Obama announced Stanley McChrystal was going and Petraeus would replace him in Afghanistan. He looked so stoically bummed out. One can imagine him being there in another hellhole hot spot finding Broadwell’s obsessive interest in his leadership irresistible. And no doubt he found leaving uniform much more dislocating than he expected. He should have gotten the Joint Chiefs job, and I doubt the CIA was a comfort zone for him. These are the kind of things that can make someone hitherto indomitably strong feel suddenly vulnerable. He is an enormous loss in my view.
But public life is a pretty horrible place to live. Mark Thompson hasn’t even gotten here, from the BBC, to be CEO of the New York Times before he’s shredded over Jimmy Savile, a priapic joke figure from another BBC era. Who does it leave one with to lead? I’d be tempted to say Mitt Romney, who has the kind of perfect family life that no one has anymore, but fortunately that turned out not to be so.
What’s your take on Savile?
Jimmy Savile was a disgusting, sexually incontinent gargoyle. I always loathed him, and there is something about feeling up kids in hospital wards that is especially nauseating. I wish he was alive to feel the hysteria of all the national contempt.
How badly did the BBC screw up in dealing with the fallout, do you think? And what should Arthur Sulzberger do with Thompson, having hired him away?
The BBC has become too big to manage. The director-general should not also be the editor-in-chief. The roles should be split. I am sure Thompson believed it when he was told the BBC’s Savile exposé was killed on journalistic grounds. It may have been, actually, and was just a cock-up and a bit of corporate timidity, combined with a failure of communication all around—which is what most “cover-ups” tend to be. I see no reason why Thompson shouldn’t go ahead with his Times role, though there are so many self-righteous moralists at the Times they may well keep baying for his exit.
Tell me about your daily reading list.
My media diet?
Oh, gosh. It’s very eclectic, as you would imagine. First I do my New York Times and Wall Street Journal—I still read the New York Post like a ransom note. I like going to the Guardian. And for my sheer hit of trash, I’ll go to the Daily Mail Online, which is so great. It’s just got the best human-interest garbage.
I believe it’s the biggest news site. Can that be right?
I’m sure it is. Every story is something you can’t resist. It’s about, you know, how your kids will get ADD if they eat, I don’t know, saffron rice. It’s just irresistible. So I read that. And then I go to the Sutton Cafe diner with Harry, and we sit and read our papers.
On paper. Although Harry—he was the ultimate newspaper man, but he’s begun to take his iPad, which is a real sign of habits changing. I still like my newspapers with my coffee. Then I come back, and I go to the office, and I start surfing around. I’ll read HuffPo, Politico, sometimes Buzzfeed, bit of Washington Post.
There’s another media property that’s having troubles. What would you suggest to them?
Well, I think their whole decision to be a local paper was not the right decision. I mean, I think that they destroyed their influence and brand by becoming so local. They had some of the world’s best writers on that paper. But they’ve somehow shrunk—the more local they’ve become, the more they’ve shrunk their whole footprint.
That was a conscious decision.
I know it was. I think it was the wrong decision.
In ten years, will we still have newspapers on paper?
“No” is the short answer, unless printed at home via the web.
Will the current corporate structure survive—Time Warner, News Corp., the New York Times?
It’s really, really difficult for the old behemoths to stay nimble in an era of such disruptive innovation. Elephants can’t tap dance. New empires can be built so fast, as we saw with Facebook and Google. I very much doubt by mid-century most of the major-brand media companies will still be dominant.
What about Time?
I think Time is upheld by being part of a huge corporation with all these other titles. It has People magazine and Sports Illustrated. It’s in the umbrella of so much support, so it’s got a longer life. But I personally think that within two or three years, you’re going to be seeing the same story.
I think a lot of magazines are going to have to go online. There will be magazines, but a lot of magazines are going to decide that with basic, inherent costs, the fact that advertisers want to now be in digital, combined with the reading habits of all of us—they’ll decide that print doesn’t make any sense.
What legacy media has gotten it right?
I think Forbes has done quite well. And I love the new Journal. I think Murdoch’s done a brilliant job with the Journal.
I agree with you. Through gritted teeth.
You know, it’s just so much more readable. It’s very good online. I think the Saturday paper’s great. And I think it’s just a cracklingly good paper.
Let’s talk briefly about Graydon Carter and Vanity Fair. What do you think of Vanity Fair still using a template that you created?
It was just a great brand that stuck, if you know what I mean. Once we got that template, it just seemed to be incredibly robust and resilient. And the talent that we brought in continued for years to be the talent that powered it.
The pedigree of hiring is very important in any company. As we kind of built Vanity Fair from the ground up, pretty much everybody there was really good. It was built to last. And Graydon has done a terrific job of continuing it and building on it, and developing it. It’s a very good magazine. It looks fabulous.
Rightly or not, you are associated with the creation of celebrity culture, which many people think has gone too far. Has it gone too far? Do you feel any responsibility or credit for it?
To the first point: I didn’t create celebrity culture. A good magazine is the mirror of its times. What I did was to recognize celebrity culture and invite it in for scrutiny in our pages. The catnip of Vanity Fair was to treat movie stars like intellectuals and make intellectuals look like movie stars (easier when you have Annie Leibovitz to help). What’s different today is that the celebrities who count are more interested in what they can do with their fame than just getting coverage.
But intellectuals and nonintellectuals alike love juicy stories. I don’t care if you have a Ph.D., at some irrepressible level you still want to read about Petraeus’s extramarital affair more than you want to read a piece that gets into the weeds of his counterinsurgency strategy. You want to know about Paula Broadwell more than you do about David Galula—the French military officer who was Petraeus’s strategic inspiration. The perfect example of that was when I sat next to Henry Kissinger one night in the eighties and he opened the conversation by saying, “I loved that piece about Debra Winger.”
There’s a tedious side to American media criticism that holds that if something is a good read—or a good read that’s accessible to a wider range of readers than a few Upper West Side or campus worthies—that it is therefore, somehow, unseemly. I cannot bear that strain in American journalism and have always fought hard against it. And yes, that’s the Brit in me.
To ask a “Do you still beat your husband?” sort of question: Have you lost your touch for sensing what’s “hot”?
You know, this talk of “hot” seems a bit old hat to me. I always have published, and still do, what happens to interest me at any given time. Four years ago, I felt there was a rising, very exciting energy coming from women in emerging countries pushing at the edges of their cultures and decided to make it a focus. Now every day I read about a new women’s conference somewhere. I did it because it was interesting, not because it was “hot.”
But I’m relieved that most of the time, what interests me tends to interest other people too. Celebrity culture has been out of control for a long time, and the more media there is, the more short-lived their staying power. When Vanity Fair began, it was enough to have a movie star on the cover, but Oprah made some psychic scar de rigueur for exposure to get any traction. Now you can’t get on a talk show unless you can brag about being a victim of pedophilia or anorexia. It’s such a bore, all the whining.
Let me ask you about the famous party.
Launching Talk. As I remember it, the whole point of it was, this was going to be a modest party. You were saying, “I recognize that I’m not working for Si Newhouse anymore, and everyone who says I can’t do this in any reasonable economic way—I’m going to prove them wrong.” But in retrospect, it seems to have taken on the exact opposite legend.
It was wonderful and hysterically funny, really. The party was scheduled to be that low-key party you talked about, in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But we did a piece that Giuliani hated—he was running against Hillary Clinton, who was on the cover of the first edition of Talk. And he basically said we could not do it at the Brooklyn Navy Yard—we needed the permission of the city to do it there. That was the pettiness of it.
Now, you don’t say that to Harvey Weinstein and get away with it, right? Harvey just said, “We’ll do it at a federal site.” Somebody said Liberty Island is a federal site. Well, of course that got me completely excited. The idea of doing a party on Liberty Island—no one does parties at Liberty Island. I don’t think there had been one party on Liberty Island. There was no electricity there. We went over in a boat, we looked at it, and we decided we were gonna do it with candles and Chinese lanterns. And we did.
But, of course, Harvey decided he was going to make this a party that everybody he’d ever met was going to come to—just to kind of spit in the eye of Rudy Giuliani. He wanted this to be something that Rudy Giuliani would never forget. So our little fun party in the Brooklyn Navy Yard became for everyone in the Miramax Rolodex, and everybody, you know, in the Tina Brown Rolodex, sailing like this wonderful ship of fools toward Liberty Island. And I stood there on that boardwalk, and it was like Noah’s Ark, out of the nineties. Two by two they came out. You know, Madonna and Salman Rushdie.
Well that’s your high-low.
It was absolutely great. Demi Moore arriving with, like, Henry Kissinger. It was a wonderful, wonderful party. I have absolutely no regrets at all. Everybody was picnicking under the moonlight, on these blankets with Chinese lanterns. And I remember that Joan Didion went up to the top of the Lady Liberty, with Joe Lelyveld and Liam Neeson. Macy Gray did the music, and Queen Latifah was the M.C. And it was like that. George Plimpton did the fireworks.
It didn’t exactly demonstrate the new austerity.
As David Brown famously said, you don’t give a party that’s better than the movie. Which was the problem with that party.
But, in a strange way, that party was the end of the twentieth century. It was the great end-of-twentieth-century party. I remember going back on the barge afterwards with Natasha Richardson, Kate Moss, and all these people, and this big cold wave came flooding over the boat. It was two o’clock in the morning, and we were all soaking. It was like Cinderella waking up from the ball.
And, of course, that view of Manhattan from the party—very shortly, the Twin Towers were down. New York had changed utterly. Utterly. I mean, we never would have had that party after 9/11. It just ended like that. It was really, really romantic.
I wanted to get you to respond a bit to the case against Tina Brown. I’m going to read the indictment, and you’re going to speak for the defense, okay?
Tina Brown only cares about buzz. She doesn’t care about serious issues.
I don’t think anyone who’s really worked with me will tell you that. For a start, people seem to think buzz is something you graft on to something. Which is utterly fallacious. Buzz actually is about publishing something that generates a conversation—you want to publish something that generates energetic debate; otherwise, why would you want to publish it?
And if you look at the talents I’ve assembled around me—they’re amazing talents that I’ve worked with. And found. Look at who I’ve worked with: David Remnick and Larry Wright and Malcolm Gladwell and Jane Mayer and Jeffrey Toobin. These are not frivolous writers.
You should talk to a David Frum, an Andrew Sullivan, or anyone who works with me. Ask them what my editing comments are. They’re not about spin out this buzz-worthy phrase. They’re about structure and content and ideas. And that’s what turns me on—the world of ideas. That’s where I live.
Okay. Tina’s magazines, for all the hype, have never made money. Never at least for anyone except herself.
That’s a lie?
Lie. Vanity Fair was left a magazine making a nice profit. From losing $70 million, I took it into profit. Seven or eight million dollars of profit by the time I left. Which, as you know, is the hardest thing to do.
I’ve never done it.
Not only was it left in profit, but I built a brand. An incredibly powerful brand. And when it came to The New Yorker, I took a brand that was dying—I left after six and a half years, and I’d taken the losses down. It was losing about $22 million when I took it over, then when I left, it took David Remnick four years to get it into profit. I rebuilt that brand and created enormous value.
This is a related one. Tina, all she does is to pay huge amounts of money to big-name writers.
That certainly isn’t true. It’s certainly not true of the writers at the Daily Beast. Certainly wasn’t true, you know, of the writers at Talk. And Vanity Fair at the time that I launched it, we created competitive rates for writers. I believe in paying writers properly.
I’m running out of items for the indictment, and this is not really a criticism, it’s an observation. Tina has a thing for older men. And older men have a thing for Tina. Do you feel you have a special connection with older men?
I certainly feel I have a special connection with the one I’m married to.
How old do they have to be for them to be considered older men?
Well, we’re the exact same age, so everyone’s old.
Thank God we’re all living so long, it still gives me a chance.
But you know, Harry, of course, Sidney Harman, Si Newhouse, Harvey Weinstein …
Si Newhouse? Harvey Weinstein? The people I go to work for, I have to have a thing for?
No, it’s just that—
You go to war with the army you have. Please. Let’s not talk about me having things for Si Newhouse and Harvey Weinstein. I enjoyed working for both of them, even Harvey.
I mean, I can tell you that Sidney Harman—not that there was anything sexual about it, but he was professionally smitten by you.
Well, I’m very touched to hear it. I’m very touched to hear that. He was a wonderful and enjoyable guy. I wish I’d been able to know him longer. But I didn’t know him for very long. Two months.
After Talk got into trouble, there was a piece in Vogue that said you’d undergone a fantastic transformation in that you’d become a feminist. Were you not a feminist before?
I think I’ve become more aware and supportive of women who are less lucky, frankly. I think that as you get older, inevitably you do become more socially involved and more politically aware. I moved in that direction, too. I started my Women in the World Summit, which has become a huge passion for me. We’re doing it in Brazil. We’re taking it everywhere. And I love it. I find it incredibly gratifying. I almost love doing it more than I love working on the page.
Are conferences now a key or essential ingredient in the magazine business?
Well, they are for us. Our Women in the World has become very important to us as a part of our whole kind of company.
Yeah, and we’re doing another one, this heroes summit, which I’m doing in November, which I’m very excited about, too. We’re going to do that annually.
Don’t you sometimes feel that people are spending their lives going to events and conferences?
There’s a lot of them. But you know what it also tells me? That people are hungry to hear really interesting conversations. They really are.
Do you Tweet?
I tweet when I’m prodded to tweet. You know, it’s fun enough. I don’t find tweeting a natural extension of my sort of literary output. You know, it always feels so self-admiring to tweet. As if you sort of expect people to find you interesting whatever you have to say. And I have a certain inhibition about that. I kind of think it feels very narcissistic, to tweet. What about you, do you tweet?
Only when forced.
Exactly. Now why is that?
Well, this is not about me. What about Facebook?
No, I don’t use Facebook. I absolutely don’t want to stay in touch with everybody in my past. I really believe in falling out of touch with people.
There’s something very healthy about not seeing someone for three years, not knowing what they’re doing, running into them, and finding that they’re now utterly changed. You know, they have gray hair now and they’re divorced. If I was on Facebook, I would know all those things, and I don’t want to know them.
To end where we began, Citizen Tina and American politics: Are you gearing up for Hillary in 2016, or is the Clinton moment over?
Citizen Tina—thanks for that—would hike across America for Hillary. I’ve seen her up close in action in our Women in the World events, and she’s so unbelievably compelling. I want her to get her two years off, cut her hair again, freshen up those old pantsuits, and hit the trail running.