The Time of his Time

I went to hear Time magazine’s managing editor, Walter Isaacson, and its legendary presidential correspondent Hugh Sidey on a panel with Henry Kissinger a few weeks ago. The occasion marked the opening of an exhibit of photographs celebrating the American presidency and Time’s relationship to it – one of various events quietly heralding the most successful year in Time’s history. Certainly, the panel and exhibit were what a marketer might describe as a snapshot of the Time franchise: proximity to power, indelible images of great events, the best and the brightest journalists. (Staring at me from my bookshelf is Isaacson’s memorable biography of Kissinger as well as a 36-year-old copy – my father’s – of Hugh Sidey’s John F. Kennedy, President: A Reporter’s Inside Story.)

It would be hard to find a Watergate- or earlier-generation journalist who didn’t in some way equate journalism with these presidential images and with the notion that the essence, and certainly the pinnacle, of the profession was to cover Washington and the presidency. (When I went to work as a copyboy at the Times in 1973 on the late shift, you couldn’t go home if the president’s plane was in the air – that vigil was a lovely part of the job. Is there anyone still waiting? That would be a poignant sentinel.) But if you look at these photographs and listen to the indefatigable Kissinger, it is clear that the presidential, sweep-of-history Time has been dramatically contracting, and a new Time, concerned with issues like homework (“Too Much!”) and genealogy (“How to Search for Your Roots”) and blockbuster movies (the Star Wars keepsake issue, which we pore over in our house), is taking its place. Time’s beat, in other words, is no longer America-writ-large but the various private preoccupations, emotional and aspirational rather than ideological in nature, of large blocs of Americans who don’t much relate to great events or great men.

The Time cover might be the death of news: WHY AMERICANS DON’T CARE ABOUT THE BIG STUFF ANYMORE.

Then JFK Jr. was killed. For a day or so, this briefly felt like real news, and I was relieved not to have expressed the preceding idea. But midway through the first week, it was pretty clear not only that there was little news here but that it was a compelling story precisely because it lacked traditional news value: It wasn’t about power or politics. Our connection to him – figurative as well as literal (if also tangential) – became the story. It was all about what people felt, whether profoundly or sentimentally. It was a classic human-interest story.

As it happens, human interest is a subgenre of journalism that classic trench-coat journalists do not by temperament and snobbery customarily engage in – that was the subtext of the ensuing heaps of op-ed opprobrium. This wasn’t serious stuff; it wasn’t of consequence. It wasn’t front-page.

The New York Times, home of the true Burberry, even chose to make something of a stand on the issue. Insisting on its duty (really its franchise) to rank the overall importance of events, it stubbornly refused to lead with the story on any day. The rollout of concern over the Kennedy story was pretty consistent with the Monica-Di-O.J.-Columbine umbrage: Editorialists, columnists, and Sunday-morning commentators were intent on defining what is acceptable media behavior while, spreading out, everywhere, uncontrollably, there was the bad behavior. Isaacson himself became the particular target for a variety of columnists who took deep offense at his sappy editor’s letter in Time’s first-week JFK Jr. issue and what Frank Rich in the Times and Ellen Warren in the Chicago Tribune characterized as his self-serving evocation of his relationship with Kennedy.

If you paid attention to the various press columnists (all, at least in their hearts, right-thinking trench-coat journalists), you might be tempted to conclude that the consensus on the part of any journo who had not sold out was that the Kennedy coverage was a professional low point. If great events make great men (and great journalists), we were all sorely wanting for greatness here.

But if, on the other hand, journalism has become something else, an airing of heretofore personal concerns, an expression of mood and yearnings and something that is called community (oh, retch), then it seems like Isaacson was on target. And that the lashing we were giving ourselves over the handling of the Kennedy story was really a delayed reaction to a massive change in what we now accept as front-page, cover-story news. Practically speaking, for every journalist (or what used to be called serious journalists), all this – the emotional dramas along with the whole range of too-much-homework stories that have challenged the concerns of serious men of affairs – represents the great adjustment.

After all, the headline form itself is a relic – we know what’s happening pretty much the moment it happens (e-mail, beeper, Web, CNN). Washington’s status as the news capital is heading the way of Detroit’s status as a center of economic strength. The news business, which was once dominated by a small circle of players, is now a competitive free-for-all. Add to that the demographic revolution: Everybody has his or her own socioeconomic, psychographic, ethnic-gender-generational view of what’s news. (A young editor at Time has been circulating a proposal to create an under-40 “information brand” – he carefully distinguishes between magazine and brand – that stands for being well-informed. Younger people see news differently, they take it in differently, he says.)

And one more thing: The overwhelming sentiment in any news organization is insecurity. Hardly anybody thinks he will be doing the same job he’s doing now five years from now.

“We’re toast,” said one man to another during a men’s-room break at a conference of newspaper editors after a speech by a take-no-prisoners technologist. Even at the New York Times – perhaps most of all at the Times – there is a sense of collective anticipation that in the medium term, or sooner, the other shoe will drop.

Practically speaking, none of us is really in the journalism business anymore – not even the most Restonish or Hamillesque or pompous among us. We’re in the magazine business, or newspaper business, or television business, or Web business, trying to answer the one question many of us never imagined we’d have to answer: What is the unique selling proposition
of our product?

It is, at the very least, unexpected that Time, which was such obvious roadkill but is now enjoying its unprecedented success (not just more ads, but Time doesn’t even have to give out toaster ovens to get readers anymore), seems to have answered this question with great verve and confidence.

Part of the comedy of this development – Time as a lifestyle magazine, Time as a feel-good book, Time as the outside-the-Beltway, salt-of-the-earth journal – is that Isaacson is its author.

I’m not sure there is anyone of our under-50 generation who is as self-consciously a journalist as Isaacson. His sense of his own importance, and his almost otherworldly identification with the profession’s grandest gentlemen (you can hardly have a conversation with him without his evoking Time’s former editors and various Washington-press-corps grandees), are still a cause for wonder among his classmates at Harvard (imagine being the most self-important person in your class at Harvard). Isaacson was clearly born to be the prime minister of the Fourth Estate and to confer with his peers at State and on the Hill and at the White House and to bring the concerns of the powerful to the people.

He even speaks with that old Luce-ian, American Century, Teddy White Making of the President tone; you never quite feel you’re saying something important enough when you speak to him.

Indeed, I find it surprising that he is not at all defensive when I ask him about Time’s new, more modest interests.

“We used to have great access to great events and report them with Lippmanesque certitude. Now our goal is to tell stories that connect with the way we live,” he says. “We want to know about the debates happening around the dinner table rather than the Senate committee tables.”

Still, while he is willing to throw over the old Time augustness, he may not entirely appreciate the social changes he is speaking to.

“Walter, I’m not sure anyone sits around the dinner table anymore.”

“Hmmm. The water cooler, then.”

It is almost quaint that Isaacson, as he deconstructs the polemical and pontifical Time, is still thinking about people having debates and of journalism as the basis for social discourse. In a way, this becomes the most interesting question (applicable to almost all transitional moments): Why do some by-all-appearances dyed-in-the-wool people get it while others resist, becoming angry protectionists – grim martyrs, even? (Don Hewitt, Sidney Schanberg, and the Times’s Max Frankel quoting the Times’s Joe Lelyveld, along with Frank Rich, have all recently expressed their bleak view of the future of news.)

So after the JFK Jr. thing, as Isaacson was taking it from the dyspeptic journalistic Establishment, I called up all the many Walter watchers I know (eager to dis as well as marvel) to try to find out what traits and motivations allow Isaacson to segue so effortlessly into this new nonnews news.

There’s the Nixon-in-China analysis: Walter is the one person who could lead Time out of the death throes of pompous white-man news, because his pompous white-man news credentials are better than anybody else’s. He’s absolutely Clintonian is another explanation: Walter, like Clinton, recognizes that what works is to make it personal, that people relate more to the trivial, the local, than they do to the momentous (in this respect, part of Al Gore’s problem is that he is an old-news sort of guy – he’s posing for Time’s presidential photographs); and that, in the end, what works is what matters. And then there’s the Time Warner charge: Because he is a company man, Walter has given up being a journalist in favor of being a media-ist, even a synergist, and what he has done is turn Time into an amalgam of the company’s other, more consumer-friendly “products” (not to mention giving a cover story over to the TW movie Eyes Wide Shut). Time is now a little bit of People, a little bit of Entertainment Weekly, a little bit of Money, a little bit of Parenting, and a little bit of Health, along with a small remaining bit of Time. Walter, in other words, is the packager-in-chief.

In some ways, he’s tossed out the idea of the news magazine and, marvel of marvels, reinvented the general-interest magazine. Which is good, isn’t it?

The thing is, we all know the Death of News is not news. The journalist as a de facto branch of government, the journalist as a key link in the information chain, the journalist as a definer of what is news, is an angry, in-denial guy. Which is sort of the point: When you’ve resigned yourself to obsolescence (particularly noble obsolescence), you don’t necessarily want to be rescued.


The Time of his Time