Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 46, Dated Dec 01 , 2007
killing us all is the dumbocracy of news’
pair Sir Harold Evans and Lady Tina Brown were in Delhi recently. They
spoke to SHOMA CHAUDHURY about the challenge of journalism
in the world today
Tina Brown (53)
and Harold Evans (79) have been to western journalism what Angelina Jolie
and Brad Pitt are to Hollywood. As editor of three of the most prestigious
publications in Britain and the US – Tatler, Vanity Fair and The
New Yorker – Brown has wielded tremendous power and pushed the rules
of magazine journalism. Over the years, she has nursed famous controversies
and famous authors, growing some and guillotining others. After the closure
of her own publication, Talk, Brown withdrew to write The Diana Chronicles.
She’s now back, restless for new ground to break. Evans, husband
and one-time mentor, was voted the greatest newspaper editor of all time in 2002. A veteran war reporter and author of many
acclaimed books, Evans is most revered for his tenure as editor at the
powerful Sunday Times, where his famous crusade for Thalidomide-affected
babies made world news.
your cardinals in journalism?
To make people read. I don’t read 12,000 word front page stories
about crop rotation in The New York Times. Should, but don’t. It
looks boring, has no theatrical appeal. The challenge is not to stop doing
those stories, but to make them sexy. Find the angle, the headline, the
presentation that will compel people. At The New Yorker and Vanity Fair,
I spent a huge amount of time on headlines, captions, blurbs. I’d
talk for hours with the writer — not shaping the story ahead, but
figuring how to enter it. The other thing for me is the high-low mix.
In our post-modern age, we have a more lateral view of culture. I may
not want to waste time on Britney Spears’ latest meltdown, but I
do want to know the cultural stuff. And as an editor, it’s always
a smart thing to recognize when a window of interest is open. For instance,
when A Mighty Heart came out, it was a good opportunity for journalists
to use that cultural moment to go back and examine what happened to the
ISI and Omar Sheikh. In America, we have a very popular show called 24,
which is about this Special Forces guy catc - h ing terrorists. Two minutes
before the bomb goes off, he tortures them into speaking. The show is
gripping and the guy’s a hero, but what does it say about America’s
attitude to torture? So you use 24 to have a discussion about that.
done a lot of society journalism. You wrote the piece that blew the whistle
on the Lady Di-Prince Charles marriage. What’s your stand on the
In my Diana book, the story was the marriage and if you didn’t go
into what happened in the bedroom, you couldn’t get at what the
heck happened. Why was the most beautiful woman in the world not loved
by her husband? Other than that, as a rule I absolutely don’t support
invasive stuff about celebrities. I’m not goody-goody as a journalist,
but it shocks me when people masquerade to get private pictu - res of
people topless or in their bedroom. In America, it’s gone to such
an extent, people almost feel browbeaten into revealing something about
themselves to seem real and human. Take Barack Obama, who I think is terrific,
but his wife went on TV recently and said, in the morning he has bad breath
and leaves his socks around. My jaw sagged. I thought, what are you doing
to yourself? Can you imagine Jackie Kennedy saying this about John F.
Kennedy? It’s insane. Suddenly all his mystique collapsed. I want
to return private life to where it belongs. You can’t be iconic
without mystery. I love juicy stuff, not sleaze.
What were some iconically juicy stories?
Diana was the
key one. The OJ Simpson stuff in The New Yorker was also really good.
Jeffrey Toobin was a DA and hadn’t written any journalism when I
hired him but he turned out to be someone who understood juiciness. He
did some wonderful stuff. Then there was Henry Louis Gates Jr —
the African-American professor at Harvard. He did a fabulous story called
13 Ways of Looking at a Black Man. He interviewed everyone from Toni Morrison
to Jesse Jackson and because he himself was such a distinguished black professor,
he got them talking in a way they never ordinarily would. He got people
like Colin Powell to talk about OJ as a black man. It was great stuff
because it was brainy as hell but also sexy because these people were
being colloquial in a way they never are. I love this kind of private voice in public. What’s unfair
is that because of the “dumbocracy”, as I call it, people
end up sneering at a lot of very talented people. Brad Pitt, for instance,
is a very interesting man with all kinds of global interests, but he and
Angelina are interviewed so stupidly you end up hating them. There are
plenty of idiots like Britney Spears also, but they have to be written
of as tragic figures actually. The worst reverberation of saturation journalism
is that we actually don’t end up knowing anything about anybody.
is the biggest challenge facing media in America today? And India?
Corporatisation. The sophistry of the big conglomerate guys is to say
there’s never been more plurality of outlet. Sure. We have a thousand
and one outlets now, but their circulation is zip. There isn’t a
place to have any meaningful public discourse. You’re just talking
to yourself. Most publications and networks don’t have the critical
mass. And the major networks and newspapers don’t want to do the
so much self censorship in the media, we’ve never had less news.
got an eye on the balance sheet.
It’s the same in America. After 9/11, there was such a huge opportunity.
In a strange way, the months after 9/11 were exhilarating. Everybody had
focus. There were all these writers and journalists who had been forced
to write garbage for years, and suddenly it was okay to write 10,000 word
pieces on Pakistan. It was wonderful. Journalists were electrified. In
a strange way, everyone was waiting to be called to something better,
but Bush ruined it. First there was the divisive us-and-them policy and
then he said everybody should go shopping. What a battle cry! And it’s
true, everyone did slip right back into the world of Paris Hilton.
many channels and papers in India, it’s difficult to become an opinion
maker. Attentions are so fractured.
I thought of that myself when Norman Mailer died last week. Mailer’s
generation was full of great public intellectuals. When Mailer and Gore
Vidal and Willam F. Buckley Jr said anything — it mattered. But
now, you are just some guy on TV with a thousand other pun- dits. Nobody
Is there a way of pushing back corporate influence? Or is
it just a question of moral resolve — editors and proprietors saying
let the bank balance dip, we must do real work?
You have to have freedom to have personal resolve in the first place.
Point is, where do you do your 10,000 word investigation? You have TEHELKA
which is great. But can you make a living out of it? That’s where
corporates have the power to bend you. Everyone I know in TV in America
is miserable about their jobs. I was in a major network green room and
I overheard the producers arguing over whether to give Tony Blair two
minutes or three. The two-minute woman was arguing against the extra minute
vehemently as if she was talking about an hour and a half. It’s
enough, enough, she said. Giving an extra minute was an issue: that’s
where we’ve got to. The only answer is to set up public trusts.
Journalists have to become entrepreneurs. The search for the billionaire
with a conscience is a dead end.
When you inherited Tatler, Vanity Fair and New Yorker, what
was their essence? And what did you turn them into?
Tatler was a fusty little social magazine, but it also had a 200-year
history of being a satirical literary magazine. I wanted to bring together
the writerly magazine of the 18th century and the social magazine it had
become, without the fustiness. I created a society of inclusion, a culture
of celebrity — social life in its modern
form. We brought in very good writers. I had Martin Amis and Julian Barnes
writing when they were kids, doing fun, social stuff. Very irreverent,
with a lot of attitude.
In its first format, Vanity Fair had tried to be a New Yorker with pictures.
They were doing the classic 15,000 word pieces, but I knew people were
not going to read it, even if it was by Marquez. What I tried to do was
combine the original glamour and froth of the 1930s with the great narrative
journalism of American magazines in the 70s and 80s such as Rolling Stone
and Esquire. I tried to find voices who could redefine the magazine the
way Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe did. And I found some fantastic writers.
Domin - ick Dunne — a film producer who had never written anything
was going to the trial of his daughter’s murderer when I met him
at a dinner. I said, why don’t you keep a diary? It became a sensational piece.
In visual terms, we had Helmut Newton and Annie Leibovitz who did some
sensational photographic stuff. My goal was to combine the high and the
low. So you might have this wonderfully fun piece about Demi Moore being
pregnant on the cover and inside a big piece on the fall of some regime
in Africa. I did find that the more intense the serious strand became,
the more the magazine sold.
The New Yorker was the biggest challenge. It was this sleeping beauty,
this legendary magazine that had a lot of china you didn’t want
to break. The challenge was to wake it up without smashing anything. When
I took over, I actually let go of 75 journalists and hired 45. It was
very tough. I kept only the best, writers like John Updike, who were very
supportive because they too were bored. They wanted an editor who’d
talk to them and suggest ideas. We had some wonderful writers like David
Remnick and Lawrence Wright. Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point
was a kid at the Washington Post when I hired him. I also added photographs
to the magazine — there was huge outcry against that. So I decided
that for the first two years we would only have Richard Avedon, the greatest
American photographer whose purism of style was so appropriate for The New Yorker. I believe
in the DNA of publications. So I went back to the old issues and I found
that under Harold Ross, the formative editor, the magazine had been far
more visually exciting than the sententious publication it had become
in the 60s under William Shawn. I decided to restore its great illustration
stamp. Do away with the bland covers with houses by the sea or whatever.
We got cartoonist Art Spiegelman who had won the Pulitzer for his book about Auschwitz, Maus. Very gifted, very counter
culture — he did some immensely wonderful and controversial covers.
Our circulation grew. We attracted younger readers — which was necessary
be- cause many of our readers were very old. We hit 3,00,000 circulation
in those years and to this day the publication is doing very well.
Why did Talk fail?
I’m afraid I didn’t do due diligence about my partner, Harvey
Weinstein. One thing I learnt is that you really have to have this believing
management. I was really lucky with Condé Nast. I’d been
with them for 18 years, so I was, shall we say, a little blinkered. We
were supposed to have five years to gestate, we got two. It’s interesting,
at Vanity Fair, for the first 15 months, we had a tremendously difficult
time getting it right. Newhouse was about to close it down and I begged
for another six months. That’s when it took off. At Talk, we were in the same place. But
then came 9/11 and that gave him the excuse to pull the carpet. But in
fairness, for two years there was an absolute advertising desert. It’s
a pity because I had found very good new talent. I feel bad because we
missed creating another narrative outlet. There’s only The New Yorker
and Vanity Fair where you can write. There’s no space for new energies
or a younger writer who hasn’t had a big chance yet. That’s
a big miss. After Talkshut down, I went off and wrote my book, because I wanted to be in control.
I wanted to process my heartbreak.
What kind of magazine would you do now?
I’d love to do something like TEHELKA. I’m really quite jealous.
TEHELKA is exactly the kind of literary news magazine I’d like to
do. But though media is almost more important than politics at this point,
the trouble is American newspapers where my heart lies are really a dying
thing and you can’t persuade people to invest in them. It has to be online. I’ve been working on a website. I’m
determined to make global journalism sexy. But the web is a capricious
thing. No one has figured the economic model. It will get resolved. We
are in the in-between stage. It’s like being in the middle of the
Industrial Revolution. Until we figure the online model, we’re stuck
with old models with the corporations killing everything. There isn’t
a serious journalist who doesn’t feel this. This is not just about
professional dissatisfaction. It’s— as Al Gore says in his book — really affecting the marketplace
of ideas, it’s affecting our lives. When you get to a point where
you can’t get anybody’s attention for anything, terrible things
get ignored. I had no idea this was such an affliction in India too.What’s
rumbling in the other India? How angry is that India about the new affluence?
One has no sense of that.
future do magazines have in an age of 24/7 TV? Media technology is moving
towards news designed to individual taste. This points towards the breakdown
of the whole idea of a collective universe. Where are we headed in all
America is so insular, 30 percent of Americans still think Saddam Hussain
attacked the World Trade Center. Magazines have a limited role to play.
There’s no use covering basic news, but people still want context,
want perspective. These readers need to be nurtured and cultivated. You
need committed, visionary managements for that. News television, on the other hand, is a lost cause. Current
affairs is pretty much dead in the US. You can’t do a story like
In the Steps of Mullah Omar because you can’t get it on air. This
is where the Internet comes in. There will be web channels we’ll
do you think the trick on the web will be? I find blogs totally overrated.
That’s what the DNA of my website will be. Rigour. I don’t
want any more spouting of sloppy opinions. I don’t have the time.
ABC just fired 75 TV journalists and hired 75 bloggers instead, responsible
only to themselves. It’s insane to do that to your brand. This is
just the exuberance of a new medium. No one wants to look uncool, but who’s reading it? People keep asking me to blog,
but I’m not going to lower my standards, and why would I write for
nothing? Haven’t done that since childhood.