Betrayed by the Zeitgeist she once channeled, Tina Brown invokes it one last time
It seems that Brown misunderstood this even as late as 2010, when she and her employer, Barry Diller, took over Newsweek in partnership with the late Sidney Harman. After all, she'd done this once before when it seemed unlikely. In the early 1980s, Brown came to the U.S. from London to edit Vanity Fair and by all accounts (except for financial) she turned around the newly relaunched Condé Nast publication, making it into the must-read of its era. Brown, with the help of her well-paid writers, editors, and photographers (most notably Annie Leibovitz) nailed it. Vanity Fair seemed to understand the blurring of Hollywood and politics as embodied by the movie star-turned-president in the White House, in the rise of an ultra-privileged class on Wall Street and in the nascent communications and technology fields. She also saw that readers wanted to both gawk at the houses and baubles of those Masters of the Universe and see the rich and powerful brought low through stories of scandals and murders set in the country's toniest zip codes.
Looking back at Brown's old issues of Vanity Fair, it's easy to imagine the magazine as a kind of bespoke sailing vessel, all burnished surfaces and plush interiors. Sure, it was expensive and fond of its own exclusivity, but many readers dreamed of being aboard and, for a while there, the wind was ever at its sails.
To look back at Newsweek under Ms. Brown, the overwhelming impression is that it was like one of those hollow, inflatable dancing mascots you encounter outside of a tire store. It gestures to you spastically, twisting this way and that, beckoning you inside while simultaneously scaring you off. Cover stories like Ms. Roiphe's take on Fifty Shades or Niall Ferguson's bungled critique of Barack Obama's first term or neurosurgeon Eben Alexander's "proof" that heaven exists may have sparked debate, but they were not Zeitgeist plays. They were Hail Mary Passes, the first fragile efforts to retrain the Tina Brown eye on something else.
Brown does not deserve all the criticism for this. To those who think those controversy-stoking covers harmed the once-respectable Newsweek, it's worth remembering that as far back as 1969, Esquire's Chris Welles compared the magazine to its closest competitor, Time, and concluded that "Newsweek is much more anxious to make broad pronouncements about the significance of the week's events, to practice the art of the 'hype,' by which the routine is blown up into the incredible and the sensational. It is filled with 'crises,' turning points' and 'watersheds,' especially in the 'Violin,' Newsweek's slang for the lead story in the magazine."
The last Newsweek will, no doubt, resonate to many with the sound of a great, sad Violin. Brown didn't get there first, of course, but when the next great magazine falls apart, she'll probably hope it's the story of Newsweek's demise we'll remember. But Brown, the great would-be packager and framer of the moment, despite her recent effort in New York, won't be the one who gets to tell that story.