Betrayed by the Zeitgeist she once channeled, Tina Brown invokes it one last time

Tina Brown. (glennia, via flickr)
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On the last day of this year, outliving the universe by 10 days if the Mayan calendar was correct, the print edition of Newsweek will be no more, making the 80-year-old dentist's waiting-room staple the latest in a long line of victims of changing reader habits, the high cost of print and a Darwinian newsstand.

In an interview with Michael Kinsley in the Nov. 26 issue of New York magazine, Newsweek editor in chief and magazine legend Tina Brown gave a big-picture reason for the magazine's failure: "[E]very piece of the Zeitgeist was against Newsweek," Brown told Kinsley, a quote so telling, New York's editors even saw fit to tease it on the magazine's cover, the word Zeitgeist framed by inverted commas.

It's worth going back a bit to the origins of the word. "Zeitgeist," a German coinage translatable to the "Spirit of the Times," is often attributed to Georg Hegel as a kind of rebuke of Thomas Carlyle's "Great Man theory." The age makes the man, not the reverse; the ineluctable spirit of the people produces and is a product of its history and its art. Like "gestalt," "moral majority," "generation gap," and "collective unconscious," which all have their origins in philosophy, psychology, or other specialized branches of the humanities or social sciences, "Zeitgeist" is often tossed around in introductory courses on its way to being abused by marketers, editors, and trend-spotters who are either ignorant of or indifferent to the terms' original meanings.

Ironically the Zeitgeist, by the time a perverted form of the idea reached magazine editors, was a spirit of the times that could be invoked only once it was exhibited by the Great Men and Women, or by Great Epoch-Making Events: Hollywood celebrities, politicians, pop stars, tycoons;  big battles, massacres, name-brand political movements and other famous faces and causes fit to catch eyeballs and dollars on the newsstand.

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Back to Brown. Here she was arguing that the spirit of the current times is against these kinds of large, macro interpretations of daily life, the very things Newsweek tried to do every week, and that Tina Brown has been doing for her entire career: that is, pronouncing the Zeitgeist.

It's a conundrum. Tina Brown's pronouncement of the Zeitgeist here was that the death of Newsweek is an emblem of the Zeitgeist's rejection of magazine editors' pronouncements. It's therefore got to be her final pronouncement of the Zeitgeist, if it wasn't, by her own pronouncement, one too many. (Maybe it's what a second-year philosophy student would call an aporia?) And she made the pronouncement in New York magazine, itself a long-time purveyor of Zeitgeist pronouncements, from Tom Wolfe's "The 'Me' Decade and the Third Great Awakening" in 1976 to Gabriel Sherman's "The Wail of the 1%" in 2009. 

If your head's not spinning from that, can we get to the bottom of what might actually have happened to the Zeitgeist?

"When I think of Zeitgeist, I think of wise heads aligning, tastes aligning of wise people," Bill Wasik told me.

He's the author of And Then There's This: How We Live and Die in Viral Culture.

"It's baked into the way we get information that it's impossible to sustain the idea that 'X' is the thing we should all be talking about this week."

The Zeitgeist, it would seem, betrayed Tina Brown after she spent the last three decades, as editor of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Talk, The Daily Beast and then Newsweek, invoking it weekly or monthly. She packed the word itself in headlines, display copy, and in the bodies of her writers' work constantly. At The New Yorker, Brown found the Zeitgeist in many places as well, in everything from the tales of Bill Clinton to the tale of Joey Buttafuoco. For Brown, the Zeitgeist could be summoned anywhere, from anything that caught her eye during a given week.

But with Newsweek, her eye finally faltered. Or the Zeitgeist wasn't where she was used to finding it anymore. The world Brown finds herself in now is one in which a viral video of the son of two lesbians could change the story of America's advancement of civil rights, in an election year in which gay marriage issues were on the ballot, as effectively any high profile "Yep, I'm Gay" celebrity magazine cover ever could. Put another way, all of our "likes" and retweets set the country's agenda more than a powerful editor's feature selection could.

The democratization of these key moments, the fact they no longer belong exclusively or especially to the people who can sell magazines by posing for their covers, may be the difference between Tina Brown's era and our own.

Does Fifty Shades of Grey, however many copies it sells, speak as singularly to gender relations and shifting mores circa 2012 as Looking for Mr. Goodbar did in 1975? (Brown must've thought so: In April she commissioned a cover story examining E.L. James' "watered-down, skinny-vanilla-latte version of sadomasochism," as serial provacateur Katie Roiphe called it.) Is The Social Network as innovative in its revelation of the way we live in the era of social media as Network was of the television-saturated '70s? Looking back at Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet's 1976 film 33 years after its release, the speech that seems to speak most clearly about Network's time wasn't news anchor-turned-mad prophet Howard Beale's "I'm as as mad as hell!" rant, but a quieter one delivered by William Holden as Max Schumacher, a newsman of another era who sees television's insidious influence everywhere, even in his affair with a colleague played by Faye Dunaway. "You're television incarnate," he tells her. "Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer."

The sting of that rebuke has only intensified as network television begat cable and cable was supplanted by the Web, which ushered in the always-connected, ever-alone lives many of us live online and off today.

What scene will future viewers of The Social Network see as embodying the moment of its creation and predicting the decades that follow it? Will it be the one in which tech playboy Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) tells Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield): "A million dollars isn't cool. You know what's cool?... A billion dollars"? If that line, which helped win screenwriter Aaron Sorkin an Oscar, is meant to be a critique of Millennials, their hoodie-wearing de facto leader and his creation, it's too close to real Silicon Valley triumphalism to serve as a statement about the early part of this century. Don't believe me? Check in with me in 2043—if we both can remember the movie or, even, the social network it's based on.

Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, a website with a mission to capture, shape, and echo back the many fleeting obsessions mined from the millions upon millions of regular people who populate Twitter and Facebook, jokes that talk of Zeitgeist is above his pay grade. But he said: "Ideas and phrases and memes that capture the moment still can and do spread widely, but they don't need a launch pad or a resting place."

In other words, there's no need for a Newsweek to explain What It All Means (serious capital letters included), when so many of us are doing so constantly and fluidly online.

"This social conversation has always driven what used to be called the Zeitgeist," Smith continues. "You couldn't always see its component parts. It required these big, clear statements to make it visible. Now that conversation is always visible. What we're talking about is an elite conversation. Zeitgeist is an elevated word for it. Now it's on Twitter."

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.

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