Do you see that headline? It's written in earnest. So stop gloating about the demise of Tina Brown, who has effectively been fired as the editor of The Daily Beast. If she has failed, then all of us in the media have. Or will. It's just a matter of time.
I am talking to you, Michael Wolff ("This may be the last time I ever write about Tina Brown") and to all the people sniping on Twitter about how she deserved a comeuppance or those, as paidContent put it, who think The Daily Beast "never really seemed to get it."
I'm less sure of that (disclosure: I've reviewed books for The Beast). She had the big names (Christopher Buckley, Tunku Varadarajan, Eli Lake), buzz, and some 15 million visitors per month. Smart people writing things that many people want to read and talk about. Isn't that exactly what we want journalism to be? Should that be the goal as much in 2013 as it was thirty years ago, when the young Tatler editor was brought to New York to run Vanity Fair?
Her formula hasn't changed much since then, earning her the appellation "Queen of Buzz." Which is exactly what she was. When she arrived at Vanity Fair in 1983, it was a moribund affair. She made is sparkle, filling pages with photographs by Annie Liebovitz and Helmut Newton. And those who think she is merely after buzz might want to recall that William Styron's Darkness Visible, easily his finest work and, to this day, our finest memoir of depression, was first printed in its pages by Brown in 1986.
The conventional wisdom today is that the buzz has buzzed right past Brown to places like BuzzFeed. If all we want is cat listicles, then maybe so. But that kind of buzz can easily be dismissed. Far more serious and relevant was the kind of buzz Brown generated — for example, with Dominick Dunne, whom she first hired at Vanity Fair to report on his daughter's murder — for the stories she commissioned. Come to think of it, that might best be called conversation.
At The New Yorker, she essentially performed a blood transfusion, replacing an old guard with young writers. Did she ruin the magazine or dumb it down? Plenty said so. But if those critics were correct, the magazine is as ruined and dumb today as when she was there. As Choire Sicha, who penned Brown's professional obit, wrote back in 2007, "Fifteen years after she was appointed, nearly nine years after she departed, the majority of the work at the New Yorker is done by the people hired and promoted by Tina Brown." That post, for Gawker, was called "David Remnick's New Yorker Is Tina Brown's," alluding to the fact that she had hired its current editor. And, also, Rick Hertzberg, who would credit her with "saving" the magazine. From investigative reporter Jane Mayer to resident pop-sci contrarian Malcolm Gladwell to brilliant film critic Anthony Lane to foreign correspondent Philip Gourevitch, all are Brown hires.
And yet none of this has earned her adoration; it has not made her an emblem of the golden age of longform journalism that gets regular praise from exactly the crowd that dismisses Brown as a hack or fraud. That's surely in part because she is a woman and a Brit, because she is wealthy and famous and unashamed of either. A paratrooper dropped deep into Condé Nast territory, she has always styled herself a stranger in the clubby world of Manhattan magazine journalism, where whom you know is often more important than what you write. The irony of her career is that the native Briton's unabashed ambition is the most American thing about her. It is also what has made her American peers distrust her. Brown is all things to the people who care about literary nonfiction: simultaneously a patron and an executioner.
Of course, that has little to do with what happened between Brown and Barry Diller and whatever faces The Daily Beast. Maybe we will find out in her memoir, should she be in a score-settling mood.
"Tina Brown Loses Her Magic Spell," says a headline in The New York Observer, with sources complaining that "she puts everybody...through hell." That was fourteen years ago, by the way. There may have never been any magic. Rather, it may have been just a knack for finding the right people for the right stories. That's simply editing talent.