Tina fires back

The most controversial editor in the history of American magazines slams her critics, defends her business acumen and says Talk will probably be her last magazine.

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Tina fires backTina Brown, Oxford-educated former Londoner and former Editor of New Yorker magazine, leaves the Four Seasons Hotel in New York Wednesday, July 8, 1998. Brown resigned her position at the New Yorker Wednesday to lead a film, TV and publishing partnership with Miramax Films. In six years as The New Yorker's editor, Brown reshaped what some considered a dusty anachronism with punchier articles, splashy photographs, and extensive coverage of politics and popular culture. (AP Photo/Leo Sorel)(Credit: Associated Press)

Certainly Tina Brown has seen better days. Talk has been slammed
since it launched last August. Key editors have jumped ship. After
four issues, critics have called the magazine everything from a bust
to a bore. A piece in Monday’s New York Times accused Brown of
shilling for Talk’s corporate owners, Miramax Films, and its parent
company, Disney, and pointedly wondered whether Tina Brown was
actually in control of her magazine.

Preposterous, ludicrous, Brown said of the Times piece and its
question. Cool and congenial in her nearly bare, 56th-floor Manhattan office,
Brown seemed animated by the bad press and, in fact, looked sleepier
when conversation turned elsewhere. She hailed Martha Stewart,
apparently because the Living editor, too, has taken a great beating
in the press, and lived to tell the tale.

Are you having fun?

Yes, I am.

You can’t be happy with the press Talk has gotten. You’re good at
turning magazines around. What do you have in mind for Talk?

I did expect this. In June, actually, I called my staff around for
lunch and I said to them, we’ve all had a great time together for the
last eight months, but you’re about to enter a tunnel. When you come
out the other end, everyone is going to be slinging mud. I hope you
are going to be tough enough for it. I hope you can withstand it.
Some of you won’t be here at the end of it.

It’s true. It has gone down exactly as I expected. I guess with one
difference: The incredible success of the first issue and the launch
and the strength of the business side, which has remained incredibly
strong throughout and continues to build which tells me that the
criticism in time will turn around. Just as it always has in my
career. I have always operated in a sea of controversy. I have not
taken over magazines and had instant acclaim for doing what I have
done.

The first year and a half at Vanity Fair nobody liked what I was
doing. I got nothing but abuse for it. In fact, I was constantly in
the middle of articles about the closing of the magazine and the fact
that it was a major disaster.

At the New Yorker it really never ceased, the constant baying of
the dogs. So I am used to that.

I think that what I’ve learned — after being in the middle of
controversy for 20 years — is that the dogs bark and the caravan
moves on.

Of all the criticism leveled against Talk, has any rung true?

It washes over you, quite frankly. I don’t read a great deal of it
because there’s so much of it. I just check out the angle. If it’s
the same angle I’ve seen before I don’t bother to continue.

Ultimately, I know what I’m doing. We’re evolving a magazine
gradually. I never said it would come out of the box perfectly. It is
a work in progress. It’s a show that’s getting done. You retool and
you evolve, you change and you shape; you bring on elements and you
throw out elements and some elements don’t work. Something you
totally believed in doesn’t seem to work, so you do something else.
That’s what the process is. Nothing is given birth to without that.

What have you believed in that hasn’t worked?

It’s too early to talk about. It’s too early to say what has or
hasn’t worked. With a monthly, you are always operating in a
strangely dissonant universe because you are way ahead of your
critics. The critics start to stumble on things they don’t like —
you’ve already seen that that’s not quite right. You’re already
ahead. In some ways, it’s encouraging because you know what you
think, most of time. I certainly feel that I know what’s wrong …

What is wrong?

I think we were understaffed at the beginning. We really went into
a major launch with a very small and quite young staff — all of whom
have been fantastic — but we needed some more seasoned and
additional people to get things done.

Anything you’d like to say about staff defections?

There were some people who weren’t going to make the cut, quite
honestly. You have to have courage, commitment and character to do a
launch. It’s hard. If you ask anyone who’s launched — Entertainment
Weekly or any of Jann Wenner’s magazines — if you talk to Jann Wenner
about launching, it’s a war. A launch is a war. You’re in a very
competitive environment and no one is going to give you any breaks.
Why should they?

You have to get it right in the full glare of attention. It’s
very, very hard. Some people find it too hard. Out of a staff of 50,
four people have left. That’s OK. It’s fine. It was hard work. Some
people don’t like hard work. Some people are too inexperienced to
handle it. Some people are out of their depth.

Would you say that about [Talk's
second-in-command, vice president and executive editor] David Kuhn?

No, I wouldn’t say that about David. Some people left. It’s OK.
There’s no bad feeling between me and any of the people who left.

[After our conversation, Tina Brown phoned to say she'd like to
add the following to her remarks about Talk staff members who left
the magazine]

The editors who left had all worked incredibly hard under a lot of
pressure because our staff was so small. They contributed an enormous
amount to the magazine’s launch. I appreciate the efforts they made
on the ground floor and I understand if they didn’t want to sign up
for the long haul. Over the course of a year, private lives and
priorities can change and a shake-out is inevitable. I think David
Kuhn will be great at Brill’s online venture. He has the right
energy and enterprise for a start-up, as I discovered. I am glad
[managing editor] Howard Lalli got the top job in Atlanta. He deserved the promotion,
and I think the change of lifestyle will be terrific for him.

How seriously do you treat questions about Talk’s independence
from its corporate parents, Disney and Miramax? The New York Observer, for example, reported that Leonardo DiCaprio agreed to
appear on Talk’s cover days after Miramax signed on to distribute his next movie —

That was ludicrous. The Observer piece was ludicrous. The Leonardo
DiCaprio thing was a done situation before Harvey got into it by offering Leo a part.

Harvey is a major mogul who has offered a whole lot of people
parts. It’s not going to get in my way. I don’t get in his way.
Ultimately it’s a really trivial issue. It’s what I would call a New
York Observer scandal issue. To me the only shock is that it would
pass into the pages of the New York Times.

The thing that was preposterous about that chart the Times did was
that they talked about Julianne Moore as a Miramax actress. Sure
she’s made Miramax movies but, hey, at the time I published the piece
about her, she was appearing in “The End of the Affair,” which was not a
Miramax movie. She’s going to go on to do other movies. Julianne
Moore and Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow have done a whole bunch of
Miramax movies; they are making movies all over town. I can’t stay
away from that talent pool and I’m not going to. I refuse to.

I’m certainly not going to be inhibited about what I do. I’m not
going to be in a position, ever, where I’ve just been to see a great
movie and it was Miramax, and I’m going to say, “You know what? I’m
not going to do the hot thing. I’d rather do the cold movie.” That’s
ridiculous.

People have beaten up [Time Magazine Managing Editor] Walter
Isaacson for putting Pokimon on the cover of Time Magazine. He did
the right thing. Pokimon is really hot. I have an 8-year-old and
I have Pokimon coming out of my ears. It’s the big thing. If Walter
Isaacson didn’t do it, he would just be handing Newsweek the issue of
the day, in terms of parents and pop culture.

My point is that [The New York Times] seems to have these
actresses and actors down as being owned by Miramax when they aren’t.
The Times mentioned “My Favorite Martian.” I was quoted as saying I
didn’t know about that movie. I thought the Times reporter meant a
new martian movie because that one was out a year and a bit ago. How
could I be plugging a movie that’s not even out? That’s just gone?

It’s a kind of feverish, kind of little trivial, sort of — it’s
very, very trivial, is all I can say. It isn’t a real issue in any
way.

You said you don’t want to be inhibited by Miramax’s
involvement in the magazine. There’s been talk — as I’m sure you know
– about Talk’s planned piece about Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. It’s been
said last-minute editorial changes were influenced by the fact that
Kaczynski’s brother has a movie deal with Disney.

That is just a fabrication. It is utterly and totally untrue. The
[Disney movie] had zero to do with anything. My problem with that
story was that I felt it was a puff piece about the Unabomber and I
thought it needed some balance. That’s all. I’d be very surprised if
the author felt in any way that [Disney's movie] was a factor because
it wasn’t.

How do you do that and have time for the 8-year-old at home?
When do you spend time with your two children?

I think every woman has that juggle. It’s very, very difficult.
It’s the endless agony and push-me pull-you of every working woman. I
feel very, very tortured about it. I do live by certain rules. I
always go home by 6 o’clock. That’s very hard to achieve. But I do.
I must be there to have dinner with my kids and be with them for
those two or three hours. I often come back, later, to the office. I
always work late at home.

I never go out on weekends. I haven’t been out on a Saturday night
in 10 years. I always stay with my children.

So much is made of your social life.

Truth to tell, I only go out once a week. Any week it has to be
twice is a hugely difficult thing for me. It can’t be more than
twice because then everything goes nuts. I do entertain myself a bit,
about once a month, I’d say.

What prompted your party for Al Gore?

Actually, Ms. Gore asked if I’d throw something together for him.
I responded and brought people together to meet him. It was a
terrific evening.

Are you a Gore supporter?

I think he’s terrific. I like him very much. He’s great. I’ve
never found him wooden.

I like Al Gore for all the reasons other people don’t. I don’t
think there’s anything wrong with being a little self-disciplined and
self-contained if you’re the future president. I rather like it as a
matter of fact.

I don’t mind the fact he’s more comfortable in a suit than in his
jeans. He’s running for president, he’s not trying to be a country
and western star.

Who, in the large cultural landscape, are the women you
particularly admire?

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There are a lot of wonderful women around. I’m a big fan of Joan
Didion — her writing has always broken molds. As has Janet
Malcolm’s, another woman I admire. Anna Deavere
Smith,
I think, is very adventurous and interesting.

Martha Stewart. I admire Martha. Try looking at her clips.
Talk about trashed. She has been trashed for years. Years and years.
She has always surged ahead and been a visionary — about what she’s
done. She’s original, she’s amazing, she’s full of stamina. And she
hasn’t let it get her down. Look how she’s wound up. I think in that
sense she’s rather inspiring … I don’t think I’ll ever end up as
rich as Martha. But I think she’s pretty heroic.

Read anything great lately?

There are a lot of really great magazines right now. I think
Walter is doing a great job with Time. I think the Weekly Standard is
a very amusing magazine. The English Tattler is going through a great
renaissance right now; I get that and am very happy to see my old
magazine is doing such a great job. Business Week, I think, is a very
good magazine. Art Cooper at GQ continues to astonish.

Are you interested in the Internet?

Salon and Slate, I tend to like them. I’m surprised that Slate
doesn’t have more readers at this point. I think it’s very amusing
indeed and always has witty stuff.

I have been impressed with the voices on the Web, with the way
the individuality of the writers seem to come through so much more
strongly than on the page. It’s a much more intimate medium.

It has bolstered my desire to have intimacy on the page. I think
that a Talk piece is a very intimate piece, and if I’m looking for
something particular it’s that, that sense of up-close, fresh,
immediate connection with the reader.

Has the speed of the Internet or the way it serves narrow
interests had any effect on the way you think about editing
magazines?

The Web has increased the natural predilection I would have had
anyway to continually look for depth and quality. The Web has speed
and immediacy and quick take locked up — you’d be a fool to try to
compete with it. You can’t compete with it. The only way a magazine
can makes its mark, really, is with depth and intellectual
muscularity.

What do you make of constant reports that there’s no buzz about
Talk?

It amuses me because they are obsessively writing about the fact
that nobody writes about us. It just isn’t correct.

We set a very high bar with the first issue, and I think that’s the
reason people are saying that. The first issue really surprised me —
I was amazed by it, I thought we’d sell half of what we sold. When it
kind of went nuts, I think it set a very high bar, that’s all.

How much news has the New York Times Magazine made in the last
year? It’s a terrific magazine but no one is saying, “This issue
didn’t have any buzz.” It’s just a damned good magazine, very
well written with some very, very good articles in it. That’s true
here. This is a damned good magazine with some very, very good
articles in it.

You’re known for spending a lot of money on writers and have
been said to have lost more money than anyone else in the business.
Would Talk’s prospects be improved with more money?

That is a grotesque piece of baggage that I will probably
carry with me forever. It will be there in my obituary.

Vanity Fair made money in my editorship. I took over a magazine
that had been a disaster, that had been losing millions. I took it
from 200,000 circulation to 1.2 million. We started with 12 pages of
advertising. Take a look at my last issue. There are 250 or some such
enormous number of advertising pages. It was making between $3 and $5
million when I left. I took the magazine from disaster to
profit.

It’s much harder to take it from A to Z than to take it over now
and take that $5 million profit and turn it into $15 or $20 million.
I think it’s doing great now and I’m delighted to see that it is. But
the fact of the matter is I did leave a very, very solid financial
and commercial success. So that isn’t true, right?

At the New Yorker, I took over a magazine that was losing
documented double-digit numbers. I brought the losses down while
reinventing the brand. I re-created the magazine in terms of its new
modernization and left losing it less money than when I took it over.

I was as heartbroken as anyone that the magazine never went to
profit under me. It didn’t go to profit, because, quite honestly, I’m
not in charge of that front.

Much has been made of the bad deals Miramax and Talk have
offered writers.

That’s all rubbish, too. We deal with all the top agents. They are
all making deals with us. The writers are happy to make deals with
us. We’re publishing very good authors, across the board. None of
them are making what they feel are bad deals with us.

Talk is meant to be an American version of a European magazine
like Paris Match or Stern. What makes you think that model makes
sense for American readers?

I think a magazine that combines news and current affairs content
with glamour with good writing and a little bit of a brainier twist
is something of a European model. But I think that people here are
ready for that. American readers are always ready for something good.
It behooves us to make it good, to make it better.

Have you ever failed at anything before?

You win and lose every day, don’t you? Some days I win, some days
I lose. I certainly haven’t had unbridled success. It’s always been
incredibly hard work. I don’t feel I’ve had such a rosy path to the
top.

I once heard you tell Charlie Rose you were thinking of setting
up a film company with the New Yorker because so many of the articles
published there were optioned or made into movies. Are you sorry you
didn’t do that?

I think the New Yorker was a lost business opportunity. The moment
of opportunity may have passed now that the New Yorker is part of
Condé Nast.

What have you liked best about the New Yorker since you left?

David Remnick has done a wonderful job of sustaining the writers
who are such an incredible treasure trove, writers there that we
spent eight years building up are some of the best writers in
America. David Remnick has done a wonderful job of getting the best
out of them.

Is there anything particular that you read that really
impressed you?

The e-commerce piece was very good, the piece about the iVillage
girl was very well done, I thought. I like Jeff Toobin always. His
piece on [Kenneth] Starr was terrific. I’d like to have had that.

Are there any changes you regret having made there?

No. I didn’t make enough. If I’d stayed, I would have had to go
further. I spent too much time appeasing elements of the magazine
that, now that I’ve left, I realize were really holding it back. The
magazine has a great future, but the modernization process needs to
continue. If I had stayed I would have pushed it further. Especially
visually.

In retrospect, what was the worst Talk cover choice?

Frankly, I didn’t focus on that. If I made a mistake, this was it.
I have been consumed with the writing, the quality of the writing,
attracting the writing. I made that my focus. I guess that’s the
legacy of the New Yorker, in my brain. I probably should have spent
more time on [cover choices], and made that front burner. Now I am
focused on that.

And what are you thinking?

Coming out of a weekly, I was interested in being more spontaneous
with covers. I have realized that you can’t do that with a monthly.
You have to forgo that spontaneity, which is something that I regret.
As a journalist I would like to be able to decide a week before we go
to press who I think gives the right feeling for the cover.

With the celebrity culture being what it is, you can’t decide to
photograph a celebrity that late or kick them off the cover if a
political person is, in fact, a much more Zeitgeist person, which
sometimes happens. Sometimes it’s not a movie star person at all that
you want to put there. It could be something quite different.
Sometimes something happens to a person that makes them clearly a
great choice for a cover. In sports, or politics, or the record
industry. With a monthly, though, you have to basically decide, well,
I’m going to lock up my covers from now until next September and
forgo that spontaneity because once [the celebrities who agree to be
on the cover] have been photographed and locked in, that’s it.

What, aside from celebrity culture, interests you about the
national conversation?

Politics has become very, very interesting again. The whole churn
between the private and the public has become a searing issue. The
Internet has liberated so many energies and created so much speed.
This has impacted unfavorably, strangely, on people’s private lives
because they have no time. There are more and more demands on
people’s lives. That’s hell for the family. Questions about how we’re
living and how we’re all coping with the machinery of change is, in
fact, the most interesting thing about living today.

Do you have role models. Is there anyone in particular who has
inspired you professionally?

I’m really interested in being able to do a magazine that’s hot,
if you like that word, but also good and fair. The pressure to create
heat with unfairness and negativity is really huge; a fast way to get
“buzz” is to trash a person. I feel proud that I have been able to
create heat without doing that.

One of the things about being written about a lot yourself is
that you start to see how incredibly reductive and ludicrous most
journalism is about people. If you know people who are being written
about, it’s particularly agonizing, really.

Have you ever felt like slowing down and taking less of an
interest in the here and now, the edgy, the hot?

Let’s put it this way: I think this is my last magazine.

What’s next?

At the end of this one, I hope to have built a great asset and a
great magazine, and then I will melt into the European sunset.

Susan Lehman is a staff writer for Salon Media.

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