Tina Brown pulls no punches: "If you're a woman, you have to be gold in a silver job"

Salon talks to iconic magazine editor Tina Brown about her influential career and why it's women's turn now

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 11, 2019 4:50PM (EST)

Mary Elizabeth Williams and Tina Brown (Salon Talks)
Mary Elizabeth Williams and Tina Brown (Salon Talks)

"I'll never forget when I won a general excellence award at Vanity Fair," says Tina Brown. "It said, 'She brought buzz and fizz.' It made me sound like a cheerleader. This was an issue where I'd published William Styron's 10,000 word essay on depression that became his book 'Darkness Visible,' after a poem by Milton. That was what we were doing at Vanity."

In addition to editing Vanity Fair, Brown has been the editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, founding editor of The Daily Beast, authored numerous books and founded Tina Brown Live Media/Women in the World. She also now has a new podcast. Through it all, as she's won awards and discovered some of the most influential journalists of the last thirty years. Brown has survived the scrutiny that comes with the turf, and she sat down with me last week in Salon's studio to tell all.

The Wondery podcast "TBD with Tina Brown," debuted just in December. You've already been talking to people like Aaron Sorkin, Allison Janney, Gretchen Carlson...

She's [Carlson] doing amazing work, because she's really taken forward her whole crusade about sexual harassment and taken it to the blue collar workers, the women who just don't have any access to expensive lawyers or any kind of leverage. She's really gone deep into that world, and it's an amazing achievement.

She's so present in the reality that she had a high profile case, she got a big settlement. What happens to all those people who don't? You've talked in that podcast about the repercussions for women.

The thing that I really have been struck by in all of the noise, in all of the exposés and all the scandals and so on, you can't point to one woman whose career was improved by going public about being sexually harassed.

Sure, they get a lot of exposure or they may be asked on a lot of panels or they could have their piece written up. Are the actresses getting better parts now? Are they getting hired? For any of the women who've gone public about the way they were treated corporately, were there firms jumping up and saying, "This is a brave woman who spoke up. I'm going to hire her"?Absolutely not. No. They become kind of poster women for sexual harassment, or they become toxic Marys who simply cannot get another job.

Gretchen talked about that. Before she went public, she knew already that she would be considered damaged goods going out there into the world. What happens to women who don't have her power and her influence? You were talking about this, and the women who say, "I had a Ph.D. I was doing research, and now I can't find a place."

I want to ask you, what happens to the men? You have had a very long career in media, you have worked with or had some of these men refuse to work with you over the years. You've watched these men. What happens to them now? Is there a way for them to turn around? Is there a way for them to come back from this as well?

Well, it's interesting. I feel men are feeling quite raw at the moment, and threatened in a very deep way. I think that a great many men have felt before, "This too shall pass. This is the latest kind of explosion in the culture and things are going to go back to normal." But I think there's now a realization that this is truly the next big civil rights movement, that it isn't going to go back anywhere. It's only going to increase in momentum.

Now, many, many terrific men are very pleased about that. They say, "You know what? We were over privileged and we have to make up for this. We were blind. We didn't realize what was happening." I think there are a lot of men who obviously didn't know quite how bad it was amongst people they like and admire. The good guys are thinking, "Oh my God, this guy's a dog and I didn't know it."

Gretchen Carlson said her husband didn't even know.

Absolutely. They really didn't. But then there are others who think, "My whole universe is getting shaken up here and I don't like it."

I had an encounter when I attended the Davos Forum. We do an event there, and two weeks ago I made a joke in my opening remarks. I was interviewing Michelle Bachelet from the UN. She was president of Chile, and I said, "Was it your former career as a pediatrician that gave you such skill in handling the childlike nature of powerful men?" Afterwards, a major businessman was very upset with me and he said to me, "How come you can say that? If I said that about a woman, I'd be killed."

I said, "Well, jokes like that have been made about women for thousands of years and we're just having a little bit of levity." But he was very upset. He's a very good guy. I think that he was feeling sort of accused and he clearly had a raw nerve in him. That must be because there's a deep sense of anxiety about what has been going on.

When you haven't lived your entire career being the brunt of those kinds of comments, when you hear one for the first time directed at you, you haven't developed that skill of, "Maybe I can just back off."

You get very good at laughing through gritted teeth.

You said something about a year ago that has really stuck with me, Tina. You said that #MeToo is not just about sexual harassment, that it is about women feeling stalled and furious. I want to get T-shirts that say "Stalled and Furious" because that is so what it is. Sexual harassment and the toxic culture is a big part of it, but the other part of it is just that feeling of that air around you.

It's actually more overwhelming than the other, sexual harassment part. I know so many women who feel that they had it all to offer, but they just were missed every time. We were all pleased to see Susan Zirinsky get the presidency of CBS News, but my God, she's in her sixties. How long had she been ready for that post? For years she had been ready for that post.

I think that is really the major issue that women have. They feel that something about them — their presentation, whatever — has them not quite getting what they felt was their due. I think that does create a tremendous resentment, and that's why it's exploded in recent years. The Trump thing was the final straw, but it also just tapped into that waiting, fuming feeling that women have.

You've certainly experienced that in your own career. You've talked about how because you were in a position of leadership from a very, very young age, the power dynamics were a little different for you than what other women have experienced. Yet you certainly experienced a great deal of scrutiny that some of your male colleagues did not. You were written about and talked about in ways that men are not, especially because you have always included the people who fascinate you in the publications and the projects that you've run. And you got crap for that.

I did. Sometimes I read old clips because I'm in the process of researching something. I have a wonderful podcast coming up with David Remnick, who I adore, [the] editor at the New Yorker who succeeded me. There's a profile of David, who has done the most masterly job and is great. I came into the New Yorker and it was ailing beyond belief. Circulation was dying and the demographics had gotten so old the advertisers had bailed. So I let go 40 or 50 people and I hired 40 or 50 people.

Amongst the people I hired were Malcolm Gladwell, Jeffrey Toobin, Jane Mayer, Anthony Lane, David Remnick, etc. Really completely changed blood. Brought photographs for the first time, changed covers. Okay. It describes my tenure at the New Yorker this way: "And then there was Tina Brown, who spent a lot of money, gave a lot of parties, and never published anything that wasn't something she could read on the Stairmaster."

That is how you've been written about, Tina. I went back and I was reading a lot of the stories that were written about you at the time when people were quitting.

This was my nearly seven years of intense hard work, publishing by 30,000 word pieces by Mark Danner about the murder in El Salvador. I published so much great work and I had a fantastic time, and the editors and writers that I had are still there now. But my tenure is written up as, spent a lot of money, gave a lot of parties and only published things she could read on the Stairmaster. I just thought, "Is it ever gonna stop?"

That is what I'm curious about, because you've seen all of this and you've endured all of this. Yet you've also been able to create a space between your private life and your public life. You put boundaries around the way that you were spoken about, the way that you maintain these relationships with people you really do cultivate and care about. How do you do that? How do you navigate that when you know there are people talking smack about you?

I have never bothered about it. My passion is for really smart, interesting people, and a whole eclectic mix of them. I think maybe that is one of the things that people have never really understood.

In all my podcasts, one of the most exciting guests to me so far has been Stephen Greenblatt, who is the Shakespearean scholar and professor at Harvard. He wrote this wonderful book, "Tyrant," about Shakespeare's tyrants and how they relate to the Trump era. That's what I am interested in.

I've always had that curious temperament that allowed me to delve deep in all these different worlds. I think there is something incredibly threatened about the whole idea that somehow if you're a serious person, you're only interested in this small, narrow thing and you have to look a certain way, be a certain way.

Frankly, women just get belittled. . . . I really believe that if I'd been a male editor, that perception would have been, "He has brought to Vanity Fair a cultural range." I have honestly now got used to that narrative and I just blaze on, but once in awhile, about every three or four years, I'll stop and I'll read something and I'll think, "Wow." It's like, what does it take, being dead 25 years? Or is it just, this is what it's going to be?

Right. Well, you were young, you were ambitious, you were smart, you were blonde. You were female. Those are elements that the publishing world has not necessarily been used to.

I don't know. I definitely think it's the female issue. I truly do. I do think that if you're a woman, you have to be gold in a silver job. Period.

Do you think that's changed?

Not really.

The way that the narrative works now in journalism is so different, and if you are a young person and a rising star in the media, you are expected to be on social media. You're expected to be tweeting all the time. You're performing your career in real time, in public. You are potentially making your mistakes and your foibles in real time. You are not able to have that quiet drink in the back room that maybe would have existed a few years ago. How does that change it, especially for women?

I completely applaud the women fighting back over these issues. It's desperately needed. Nikki Haley was actually a very successful UN ambassador, in my judgment. And okay, it's Trump, we don't expect anything more from him perhaps, but when I read, "She brought glamour to the job," I felt that rage all over again. Here's a woman who has done her job with great appropriateness and judiciousness and success and, "She brought glamour to the job."

The younger brigade are almost embracing maybe that. I think that they're just perhaps able to be more open about the various sides to their personality. They're less uptight. There's no doubt that the younger leaders are less uptight than the others.

In Britain, for instance, there's an amazing leader of the Scottish Tory party, Ruth Davidson. She's a 40-something kickboxing lesbian who married her partner on the trail. She's ferociously funny on Twitter and she's a different generation from Theresa May, who's much more what I would call in the Hillary Clinton mode. I think that older women have been much more guarded on the whole, because they've had so much to defend. Maybe for younger women, social media ubiquity is going to help shed so many of the different stereotypes that they felt forced to live inside. It might help to change that.

You see these millennial female leaders in Congress who are saying, "I will talk about my lipstick shade and it doesn't diminish me in my leadership capacity."

I like that. I think it's very healthy and very good.

It's the conundrum that women in the workforce have felt for so long. Do you go on the path of trying to be as masculine as your coworkers or do you deviate from that and express femininity? Either way, you're screwed.

Yeah, either way, you're screwed. It takes a lot of confidence to be able to do that, and I think it's  a good path to blaze. I  do like [Alexandria Ocasio-] Cortez's ubiquity. I think it's very refreshing.

I like that she drives people crazy.

I love it that she drives people crazy.

Tina, you love talking to the people who fascinate you. When I listen to the podcast and I see the lineups that you have for Women in the World, it's very different. You are really branching out. You're not just talking to celebrities. You're talking to people who are fighting against human trafficking, who are working against war crimes. How has your path changed? Not that you haven't always been engaged.

I've always had a very gritty side to my journalistic menu, if you like. Those stories have always been in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the Daily Beast. I've always done that and I've wanted to have that mix. As a matter of fact, Women in the World follows very much what I think of as the pagination of a magazine. We'll start with a very gritty discussion, like we were  ahead of all of the #MeToo. Gretchen Carlson did her sexual harassment panel with us, with a firefighter who'd been sexually harassed, and a lawyer telling the audience how they could beat the system and get compensation. So you might start with a gritty conversation like that. Then you'll go to a really powerful human interest story. Last time, we had an incredible Australian sea captain who rescued migrants from the Mediterranean. So you'll go to the sea captain, and then third thing might be Scarlett Johansson.

That's really is the the secret sauce of all the magazines I've done, and also for Women in the World. What I'm trying to do is seduce [people] into caring and being interested in all kinds of stories. If you put it together like that, people will then sit and listen to the very story that they might have turned over or not read. They're held by the changes of pace.

What excites me in the intervals is when I hear people saying, as they're lining up for the ladies room, "I never knew that was happening in Syria." Or, "That woman from Uganda, I didn't know about this horrendous stuff that was going on, like the girls that came back from the Lord's Resistance Army. I never thought about whatever happened to those girls." That is a really exciting thing to be able to do, because it's giving people keys to new worlds. As someone who's a bit of a discovery junkie, I'm very voracious for information about things I don't know about. I've always been really interested in the other. What is it like to be this person, this girl who was stolen by Boko Haram or this extraordinary woman who has helped start the Liberian revolution? And here she is sitting on my stage.

That's always really been very interesting to me. And yet, I can also deep dive into a movie star's issues. I'm not patronizing that movie star. I find it interesting. Her world is also interesting. It's not my world, and it's completely different from the one I was just talking about, but it has its very interesting side.

It's a catholic taste that I think everybody has in a way. People can be seduced into reading and looking and listening to things that they didn't think they were interested in. The old Diana Vreeland maxim at Vogue was, "Show them what they never knew they wanted." That really is what an editor should be doing, not just following what readers tell them to run, but saying, "No, this. Trust me and I'll tell you how interesting this is." I can get kind of irritated sometimes with the Netflix algorithm because it will say, "Because you watched this, you'll be interested in this." No, I won't. I'm really bored by this. I don't want to see another noir Danish thriller just because I really loved this one. I'd like to see something completely different.

Right. I've just ordered a vacuum. "Because you bought a vacuum, don't you want more vacuums?" No, I'm set for vacuums. 

I'm so done with vacuums.

But that is a hard thing to trust and be confident in the media to do, because we are such a short attention span culture and you know that people are maybe just reading the headline. And if you don't get it click-baity enough that they're going to move onto the next thing. You've got the track record that shows this is a way of developing engagement, because it's infectious, because it's your curiosity that's leading it.

I want to ask you — You've been a professional conversationalist for so long. What is your idea of a great conversation, Tina? When you sit down and you walk away from the table and feel, "I learned something. I felt something." What are the elements for you, for all of us who want to have deeper conversations in our lives?

Ideas. Most of all, ideas. I want to talk to people of ideas, with ideas. I want to hear about who we are, why we are, where we're going. That's what I most love. Somebody who would give me a view, an insight, an enrichment on that, Answer the problems of our times, because right now we're in a time of so much confusion, so much anxiety. Anyone who can offer me rich insights.
This is why I loved talking to the Shakespeare scholar, Greenblatt, about Shakespeare's tyrants, because I'd never thought about the Trump era from the point of view of Richard III. This has repeated again and again and that all the same things. All the same social factors that threw up tyrants over the years are reproduced again and again — an unhappy populace from a bad economy, a decay of truth, a sense of disappointment and being let down, and a desire for magical thinking. All these things are repeated again and again, and we see it again in Trump. So what does that mean? Where are we going now? That's the kind of conversation that makes me feel, at the end of it, really enthralled.

As a listener, right there with you. The podcast is called "TBD with Tina Brown." It is addictive.

It's my new medium. It's the one thing I hadn't done. I thought, I've done magazines, I've done digital, but this was something new to conquer.

You can also find her at the next Women in the World. It's coming in April.

Tenth anniversary. April the 10th, Lincoln Center. The 10th to the 12th. We have an incredible lineup and the theme this year is, "Can women save the world?"

Let's try, right?

Because those guys have made a hell of a mess of it.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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