This article appears in the Winter 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
The tension between money and left-of-center politics has its correlate in the world of the media. Like liberal political candidates, liberal political magazines depend on wealthy donors in what is often an uneasy relationship.
That tension was evident in the implosion of The New Republic in early December, when nearly all the magazine’s well-known editors and writers quit after its owner, Facebook millionaire Chris Hughes, replaced the top leadership and announced he was turning the magazine into a “digital media company.”
Ever since its founding 100 years ago, The New Republic has occupied a singular place in liberal politics and intellectual life. A complete history of American liberalism would need an entire chapter on The New Republic—and a second chapter on unhappiness about The New Republic in its various incarnations.
It was during one of those episodes of unhappiness in the late 1980s that The American Prospect was born. The three of us who founded the Prospect—Robert Kuttner, Robert Reich, and I—had long written for The New Republic but were increasingly uncomfortable with its direction. Though ostensibly aiming to strengthen liberalism, it was often echoing and legitimating right-wing views. We had our own ideas about what it would take to revive liberalism in the Reagan era and wanted to create a platform for the kind of discussion about politics and policy that the older liberal publications no longer provided.
The ties between the Prospect and The New Republic were never totally cut. Several of our writers, including Jonathan Cohn, Jonathan Chait, and Richard Just, went to work there; I continued to write for it, especially for Leon Wieseltier’s extraordinary back-of-the-book. In recent years, the old differences also seemed less significant as The New Republic moved back toward a more consistently liberal position. After Hughes bought it in 2012, he provided an infusion of resources that seemed likely to restore the magazine to the central place it had once enjoyed. Throughout its history, The New Republic had depended on public-spirited owners willing to cover the losses of an enterprise devoted to serious political and cultural discussion. Once again it appeared to have such an owner, and I thought, “If only the Prospect had a Chris Hughes!” But evidently we were lucky that we didn’t.
The mass exodus from The New Republic in December was not the result, as some reports suggested, of disagreements about the value of new technology or the need to cut losses. As John Judis, one of the editors who left, recounts the conflict in the Columbia Journalism Review, the central issue was whether The New Republic would remain a political magazine. Hughes killed the editorials that spoke for the magazine; editorial meetings ceased to be occasions for engaging the central issues of the day. The new CEO installed by Hughes, Guy Vidra, had no experience in political journalism, except as a consultant to The Daily Caller, a right-wing site. The new editor hired by Vidra, Gabriel Snyder, had previously been an editor of Gawker. In defining its new role as a digital media company—with a new investment arm for start-ups—Hughes never mentioned politics.
One episode described by Judis is particularly telling. Even before the December implosion, Hughes had made a presentation to the staff in which he stacked rivals to The New Republic: “At the bottom were political magazines like The American Prospect, The Nation, and National Review. At top were The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and New York.” Hughes said he wanted to go from the bottom to the top. The three magazines he held out as models are aimed at a general, non-political audience. Although they often publish articles from a liberal viewpoint, they aren’t primarily venues for defining liberal politics.
In discussing their plans, Hughes and Vidra often refer to The New Republic as a “brand.” But the brand that it had was a brand of liberalism. Now it has none. Even the business logic doesn’t, ahem, stack up: Why try to build a digital media company on the basis of a small-circulation political magazine—ruining its brand in the process? As the Maine farmer supposedly said to a tourist asking how to get to Boston: “If I was trying to go there, I wouldn’t start from here.”
It will be interesting to see how Hughes’s new New Republic deals with conflicts between its business interests and editorial position. Unlike journalism, the tech industry has no tradition of a wall of separation between editorial and business departments. In two separate episodes described by Judis and other former staff—one involving Amazon, the other Apple—Hughes’s reactions suggest he won’t be alienating big advertisers. Just when economic inequality and corporate power have become defining issues in liberal politics, The New Republic seems least likely to play a leading role.
That’s where the rest of us—the liberal political magazines at the bottom of Hughes’s stack—come in. At the Prospect, we know what we’re about, and we believe in it. We hope you do too, and if you happen to have a fortune weighing you down, please give us a call.