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| March/April, 2002 | Columbia Journalism Review



by Russ Baker


In Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, the protagonist, a provincial expert on root vegetables, is mistaken for a foreign correspondent and dispatched to an obscure African land where he must file dispatches on a tribal war he does not understand to an employer who does not care. In Russ’s Canceled Scoop, our hero — an investigative reporter — finds himself in France on a big, exciting story at the precise moment when his benefactor, the fabulous Tina Brown, goes out of business. After weeks of trying to persuade French government officials that Talk magazine (1) existed, and (2) merited their time, I suddenly had to learn how to say in French, “Oh, never mind.”

It’s hard to fault the French for not having heard of Talk when it appears that all too few Americans were paying attention. Supposedly, Talk attained a fairly impressive readership, but, truth be told, I didn’t see people reading it on park benches or doctor’s couches. Perhaps too much of Tina’s energy went into stoking media buzz at an endless round of industry parties and too little into getting quality issues onto newsstands.

Tina, and therefore her creation Talk, bet everything on being fabulous. In one story on Talk’s demise, she was quoted as insisting: "I am still Tina Brown.” I don’t doubt she said it. The first time I met her, in the mid-90s, she mistook me for the caterer at a Freedom Forum event that her husband, Harry Evans, was addressing; she was, however, lavish in her praise of the hors d’oeuvres. The last time I saw her, I was on my way to France to spend a lot of her magazine’s money on an important investigative story of the sort she professed great interest in; I was introduced to her as Russ Smith, which clearly rang no bell; instead of inquiring further, she proceeded to discuss sensitive masthead matters with her entourage of subordinates without giving me a second thought.

And yet it’s also true that Tina Brown was one of the only editors in the New York magazine world willing to take risks for a story. When she ran The New Yorker, you didn’t need a pedigree or a bestseller to make a pitch; anyone with a good idea or inside track on a scoop could get a hearing. And she paid well, driving rates up at other books to livable levels. All in all, she was good for writers.

Some observers argue that Talk failed because it lacked a clearly defined audience. That’s nonsense. Just because a magazine is not geared to anorexic fashionistas or twenty-seven-year-old male beer drinkers is no reason it can’t survive. As such examples as Vanity Fair (another former Tina fief) — and to some extent, even Time magazine —show, a general interest periodical with a mix of glitz and hard-edged reporting should be able to develop a mutually satisfying relationship with a critical mass of readers. After a directionless -- dare I say clueless? -- start, Tina’s mix was steadily improving."

The real problem isn’t that Tina did this or that, but that we’re discussing Tina at all. Personality-cult magazines —Oprah’s O is the rule-proving exception — are not a great idea (although at least when I wrote a piece for John F. Kennedy Jr.’s George, I knew why people were interested in it. On assignment in Germany, I got only one question: Had I met the hunk himself? And was he like his father?).

In articles explaining why Talk didn’t make it, the dread words “September 11” were prominent. Certainly, the downturn that began in 2000 stifled ad revenue. But Tina is a survivor. As long as there are people in the industry convinced she is a force to reckon with, she will find backers in a resurgent economy. And with the dearth of innovative, risk-taking magazines, any new, well-funded venture by Tina Brown will be sure to attract talented writers, illustrators, photographers, and designers — that is, if Tina and her well-heeled backers at Miramax/Disney and Hearst (each of which put up half the cash back in 1999) don’t end up stiffing all those contributors who, like me, were hard at work for Talk when the ax fell. (Stiffing the contributors, by the way, is exactly what Talk’s business manager says the ex-magazine intends to do. Oh, well. Nobody ever called that gang warm-hearted.)

Perhaps I should heed the advice of David Halberstam. I got to meet him at an industry party a few years ago, and he asked me, probably just to make conversation, “Who are you writing for these days?” When I mentioned George, he leaned forward a bit conspiratorially and said, “May I give you some advice? Try to be a little more selective.” But a writer's lot, like an editor’s, is not an easy one. I could swear I later saw Halberstam’s byline in the same magazine.

Russ Baker is a contributing editor to CJR.

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