Absence of malice

The New Yorker is the only magazine, other than various alcohol-related periodicals, I’ve ever regularly subscribed to. I don’t like it as much as I used to — there are too many favorable profiles of VSPs and CEOs and too few of weirdos, trouble-makers, fuggers, and thieves (aw, but they’re cool people). I already knew that it used to be more smart-assed many years ago, long before I started reading it, but I was struck by how much its early duels with Time magazine sounds like the blogger/establishment media arguments of today:

Time Inc. once sent out a flyer: “TIME has given such attention to the development of the best narrative English that hundreds of editors and journalists have declared it to be the greatest creative force in modern journalism.” Ford’s “The Making of a Magazine” included an exposé called “The Construction of Our Sentences”: “Before a sentence may be used in THE NEW YORKER it must be cleaned and polished. The work of brightening these sentences is accomplished by a trained editorial staff of 5,000 men named Mr. March.” The New Yorker once ran a cartoon with the caption “But, Lester, is it enough just being against everything that ‘Time’ magazine is for?”

This story about a nasty New Yorker profile of Henry Luce, who owned Time Inc. (which included Fortune and Life) really rang my bell:

[A] brutal parody of Timestyle, called “Time . . . Fortune . . . Life . . . Luce”: “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.” He skewered the contents of Fortune (“branch banking, hogs, glassblowing, how to live in Chicago on $25,000 a year”) and of Life (“Russian peasants in the nude, the love life of the Black Widow spider”). He made Luce ridiculous (“ambitious, gimlet-eyed, Baby Tycoon Henry Robinson Luce”), not sparing his childhood (“Very unlike the novels of Pearl Buck were his early days”), his fabulous wealth (“Described too modestly by him to Newyorkereporter as ‘smallest apartment in River House,’ Luce duplex at 435 East 52nd Street contains 15 rooms, 5 baths, a lavatory”), or his self-regard: “Before some important body he makes now at least one speech a year.” He announced the net profits of Time Inc., purported to have calculated to five decimal places the “average weekly recompense for informing fellowman,” and took a swipe at Ingersoll, “former Fortuneditor, now general manager of all Timenterprises . . . salary: $30,000; income from stock: $40,000.” In sum, “Sitting pretty are the boys.”

This led to a confrontation between Henry Luce and Harold Ross, the then-editor of the New Yorker:

“There’s not a single kind word about me in the whole Profile,” Luce said. “That’s what you get for being a baby tycoon,” Ross said. “Goddamn it, Ross, this whole goddamned piece is malicious, and you know it!” Ross paused. “You’ve put your finger on it, Luce. I believe in malice.”

Far too few media elites believe in this kind of malice anymore.






44 replies
  1. 1
    Scott says:

    I’d argue that they do believe in that kind of malice, but only when it’s directed at the commoners.

  2. 2
    DougJ says:

    @Scott:

    Well, I think that’s a different kind of malice.

  3. 3
    Ann B. Nonymous says:

    It’s the basement filled with gasoline. Given the dire state of the modern mass media, the person who lights the match first gets to cremate them all. They have just enough self-preservation to keep that from happening.

    Mutual Assured Journamalism. Anyone got a cigarette?

  4. 4
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    I was struck by how much its early duels with Time magazine sounds like the blogger/establishment media arguments of today:

    Ah yes, from 15 rooms, 5 baths, and a lavatory on East 52nd street, to two dogs, one cat, and a yard somewhere in West Virgina.

    How far we’ve fallen.

    Oh wait, I guess that was the establishment side, and Cole’s the other side in this new version. So far anyway.

    What’s really striking though is that with 15 rooms you have one lavatory. On lavatory to room ratio, I bet John’s got Luce beat.

  5. 5
    MikeJ says:

    I think the Brits still have some of it now and then, although if you aren’t part of their media culture you might not understand it all.

  6. 6
    Douglas says:

    They do believe in malice – just not towards the people they tire-swing with.

  7. 7
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    Slightly OT but not really, Greenwald’s article about Godwin’s Law abuse had a comment from…. Godwin. Supporting Glenn’s interpretation.

    A real life Annie Hall/Marshall McLuhan moment if there ever was one. “Oh yes? Well, I’ve got Godwin right here, and…”

    http://www.salon.com/news/opin.....index.html

  8. 8
    El Cid says:

    But…

    Far too few media elites believe in this kind of malice anymore.

    …according to the New York Times, you don’t use words that powerful right wingers don’t want you to use.

  9. 9
    El Cid says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: You know who else shows up in comments about Godwin’s law?

    Hitler, that’s who.

  10. 10

    @Scott:

    I’d argue that they do believe in that kind of malice, but only when it’s directed at the commoners.

    Or at the pols who stick up for them.

    When people like Krauthammer have op-ed columns, it’s hard to argue that the MSM doesn’t believe in malice. Like you say, what’s changed is its target.

  11. 11
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @El Cid: Yeah but having Hitler walk out from behind the curtain and support your argument is somewhat less effective, I would think. All the spittle and screaming in a foreign language for one, might have the opposite effect of what one intended.

  12. 12
    El Cid says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: In addition, Hitler is really bad with HTML, often making blockquotes always turn bold.

  13. 13
    MikeJ says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: It’s a pity he didn’t link to the two articles he cites:
    Meme, Counter Meme
    I Seem To Be A Verb: 18 Years of Godwin’s Law

  14. 14
    El Cid says:

    By the way, this is also a good time to emphasize — since many may not know — that although Luce was truly an impressive entrepreneur who launched Time with one young partner and built it into a publishing empire — hence the New Yorker‘s mentioning of Life and Fortune, two other Luce publications — he was also a hideous, right wing bastard, along with his wife Clair Booth (of Vanity Fair heritage), a lunatic [he] who kept pushing hysterical China policies on behalf of Chiang Kai-Shek and his widow decades beyond Mao’s taking of China. (I.e., the promotion of the idea that Chiang’s authoritarian anti-democratic government of the “Republic of China” — Taiwan — would re-take China.) He used his empire against JFK, the Fox News of his time. He funded murderous right wing Cuban exile terrorist groups operating out of South Florida such as Alpha 66. His wife was a strong right winger as well, serving as an ambassador and later recruited by the Reagan White House, but not quite as lunatic.

  15. 15

    @Bill E Pilgrim:

    you know who else is all spittle and commands hollared in german?

    police dogs, that’s who….

    damn the man.

  16. 16
    mclaren says:

    Hm. The New Yorker… Isn’t that where the reporter doing an article on Washington worked — you know, that reporter who slurped up a $6000 dinner as reported breathlessly in the WaPo the other day…?

    Wonder how that tough hard-hitting article on the Washington beltway insiders will turn out after that New Yorker writer finished off those $3000 bottles of wine and that $150-a-pound imported Kobe beef at that $6000 per person dinner?

  17. 17
    burnspbesq says:

    @low-tech cyclist:

    “When people like Krauthammer have op-ed columns, it’s hard to argue that the MSM doesn’t believe in malice.”

    Krauthammer’s shtick isn’t malice, it’s just mean-spiritedness. There’s a difference.

  18. 18
  19. 19
    burnspbesq says:

    @DougJ:

    “I don’t like it as much as I used to”

    Hertzberg and Mayer on a regular basis, and Sy Hersh occasionally. That’s good enough for me. Surowiecki is a bonus.

  20. 20
  21. 21
    cleek says:

    ok… looks like i’m banned again ?

  22. 22
    Brachiator says:

    @El Cid:

    By the way, this is also a good time to emphasize—since many may not know—that although Luce was truly an impressive entrepreneur who launched Time with one young partner and built it into a publishing empire—hence the New Yorker’s mentioning of Life and Fortune, two other Luce publications—he was also a hideous, right wing bastard, along with his wife Clair Booth.

    Alan Brinkley has recently come out with a biography of Luce, The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century. Maureen Corrigan reviewed the book on the May 3 episode of NPR’s Fresh Air. A tidbit, involving Luce trying out LSD:

    Luce took a dose and then, according to the psychiatrist’s diary, sat down at his desk and began calmly reading Lionel Trilling’s biography of Matthew Arnold. Even LSD couldn’t whisk Henry Luce off on a magic carpet ride! No matter how much he may have yearned to attain freaky visions, Luce was always tethered to late Victorian ideas about duty and ethical culture.

    Claire Booth Luce was as complex as her husband. She was editor of the froo-froo Vanity Fair, but had also been a correspondent in war zones. Although in many ways a right wing hack, when she served in Congress she was co-author of the Luce–Celler Act of 1946, which overturned an insidious immigration policy which limited immigration of people from the Philippines and India to a mere 100 a year because it was previously thought that these people were inherently “unassimilable.”

  23. 23
    Scott says:

    @low-tech cyclist:

    When people like Krauthammer have op-ed columns, it’s hard to argue that the MSM doesn’t believe in malice.

    Hell, you can say that for almost every mainstream columnist in the country. MoDo and Kathleen Parker believe in malice toward women, Broder and Joke Line believe in malice toward non-Villagers, Goldberg (and most of the rest) believes in malice toward anyone who’s not a Republican, Malkin believes in malice toward any random object that comes to her notice. It’s awfully rare for an op-ed columnist to not be motivated by malice.

  24. 24
    James Hare says:

    Man even Canada is turning into a police state:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqhHq2vpwpg
    I’m with the folks that say these G20 meetings oughta be held out in the wilderness. We will get the same amount of carefully-filtered information and the cops won’t have an excuse to beat up kids.

    I don’t have much patience for the anti-globalization protesters most of the time. Their message is a little to incoherent and their methods leave a bit to be desired. Even so the heavy-handed security tactics really invite the bad behavior from protesters. What’s funny is police don’t seem to even understand that they are being used as props in street theater. Instead they just play their role.

  25. 25
    MattF says:

    Here’s Harold Ross’ Prospectus for the New Yorker. Note “interpretive rather than stenographic.”

  26. 26
    Scott says:

    @Brachiator:

    Claire Booth Luce was as complex as her husband. She was editor of the froo-froo Vanity Fair, but had also been a correspondent in war zones. In many ways a right wing hack, when she served in Congress she was co-author of the Luce–Celler Act of 1946, which overturned an insidious immigration policy which limited immigration of people from the Philippines and India to a mere 100 a year because it was previously thought that these people were inherently “unassimilable.”

    Well, that was the old school of right-wing hackery, where they weren’t all utterly insane. Nowadays, Claire Booth Luce would be getting death threats from Official CNN Serious Person Erick Erickson, demands to see her countertops from Michelle Malkin, and polite regrets from the Washington Post that they just couldn’t publish anything else from someone who was quite so uncivil…

  27. 27
    El Cid says:

    @Brachiator: Claire Booth was a lot saner than Henry.

  28. 28
    Jim, Foolish Literalist says:

    Ross launched The New Yorker, which he described—in a prospectus, in the inaugural issue, and on posters pasted all over New York—as the magazine that is “not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.

    Elitism! Coastalism! Know-it-allism! Actually, it’s all of those things, but today we have something far worse, a professional fetishization of The Heartland by people whose most desperate desires in life are a house on a good island off the Eastern Seaboard, and invitations to parties thrown by Sally Quinn and/or Bloomberg.

    David Broder is lionized by this crew for his ‘reporting’, which as near as I’ve ever been able to tell is to go to Dubuque a couple of times a year, get a dozen or so low information old ladies of both sexes and all ages to tell him how much they hate politics, though I’ve never seen him inquire as to what they actually know about it.

  29. 29
    Brachiator says:

    @Scott:

    Well, that was the old school of right-wing hackery, where they weren’t all utterly insane. Nowadays, Claire Booth Luce would be getting death threats from Official CNN Serious Person Erick Erickson, demands to see her countertops from Michelle Malkin, and polite regrets from the Washington Post that they just couldn’t publish anything else from someone who was quite so uncivil…

    The irony here, of course, is that had Claire Booth Luce not championed immigration rights, Malkin’s parents would never have been able to come to the US from the Philippines.

    @El Cid:

    Claire Booth was a lot saner than Henry.

    This I partly attribute to her own use of LSD.

    More seriously, Claire Booth Luce may have become more rigid in both her political and religious views as she struggled to find meaning in her life after the death of her daughter, Ann, who was killed in an auto accident in 1944.

  30. 30
    wrb says:

    ambitious, gimlet-eyed, Baby Tycoon Henry Robinson Luce

    Ha!

    I do believe this is the inspiration for a line in The Philadelphia Story.

    Jimmy Stewart imagining writing about his evil editor.

    Don’t remember it well enough to know if it is verbatim but it is close.

  31. 31
    numbskull says:

    E.B. White

    My vote for the original blogger. Brought to you by The New Yorker.

  32. 32
    El Cid says:

    @Jim, Foolish Literalist: I was momentarily stunned, even given by all we’ve seen, when Mitt Romney spoke at the RNC and berated the East Coast establishment.

    Likewise when Ronald Reagan’s cabinet and policy group advisers were filled by East Coast establishment business conservatives, it was portrayed as a Sunbelt / Sagebrush revolution by those more interested in the appearance of political sheen than empirical investigations of substance.

  33. 33
    Maude says:

    I read the biography of Luce.
    He hated The New Yorker.
    Ross wasn’t his type of man, a lowlife, in other words.
    Time didn’t have Thurber either.

  34. 34
    Brian J says:

    I always feel weird saying I like something that’s been around for a long, long time. Am I liking it as a shadow of what it used to be, or am I liking it because it’s still got the same fundamental values even if they are represented differently? When Tina Brown was its editor, it supposedly became a little more trendy and fluffy, but is that really a bad thing? Does that change the fact that Atul Gawande is writing great articles on health care or James Surowiecki is making financial reform a lot more understandable for me? I don’t think so.

    But still, I see your point. The group think mentality may be unavoidable and inevitable in every medium, but it doesn’t have to dominate. You certainly don’t want it to.

  35. 35
    Brian J says:

    @El Cid:

    I don’t remember what it was in reference to, but in Truman, there was some brief mention of Clare Booth Luce being criticized by Truman as a “loose” woman after she trashed him for something–probably related to communism–when he was president. I don’t know why the thought of the president calling someone a whore, but in a subdued way, is so appealing, but it is.

  36. 36
    Quiddity says:

    Can someone explain the “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind” line?

    Is this a commentary on the writing/editing style in Time magazine? If so, was that only done back then, or is it happening today?

  37. 37
    Brian J says:

    @mclaren:

    What are you specifically referring to?

  38. 38
    sgrAstar says:

    Malcolm Gladwell, Atul Gawande, James Surowiecki, George Packer, Sy Hersh, Elizabeth Kolbert, Jane Mayer, Jerome Groopman, Hendrik Hertzberg- the New Yorker may or may not have lost some of its former glory, but for me it’s an essential outpost of great writing and great reporting. The NYT can go to hell as far as I’m concerned, but the New Yorker still matters.

  39. 39
    mnpundit says:

    Fuggers? Like the banking family? WTF?

  40. 40
    PTirebiter says:

    The Standells? That’s a reference guaranteed to put me and Mr. Peabody in the way-back machine for the rest of the morning.

  41. 41
    Zuzu's Petals says:

    They sure don’t have that kind of wit, anyway.

  42. 42
    Dave L says:

    Can someone explain the “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind” line?

    – Yes, that was the Time style back then (1930s) – with a little permissible exaggeration for effect.

    And Harold Ross – God bless him, goddammit – one of the great American originals. If you haven’t read Thurber’s book about him, “The Years With Ross”, you should do it now.

  43. 43
    J says:

    Another example of the way the New Yorker used to be: a very long time ago the magazine ran a feature on criminals and hucksters by St. Clair McKelway, collected in True Tales from the Annals of Crime & Rascality, which is as good a read as you’re likely to find anywhere.

  44. 44

    And here I thought The New Yorker was primarily responsible for publishing cartoons too witty to be funny, which can be made funny by the judicious use of “Christ, what an asshole.”

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