Sean Wilentz weighs in on the debacle at the New Republic

Historians in the News
tags: New Republic, Chris Hughes



Sean Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton University.

In the very first paragraph of The New Republic’s very first issue, the founding editors proclaimed their belief that there was a place in America for what they called "a journal of interpretation and opinion." These men—Herbert Croly, Walter Weyl, and Walter Lippmann—were eminences of the Progressive Era, who were repulsed by what had become of the nation’s business civilization. They aimed, as Croly later put it, a bit grandly, to help "mould social life in the light of the best available knowledge and in the interest of a humane ideal."

Their new journal would not so much entertain as enlighten, but it would hardly be "detached and select." It would examine and debate the nation’s problems with "sufficient sympathy to [their] complexities." High seriousness, the editors insisted, need not be dispassionate or dull. Engagement did not require simplification.

The founders’ words may sound ponderous today, but for an entire century, TNR at its best built on their creed, raising the intellectual and literary stakes in American political and cultural commentary with a democratic respect for its readers’ intelligence. When the magazine was running at full throttle, every sentence carried the conviction that TNRexisted to argue intensely over the world, in order, if only in a minuscule way, to help change it. Over the years, it became a unique institution, not least as an all-too-rare forum where scholars could think out loud before a larger public.

Early last month, that forum imploded. Its current owner, Chris Hughes, who had made a fortune as the Harvard roommate and then business partner of Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, bought a financially struggling TNR in 2012 and made assurances that he would continue its mission. The effort would almost certainly lose money for the foreseeable future, as the magazine had for almost its entire existence, but that seemed not to matter; and Hughes spent lavishly, notably on upgrading and relocating the offices.

Suddenly, though, over the summer, Hughes began pushing in a different direction. He hired Guy Vidra, a former overseer of Yahoo News, as the magazine’s CEO. Vidra in turn announced that TNR was not a magazine at all but a "vertically integrated digital-media company." Hughes had decided that TNR could no longer, as he later put it, "be a charity," "something greater than a commercial enterprise," reliant "on the largess of an unpredictable few" (which, under the current circumstances, could have meant only himself). It would henceforth be "a sustainable business." ...




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