Literacy can be a tricky business. Sometimes it pays to know what's not on the printed page. Exhibit A: The Education of Henry Adams. This classic autobiography begins in 1838, continues until 1871, leaves the next 20 years blank, and then resumes in 1892. What happened in those uncharted years? Mrs. Adams. After the unhappiest of marriages begins, the narrative stops; when the union terminates with the suicide of Henry's wife, the author feels free to go on with his life. To know what he omitted is to understand Adams's book-and its pauciloquent author.
On a less elevated plane, the same procedure can be applied to Time: The Weekly Newsmagazine. Exhibit B: the notorious 1989 merger of Time Inc. and Warner Communications. The entire press of America, Europe, and Asia covered it in full detail—except for Time. Upper levels of management had decided that it would be inappropriate to cover the proceedings. It was a not a matter of self-abnegation or shyness. There were certain matters that seemed ... indelicate to discuss in detail.
One preferred to sell out in private, behind a scrim of public relations and press releases. One hated to have the curtain, as a Time Inc. executive later said, pulled up before the props and cast were in place. Among those props were payoffs to managers, the like of which—particularly in the case of Warner panjandrum Steve Ross—had not been seen since the days before the Securities and Exchange Commission was created.
The omission by Time of its own story caused a scandal, reported in gleefully malicious detail by the financial press. Never had there been a more catastrophic miscalculation at the magazine's Rockefeller Center headquarters. Later Jason McManus, Time Inc. editor in chief (overseer of all the company's magazines), stated that he had "agonized" over the decision not to cover the merger proposal. He added, "I suppose it will be engraved on my tombstone." But this was bravado. Today no one talks about the magazine's lack of common sense way back in 1989.
And no one discusses Jason McManus. Connie Bruck has it just right in The Master of the Game, her diverting portrait of Ross, engineer (some would say buccaneer) of the merger. By the end of 1992, she notes, the editor in chief had been forced off the board of directors. "McManus, unsurprisingly, went quietly—expressing the view that he could better perform his editorial duties since he would no longer have to recuse himself, as he had, from so many stories. The position of editor in chief during McManus's tenure had become so diminished that it no longer seemed to make any difference whether he occupied a board seat or not."
The position of Time has since become far more diminished than its editor in chief. For decades critics savaged Henry Luce, the missionary's son, for his China Lobby politics and his brass-collar Republicanism. As every Journalism 101 student knows, they castigated and parodied Time's staccato delivery and racy style ("Backward ran the sentences until reeled the mind ... where it will end, knows God"). But what truly exasperated competitors was the magazine's insider tone, Time writers and editors might be myopic when it came to overseas reportage (the magazine's early defense of the Vietnam War is a conspicuous example). Nevertheless, the staff was bright and had excellent sources in New York, Washington, and Hollywood. Their intelligence, in every sense of the word, showed in their work and in their influence. Indeed, it was when Time called for Richard Nixon to resign that most Americans (including the president) finally recognized that his number was up. As for the "back of the book," that portion of Time devoted to culture, the Luce-paper was unparalleled. Its theater, cinema, book, and art critics earned the respect, however grudging, of their colleagues around the world.
Almost all of this has evaporated, along with Time's reputation. Some of Peter De Virus's wriest dialogue occurs in a novel he wrote in the sixties. A southerner and a New Englander are arguing. "How do you know?" "Tom said so." "Tom who?" "Tom Magazine." The gag would not work today; Tom goes unmentioned at cocktail parties (and in major newspapers); it has not won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence in over a decade.
Where did it go wrong? A flashback is useful here. In 1977 Henry Anatole Grunwald, Time's last truly intellectual managing editor, left his office to become Time Inc.'s editor in chief. Grunwald had moved the magazine away from the Vietnam era, expunged the hyperthyroid Timestyle, introduced bylines, and rigorously maintained the separation of church and state. This is Time jargon for keeping ad salesmen and other business executives—the kind of folks who attach "erino" to your first name and call you "big guy" when they meet you at company parties—away from the editorial content.
Grunwald was replaced by the 50-year-old Ray Cave, a veteran of Sports Illustrated. The staff was in shock; everyone had expected McManus to succeed Grunwald. Especially McManus. Although Cave had entered St. John's University at the age of 16 and graduated with honors, he assumed no airs; he considered himself "a magazine maker," and that he was, filling the magazine with brilliant picture layouts, sharp reportorial and critical prose, and distinguished essays by Lance Morrow and Roger Rosenblatt, among others. Cave had his blind spots; he was big on sports and small on music, theater, and books. (Grunwald was quite the opposite, tending to confuse first base with a role in Boris Godunov.) Nevertheless, Cave allowed the critics full sway, stood up for his troops, raised salaries (Grunwald, like many of his predecessors, had been tightfisted), and kept Time promoted and quoted.
"Something unprecedented happened in the Grunwald and Cave years," Rosenblatt maintains. "Time, which had been perceived from the outside as a fortified structure, monolithic, faceless, and unapproachable, suddenly started to be taken seriously as a humane and literate enterprise. One time, at a business lunch, someone asked Cave whether a controversial subject should be discussed in Time. 'What are you asking me for the ME barked, in his typical son-of-a-general tone. 'You're a senior writer.' Meaning the writers now had the power, not the editors, not the correspondents, not even the management. That power began to exhibit itself in the magazine, then in the elevated tone of letters we were receiving from new readers, and, finally, in the reception we got from advertisers.
"The extraordinary thing," Rosenblatt continues, "was that although Cave was a competitive type, he saved his rage for those who dared to put out other newsmagazines. At Time he encouraged a collegial atmosphere, in which the senior writers shared insights and approaches. You don't usually find laughter in the halls and offices of newsmagazines—unless it's gallows humor. But there was a lot of generous and heartfelt laughter in those days."
There was also a lot of resentment. Part of it may have been sheer professional jealousy. Granted, Time was still the preeminent midcult publication, the quintessence, as one wag said, of "trend in depth." But it was evolving, gaining a new respectability and a more sophisticated readership. Professional recognition and awards came its way: among Rosenblatt's kudos were two George Polk awards (no one had ever won more than one), and his cover story "Children of War" became a best-seller. Morrow's essays were anthologized, and Robert Hughes, hired by Grunwald, gained wide acknowledgment as the nation's most eloquent art critic.
In 1985, after some eight years as managing editor, Cave moved upstairs to the 34th floor, the Valhalla where Time's top executives dwell in vast, sepulchral offices. As editorial director he continued to defend the magazines, arguing for larger budgets and increased hiring of talented writers and editors—a high-cost message the board of directors was not anxious to hear.
At the magazine Cave was replaced by McManus, who had been standing at the water cooler while the varsity players scrimmaged. Other managing editors tended to keep a low profile for their first few months; McManus's was concave. At one time an adroit pencil editor and a quietly witty figure, he had inspired loyalty and trust from his underlings. Now he seemed abstracted, as if his gaze were fixed on a distant object having nothing to do with Time.
It was. After 19 months, the shortest tenure for an ME in Time's history, McManus became Grunwald's successor, floating up to floor 34 and a salary of over $1 million per year. For what services, no one has ever been able to explain. (Actually, his salary turned out to be a bargain compared with Ross's $39 million per annum as glad-handing CEO.) Within two years McManus was able to testify to the Romanian proverb that revenge is a dish best eaten cold. He convinced the board of directors that Cave, now his subordinate, was ... extraneous. After his rival was fired, McManus made sure that Cave's longtime companion, Patricia Ryan, the lively and sharp-minded managing editor of People, also joined the ranks of the unemployed.
This much-publicized Thermidor did little to improve the image of the company, particularly since signs of rot and drift had become visible on all floors of the Time and Life Building. TV Cable Week, a magazine that was supposed to knock off TV Guide, had crashed and burned on the runway at an estimated cost of $100 million. Then had come the Ariel Sharon trial, whose costs, moral and financial, have never been fully calculated. Israel's choleric defense minister had accused Time of 'blood libel" for stating that he had condoned the slaughter of Palestinians in Lebanon. An ambiguous verdict allowed both sides to claim victory. Time, said the jury, was innocent of "knowingly lying" and of having a "reckless disregard for the truth." The second part, however, was not so indulgent. "We find that certain Time employees ... acted negligently and carelessly in reporting and verifying the information which ultimately found its way into the published paragraph." As Richard M. Clurman states in his discerning analysis To the End of Time, the magazine "won in law but flunked in journalism."
But Time was not a standard-bearer of the legal profession; it was a journalistic enterprise. If it failed at the task of reporting, writing, and editing, what more could it do to savage its reputation? A phenomenal amount, actually. From the Sharon trial on, watching the personnel at the top of Time Inc. was like scanning objects through the wrong end of the telescope: they diminished as you looked.
Take J. Richard Munro, Time Inc.'s CEO. As Paramount and Warner dueled to see who would merge with (read swallow) Henry Luce's empire, it grew clear that Time Inc.'s top executives would come away with whopping profits-and that employees and stockholders would suffer. Munro showed signs of stress. At one point he was booed in the company cafeteria. At another point he worried aloud about the Cassandras, columnists, and employees who predicted dire consequences if the merger went through. According to Clurman, at one meeting Munro complained about the absence of a former publisher of Time. "'We've heard from everybody. We haven't heard from Shepley. It's not like Jim not to weigh in.' The room fell silent, until someone reminded Munro he had delivered the eulogy at Shepley's funeral the year before. Munro banged his head in consternation."
Whatever the faults of past administrations, we were to look back at those days as if they were the age of Pericles. In June of 1987, Henry Muller was elevated to managing editor of Time. Muller had enjoyed a rapid rise in the magazine's overseas bureaus. Foreign born, he was a wellbred, sharp-faced executive with a deferential manner and an ability to speak several languages. Time's top management, worried that their readership was growing too old or too dead, aimed for a younger crowd; Muller, then 40, looked to be the right man for the corner office. Great things were expected from him.
That meant great changes. He was on the job less than a month when he held a meeting with some members of the senior staff. Immediately afterward, two of them came to my office and shut the door. Like James Bond's martinis, they were shaken but not stirred. One said, "I know one thing he wants. A Big Yes." The other muttered, "In about two years you won't recognize this place." His prediction was quite wrong. It took about two months.
I had lived through the glory days, and I too didn't want them to end. From 1967 on, I wrote and edited the cultural sections of Time (most notably Books for the final ten years), until in 1987 I was presented with a golden parachute. But things are never that simple at Time. Long before, I had been given stock options at the value of $13 per. During the frantic bidding war between
Warner and Paramount, Time's stock rose to $180, at which time I unloaded the block. This made me a very gruntled ex-employee. Then again, I was not exactly ex. Even after I "left," I was on contract that kept me in the office four days a week and was renewed annually for the next five years. Finally I found the deterioration of the magazine too much to ignore, and when it came time to sign yet again, I informed the executive who called me that I would not go along, because I wanted to stay in journalism. "Well, then," he replied petulantly, "we're going to have to take your name off the masthead." "You mean it's still there?" I inquired. "Could you get it off by the end of the week?" With the exception of a pro forma interview with Norman Pearlstine for this piece, I have not set foot in the building since then.
One of Muller's principles, never spoken but obvious in the magazine's new policy, was that almost anyone could write almost anything. When the education writer left, she was not replaced. The sportswriter resigned; his space was taken by different writers on different occasions. The previous theater critic had reviewed the stage and nothing else. There would be no room in the Muller regime for such cultural niceties: the new critic also covered the important tennis matches. The cinema critic did baseball pieces. "You got the feeling, after a while, that pretty soon the cleaning lady would be doing your job if you went on vacation," says a veteran of the Muller era: "'You there; would you put that mop down for a minute and write the Nation lead?"' (I am sorry to employ unattributed quotes in this piece, but Time managers can be as vindictive as any bosses in the country, and a lot of staffers still have mortgages and school bills.)
A revealing incident occurred the week that Herb Gardener's tragicomedy, Conversations with My Father, made its debut. I was called at home and asked to write a review; the theater critic, said the message, had called in sick. Since I was already the theater critic of a magazine called The New Leader, I thought filing two reviews for the same play would be improper. But Muller asked for a favor, the editor of The New Leader gave me a one-time-only pass, and so I wrote an appraisal for Time.
Idly searching through the files the next morning, I found that the message had been incorrect. Time's theater critic had handed in a review of Conversations some days before, but for some reason it had not run. I questioned his editor. The whispered explanation: "We couldn't use it. He never saw the Broadway version." It seemed that the overworked and much-traveled critic had written his assessment based on a workshop production he had seen in Seattle some months before. The producers got wind of this and threatened to go public if the original review ran. Hence the need for a critique from someone who actually saw the play.
Several days later the critic was mildly chastised—"gummed out by the ME" was the way he put it to me—for his conduct. He was too valuable to censure; in addition to Theater and Sport, he could be drafted for Press, Nation, Essay, and almost anything else the magazine wanted. Stretched beyond limit, he never said no, just accepted the assignment, went to his office muttering, "oh, well, I make my living on my back," and massaged his keyboard.
With standards like these, it was no wonder that each week came to resemble the famous opening night of "Springtime for Hitler" in Mel Brooks's movie The Producers. Viewers will remember the audience staring openmouthed at the ghastly performance; they cannot believe that this is what they paid to see. Nor could many of the writers-and readers-of Time. To flip through a scrapbook of the Muller years is to peruse an encyclopedia of unconscious parody. Of course every journalist has written pieces he would like to shred; I've perpetrated my share. But these were not the customary excesses, solecisms, or (worse still) "fine" writings feverishly produced in the hour before deadline. No, these belonged in a separate category.
Someday an enterprising publisher will offer a companion volume to The Stuffed Owl, Wyndham Lewis's hilarious anthology of bad poetry and strained effects. Stuffed Owl II will consist of bad prose and muzzy thinking, and Time of the late eighties and early nineties will have its own special section.
Here is a bouquet chosen at random:
"Gorbachev is helping the West by showing that the Soviet threat isn't what it used to be—and, what's more, that it never was." (Strobe Talbott, January 1, 1990.) Doubtless the missiles aimed westward were and are for decorative purposes only.
"They [the East Germans] love their country. The German Democratic Republic, not the Federal Republic of the West. They believe in socialism." (Carl Bernstein, January 22, 1990.) Of course; and when the East Germans voted with their feet, they were rushing westward only to visit the Wagner festivities in Bayreuth.
Jeffrey Dahmer "killed his 'lovers'—mostly blacks—dismembered them, and in some cases, may have devoured their remains. Crime is a logical, if messy, quick fix to the shortcomings of society. Is that the lesson then? That we get the criminals our societies deserve? Yes, of course." (Howard G. Chua-Eoan, August 19,1991.)
From a profile of Gus Hall, longtime leader of the Communist Party USA, and vociferous apologist for the Gulag: "How can anyone think ill of Hall when he beams so about cooking pancakes for his four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, or shares his secret for making tasty beef stew. (It's the apples.)" (Michael Riley, September 9,1991.)
"'Normal,' a code for white and not poor." (Barbara Ehrenreich, March 2, 1992.)
"His too-good-to-be-true face looks out from a gallery of photos lining the wall of his parents' apartment.... Critics think the soft-spoken Stephanopoulos has insufficient heft to speak for the President; yet this brooding, dark presence has a quiet authority. His power whisper makes people lean in to him like plants reaching toward the sun." (Margaret Carlson, November 30,1992.)
From a profile of ... but you get the idea. "It was strange," recalls a veteran of several epochs at the magazine. "Grunwald would drive you crazy, parsing every sentence of your story. Cave even went so far as to send out a memo warning the staff that they were using too many semicolons. Muller was very specific about the stories he wanted, but once they were scheduled, he never seemed to care what they said or how well they were written. I guess it was enough that they took up space in the issue."
Years ago I asked Vladimir Horowitz how many times he played Mozart's familiar "Turkish March." "Every morning," he told me. "If I skip a day, I know it. Two days, and the critics know it. Three days, and the public knows it." Similarly, those on the masthead sensed what was happening well before Time watchers and subscribers. One of the magazine's best senior writers, Ed Magnuson, had been Time's superstar during the Watergate period. A master of pellucid writing, he analyzed every bit of Nixonian chicanery and set the entire scandal out week after week, quite often writing from one morning to the following sunrise. In the middle of the Muller era, he was unwise enough to congratulate a colleague in the Washington bureau.
"I thought your story was a model of tightly reasoned fact-filled unemotional reporting," said Magnuson's memo. "This approach is far more persuasive to thoughtful readers than some recent stories in which we have used generalizations and hot rhetoric to state our position.... I worry about the tone, style and substance of our less momentous pieces. Substance is shrinking as our stories grow ever shorter."
This was neither whiny nor petty; it was accurate. But it was leaked to the Washington Post, and that effectively ended Magnuson's career at Time. Although the senior writer soldiered on, Muller and his editors saw to it that Magnuson got few stories of substance to write about. When Magnuson was assigned something of importance, his bosses thwarted him—often at the magazine's expense. During the Gulf War a correspondent informed Magnuson that Saddarn Hussein's troops had wired the Kuwaiti oil fields with explosives. If the Iraqis were forced to withdraw, the correspondent predicted, they would torch the derricks, causing major conflagrations. "Muller thought the information had no place in the story," Magnuson recalls. "I said, 'OK, but let's find a place for it somewhere in the magazine that week.' Somehow, the ME couldn't or wouldn't find that place, and we were subsequently scooped by every network and wire service."
Not everything tumbled during the Muller epoch. Robert Hughes continued to write his sharp critiques; the Books section got along quite well without me; John Leo continued to write cantankerous and witty observations about American culture; Pico Iyer and a handful of other essayists still showed evidence of thought and civility. For the most part, however, philistinism was in the saddle and rode the magazine. In 1992 it must have been decided that Time readers had IQs in the double figures. For the critical sections, having already been abbreviated in length, were suddenly furnished with an excrescence called The Bottom Line. This summarized the review (The Bottom Line was of course at the top of the piece), so that simpleminded readers no longer had to run their tired eyes down the full 60 lines of analysis. If Huckleberry Finn had been published at the time, its Bottom Line would have read something like, "A homoerotic multicultural voyage on the Mississippi, featuring an African-American slave and a white prepubescent."
Worse still, Time ceased to have a consistent opinion on many matters that mattered. To Muller's credit, he paid close attention to environmental affairs. Other arenas seemed to be up for grabs. In one issue you might find the ineffable Talbott telling us "How Israel Is Like Iraq"; in another, Charles Krauthammer would object to "the conscious deployment of a double standard directed at the Jewish state and at no other state in the world." Sometimes Gorbachev was a savior; sometimes he was portrayed as a tyrant who withdrew from Afghanistan not for the sake of decency but "because he lost the war." Sometimes the magazine praised reticence; then it turned around and published a self-absorbed account of sexual abuse from a correspondent: "A farm boy took me into a cornfield when I was five and showed me his penis." It was like a bar, says one staffer, "with Hughes down at one end, lifting his Fosters and talking about Renoir, while in the middle someone was bombinating about the Reagan legacy and someone else was composing odes to Clinton, and down at the other end reviewers were piping up, trying to get their voices heard over the din. Individuals had causes; no one knew what Time itself stood for anymore."
During all this, the correspondents began to replace the New York writers in importance. "The problem," says John Leo, now a columnist for U.S. News and World Report, "was that most of the people in the bureaus couldn't write a postcard. That was when AP copy became the model of Time style." Management, well aware that Leo was not alone in his appraisal, assumed an offensive position. Interviewed by the New York Times, the chief of correspondents let it be known that a new breed had taken over.
The old sort of Time story was obsolete. From here on, his "surefooted" correspondents would supplant the rewrite types in New York.
The late senior editor Otto Friedrich wasted no time. He replied with a wounded Eyes Only memo that spoke for his colleagues: "Your comments as quoted struck many here as rude, wrong and unwise. There are many in this building and beyond who still feel that this magazine was essentially created and built by unknowing rewrite persons like Archibald MacLeish, James Agee, John McPhee, and their unsure kind....
"We note that even yesterday's Times story reports that two-thirds of the new-approach stories are still being written by the unknowing rewrite persons. If one added to that the number of written-to-space stories that have to be semi-secretly rewritten to space by the senior editors, the total would be still higher. By describing old-style pieces as 'unknowing' and 'uncertain,' we not only denigrate a large percentage of our staff, but we also insult our loyal readers who apparently were foolish enough to have believed what we wrote."
All too soon, critics on the outside could perceive the magazine's structural flaws. Time, which used to attract lightning from the left, now took heavy casualties from the right. MediaWatch, published by L. Brent Bozell III, tweaked the magazine at every turn. One of the kinder salvos: "At Time, which talks a good game about women's rights and promoting working women, only 12 of the top 47 editorial jobs are held by women. In the midst of self-righteous indignation at sexual harassment in Time's pages, the New York Post reported that Time's deputy chief of correspondents collected stories from female Time staffers about sexual harassment. But after receiving a number of reports about one high-ranking Time employee, the piece was spiked. One source told the Post ‘it was a silly idea to air our own dirty laundry.'"
Time's troubles began to come not in single spies but in battalions. Columnist Michael Kramer plagiarized a paragraph from the highly litigious Alan Dershowitz; the magazine had to print an apology. A cover story on the Lockerbie explosion advertised itself as a breakthrough. The Washington Post scoffed: "The direct motive for the attack, Time claimed, was the presence on the flight of a U.S. intelligence team that had been assigned to find and rescue nine U.S. hostages then held in Beirut.... Time's cover claimed that this is ‘the untold story of Pan Am 102.' In fact, virtually identical allegations have appeared twice before under similar circumstances: on the eve of important judicial proceedings in the Lockerbie crash."
Faced with accusation after accusation of second-rate journalism, the magazine might have tried to elevate its standards. Instead, it concentrated on a face-lift. Time instituted a chirpy, gossip-filled section called Grapevine (Jesse Jackson seems unlikely to mount a third-party campaign because "TV sources say the preacher-politician is negotiating a deal with Cable News Network to host a current affairs program"). Art directors began to redesign the layout, presenting a new face to an increasingly bewildered public. Dubbed "T-2," the fully refurbished Time emerged in 1992 amid fanfare and catcalls. "What T-2 did, essentially," says an old hand, "was to destroy Luce's invention of journalistic taxonomy—Religion, Medicine, Nation, etc.—and replace it with snippets." Rosenblatt dismisses the redesign as "a triumph of the yuppies, who knew how to take a watch apart, but who couldn't figure out what to do with the mainspring, and then wondered why the thing wouldn't tell time anymore."
Traditional readers found T-2 confusing; new readers were unimpressed. Gradually the wholesale change gave way to another wholesale change. The much-touted Grapevine and Bottom Line disappeared, leaving behind only a bad taste of a bad taste. But the damage had been done.
Late in 1992, Muller made his own ascent to the 34th floor, as editorial director, long before he expected to be turned out of office. Still, the job of editor in chief would be open when McManus retired; Muller would aim for that. Jim Gaines, former editor of People and Life magazines, became Time's ME. On his own hook Gaines had written Wits' End, a shrewd and iconoclastic account of the Algonquin Round Tablers. But as a Time ME he provoked many doubts. For one thing, the merger had eroded the separation of church and state, and Gaines symbolized that change. He was, at one point, managing editor and publisher of Life, an unprecedented and dispiriting combination. Then there was the business of gravitas. Life had done some solid pieces on international and national affairs. But People?
Gaines set out to answer the naysayers and turn the magazine around. "It'll take me months to do what Tina Brown did in weeks," he told a writer shortly after assuming office. Alas, the months have stretched into years, and the alterations are not awe inspiring. Last year when the O. J. Simpson tohu-bohu began, Time ran a picture of the accused on the cover. Trouble was, those in the art department had darkened it, as if, in their eyes, darkening his complexion would also darken his character. Cries of racism rang out on both coasts—unfairly, I thought. Time is many things, but not prejudiced—merely slipshod.
Perhaps a more damning indication of plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose occurred in June 1993, when Time did a story on Russian prostitution. Part of a cover package entitled "Sex for Sale," it showed pictures of two boys, aged eight and nine, who were allegedly on the street selling their bodies. It turned out to be a canard; the kids had been posed for the piece, and Time had bought the tale of the "pimp" without verifying the source. In October, readers were informed that the photographs were indeed staged, and that "we regret the error."
Last March the magazine was hit by a rare salvo from the left. In his New York Times column, Anthony Lewis wrote of "a smear against a respected journalist." The journalist was Dusko Doder, former chief of the Washington Post's Moscow bureau, and the smear was Time's unfounded accusation that he had been in the pay of the KGB. Outraged, and supported by many seasoned colleagues who had served alongside him in the USSR, Doder wanted to sue for libel. Time Warner decided to fight it in the British courts, certain that Doder could not afford a lengthy trial. "The Time piece," Lewis went on, "was a concoction of innuendo and sensationalism. The wonder is that Time wants to go on defending it. Not so long ago the magazine got egg on its face when it refused to admit its mistake on learning that it had published a falsehood about General Ariel Sharon of Israel.
"The editors of Time and the executives of Time Warner should rethink their evident decision to deal with the libel suit by crushing Dusko Doder. It is in their real interest—the interest of their standing in the profession—to apologize and settle this case."
The answer to Lewis is best put as a question: what standing? Each season Time seems to take another step backward in the eyes of other journals. Recently a cover story discussed sex on the Internet. The New Republic pointed out that the cover relied on a study whose "'research team' consisted of one individual, Martin Rimm, an undergraduate in electrical engineering with no academic credentials." The Time writer "compounded the shortcomings of the Rimm study by relying on it so heavily to underscore the claim that on-line porn is 'pervasive and wild' and by inflating its significance. He called the report a 'gold mine for psychologists, social scientists, computer marketers and anybody with an interest in human sexual behavior' After publication he revealed, in an interview with Wired magazine, that the editors of Time knew there were serious doubts about the study but decided to run the story anyway."
And besides, it gave them a chance to run a titillating illustration of a man making love to a computer. Later they were to provide a full-color illustration of Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, showing a crucifix in urine.
But when it came time to print a full set of controversial lyrics recorded by Time Warner rap artists, the magazine was suddenly overcome by pudeur. It is easy to see why. A sample from the Geto Boys, Time Warner "artists": "Her body's beautiful, so I'm thinkin' rape. Shouldn't have had her curtains open, so that's her fate. Leapin' at her house, grabbed the bitch by the mouth, drug her back in, slam her down on the couch. Whipped out my knife, said, 'If you scream I'm cuttin'.' . . . She begged me not to kill her; I gave her a rose. Then slit her throat and watched her shake till her eyes closed." Even this excerpt is sanitized: I've left out explicit descriptions of rape and necrophilia that are so vile as to be simply unprintable.
Which brings me to the truest reason for Time's speedy and perhaps irreversible downhill slalom. The periodical is owned by a company that Leo fingered as "the nation's leading cultural polluter." The columnist tapped a gusher. Before Time could turn around, Bob Dole was denouncing the company from the floor of the Senate, and William Bennett and C. DeLores Tucker were booming their condemnations of Time Warner on television, in print, and, eventually, at a meeting with some of the company's top management. Bennett asked the executives "whether there was anything so low, so bad, that you will not sell it." He was greeted with silence. When Bennett used the word "baloney," Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin abruptly exited.
But there was no walking out on the facts. Time Warner owns the Jenny Jones Show, which featured an all-in-fun segment about people with a secret crush on a neighbor. One guest spoke of his love for a man who lived down the block. The man, who had been expecting a female neighbor to point him out as the object of her affections, waited a day and then allegedly murdered the lovestruck confessor. Everybody on the show was truly, truly sorry, but what could they do? The guy was unstable. Madonna's shlocky oversize picture book of sex on the half shell was, Leo points out, "published by Time Warner and (surprise!) chosen as an alternate selection by Time Warner's once respectable Book-of-the-Month Club. "
"In the movies," Leo continues, "the all-Time low for cynicism and historical lies (Oliver Stone's JFK) and for graphic, wholesale serial killing presented as fun (Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers) were both produced by Warner."
Far worse than all this were Time Warner's recording companies, which took pride in, and profits from, the likes of 2 Live Crew, Metallica, Tupak Shakur, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Nine Inch Nails. The press coverage of these groups has been so unflattering that Time Warner has peddled its 50 percent interest in the most offensive of the recording companies. But unloading Interscope cannot erase the company's sullied history. No matter how pious its invocation of the First Amendment, Time Warner has shown a continuing and avid, not to say slavering, interest in violence, racial tension, and full-frontal exploitation. The new merger with Ted Turner's mini-empire seems unlikely to elevate matters. Next time you hear the rending of the social fabric, look around; chances are, Time Warner will still be on the scene.
What does this have to do with Time: The Weekly Newsmagazine? All too much. Back in the late eighties, during the frantic bidding by Paramount and Warner for Time Inc., a great deal was made of Time's "unique corporate culture." At Time, flagship of the Time Inc. magazine group, that culture is gone, crowded out by Warner ways of doing business. Glorious salaries are paid to top—and not-so-top—executives; meanwhile, the company is $15 billion in debt. Scores of writers, editors, researchers, members of technical support groups, and librarians have already been laid off or packaged out. And more dismissals are to come, particularly for those who have made the mistake of being 55 or older. The Time library, which used to be a floor or two away from every writer and editor, is now in the sub-basement. It is assumed that anyone looking for material will use the vast resources of the computer. The business of serendipity, of wandering through shelves of books, lighting upon some volume you never knew existed, is as obsolete as the typewriter and the rotary dial. "To tell you the truth," says a longtime employee, "Time now reminds me of that scene in A Day at the Races, where the orchestra is madly playing away on the dock, but the dock is floating away from the mainland."
Even so, it must be acknowledged that the magazine has shown flashes of integrity under its new editor in chief, Norman Pearlstine, brought in from the outside by Levin. Pearlstine, who vaulted over the head of Muller, saw to it that Time's story on the deterioration of American culture did not spare the record division of Time Warner. Yet even here Time was not able to sustain its tough-mindedness for long. In a later issue the cinema critic went after Dole for daring to attack the parent company: "In Hansel and Gretel, Jack and Jill, Bambi, and Dumbo, the obsessive themes are death and dismemberment. These graphic horror stories tell toddlers that life is a dark forest where parents get killed and kids get eaten. As purveyors of 'nightmares of depravity,' Warner Bros. ain't a patch on the Grimm Bros." Actually, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were philologists who collected authentic folk tales. They neither pandered to their audience nor urged the taletellers to ever more violent productions.
But never mind. Critiques from the outside never hold any water at Time. Christopher Byron's The Fanciest Dive, a hilarious account of the TV Cable Week disaster, was dismissed in my presence as "cheap and petty." Maybe; but it was also right on the money. Management called Clurman's book "graceless." But, as always, the author's sources were unimpeachable. Bruck's profile of Ross was dismissed out of hand, but it remains one of the classic accounts of eighties corporate chicanery. Doubtless the present trifling monograph will be similarly disparaged. So the following is offered to the readers rather than to the managers of Time.
At the magazine itself, according to a well-placed source, sense and discretion have currently taken a backseat. He cites a recent cover conference on the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. "To watch some of the writers and editors connect the dots was a ghastly and depressing experience. The first dot was the Ryder truck. The next dot was the militias. Then in escalating, hysterical succession, Angry White Men, then Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, the November '94 elections, the Reichstag Fire, the Weimar Republic, and finally the conditions which were now 'in place for a new Hitler to rise in America.' They talked themselves into a sophomoric frenzy. It was as if none of them had never read a book on German or, for that matter, American history. They were only interested in hot, nonsensical conclusions, and all the while they were being egged on by Gaines. One has to ask himself, 'Is this what Time has come to?"' But I've been negative about the magazine for too long. The moment has come, at long last, for that Big Yes.