Erick wrote with great clarity on the death of The New Republic as a pillar of progressive thought, but navigating the Byzantine maze of Washington liberal media is only for the bravest of brave hearts. So Ezra Klein has broken it down for us in the hoi polloi by Voxsplaining what has happened to the august TNR.
Before we delve into Klein’s truly dizzying intellect, let me sum up what happened at TNR.
Owner Chris Hughes, a Facebook jillionaire, decided that The New Republic wasn’t webby enough. He also decided that TNR should do something completely shocking to its the liberal-progressive denizens: make money for him. Not just make money for its editors and writers, who enjoy the power and mutual butt-sniffing of beltway wonk worship, but actually make a return on investment to Hughes, instead of him simply funding another 80 years of theoretical policy and a printed magazine with a circulation less than msnbc’s ratings.
Hughes was found guilty of being a capitalist, a high crime in the eyes of TNR editors, who have been leaving faster than John Travolta’s hair. Now back to Klein, whose stated and unrealized life wish is to work for TNR.
When I entered journalism there were three places I badly wanted to work: The American Prospect, The Washington Monthly, and The New Republic. The decision turned out to be easy: TNR never called me back.
Vox is like an IQ black hole; it’s a gravity well that consumes all intelligence which dares to penetrate its event horizon, and lets nothing out. All becomes crushed into a singularity of liberal narrative in which the rest of the universe ceases to exist. Klein did not fail to obey this law in his fawning eulogy-cum-resurrection piece about TNR. He started by listing all of Washington’s “new media powerhouses”.
The internet is now thick with outlets that pride themselves on covering Washington’s vast policymaking apparatus. Vox is one of them, as is The New Republic, but so are Wonkblog, the Upshot, Mother Jones, Storyline, FiveThirtyEight, and Politico, to name just a few. And that doesn’t even include the individual bloggers who are must-reads if you’re following policy: Kevin Drum, and Tyler Cowen, and Brad DeLong, and Paul Krugman, and Ross Douthat, and Ramesh Ponnuru, and Jonathan Chait, and Scott Sumner, and Megan McArdle, and Jonathan Bernstein, and, again, the list goes on.
Funny, I don’t see Ben Domenech, Erick Erickson, Jonah Goldberg, Mark Steyn, The Federalist, National Review Online, or RedState in his list. Maybe they are in the “list goes on” part. Like a sitcom that pretends that other sitcoms don’t exist, conservative policymaking media are simply ciphers in Klein’s mind and conception of the universe. It’s not like National Review has been around for almost 60 years or something—wait, it has. Nobody’s resigning from National Review.
Klein gets to the heart of the issue, quoting Jonathan Chait’s eulogy in New York Magazine: “Frank Foer isn’t leaving TNR because he wasn’t a good enough editor. He’s leaving because Chris Hughes is not a good enough owner.” A good enough owner, in liberal parlance, is one who panders to the vainglorious media community and sets no expectations other than great cocktail parties.
Ezra Klein, of all people, understands that making money is the drumline in new media. He’s been spending Jim Bankoff’s investors’ money making John Oliver videos go viral to get his click counts, and before that, he was using Jeff Bezos $100 bills as toilet paper at WaPo. And that’s fine with him, journalism be damned.
Behind this fight is a deeper tension in digital journalism: the pressure for convergence is strong. We feel it at Vox, and sometimes give into it. It’s easy to see which stories are resonating with readers. It’s obvious that John Oliver videos do big numbers. And that’s fine.
Now that TNR will be transitioned to cat photos and forced to find its own crazy cat lady equivalent of Salon’s Joan Walsh, the Circle of Jerks will either have to more openly expose their leftism by reading Salon and The Nation or set up a new email listserve that risks exposure.
That they have to actually function in a capitalist market, instead of simply retreading old progressive trope and calling them “new ideologies and new ideas,” is anathema to the liberal media. This is summed up nicely in the singularity of thought at the center of Klein’s Vox black hole.
But what made the New Republic and its peer policy magazines so great was how restlessly, relentlessly idiosyncratic they were — that’s how they drove new ideologies and new ideas to the fore. They were worse at covering policy than their digital successors, but probably better at thinking. Part of this was because they simply cared less what the audience thought — they saw their role as telling their audience what to think, and they expected a readership in the low six or high five figures, not the mid-eight figures.
There you have it. TNR’s demise Voxsplained: they saw their role as telling their audience what to think, like all good liberals. And then the audience woke up.