clock menu more-arrow no yes

The New Republic meltdown and why the media world cares so much, explained

Chris Hughes.
Chris Hughes.
Union Square Ventures

On January 11, staffers of the New Republic learned via a note to the staff and a post on Medium that their beleaguered owner Chris Hughes had decided to sell the publication.

That announcement came a bit more than a year after a massive shake-up at the magazine, in which Hughes tried to replace top editors Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier with more digitally minded recruits, only to provoke mass resignations from then-current senior staffers and an immense backlash from the magazine's extensive network of alumni.

The general theme of these alumni takes was that Hughes had not only made a decision they disagreed with, but had also literally destroyed the publication. Jonathan Chait called his appreciation of the magazine's legacy a "eulogy," which was actually restrained compared with novelist Cynthia Ozick, who commemorated the change with an original poem alleging that "Thought and Word lay dead and cold" in the wake of Hughes's management.

This in turn provoked a counter-backlash from left-wing critics of TNR and its former owner Martin Peretz. "A publication that buoyed anti-black, anti-Latino, anti-Arab, Islamophobic racism was tolerable; a publication that fired two beloved white men was not," as Vox's Max Fisher put it, not so much in defense of Hughes as in incredulity over the scale of the anti-Hughes rhetoric.

The resulting fray was deeply confusing to many readers who are not professional journalists — and even to many journalists under the age of 30 — who couldn't quite understand why management turmoil at a single low-circulation publication could possibly be worthy of so many pixels and takes.

At a basic level, the sheer scale and clout of the TNR alumni network explains the level of attention it got. The magazine long served as an important incubator of talent, a place whose staffers would leave to become writers and editors at higher-circulation publications but who retained enormous affection for each other and the publication.

But at a larger level, "TNRmageddon" has attracted the intense interest of 30-something to 60-something politically minded journalists because the magazine and its woes stood — usually self-consciously so — at the intersection of a number of ideological and demographic trends that are profoundly shaping the broader political culture.

TNR stood for a certain model of publishing, but also for a certain model of liberalism whose viability is diminishing under strain from partisan polarization and increasing demands that an ideological movement whose political power comes mostly from women and minorities be represented in public by figures other than white men.

A note on conflicts of interest

The world of Washington, DC-based magazines and websites is incredibly incestuous, so I have no way of writing about this without stepping all over too many conflicts of interest to count.

But some noteworthy ones include the fact that I applied for a job with the Peter Beinart–era TNR and didn't get it after a disastrous job interview. I was recruited for jobs in both the first and second Foer eras. I used to work closely with Richard Just (who was editor between Foer stints) before he worked at TNR. I dated a TNR staffer for a while, was roommates with Spencer Ackerman at the time Foer fired him from TNR, and am very close friends with a current staffer at TNR. I also lived in the same dorm with Hughes for a year in college.

All of which is to say that while my coverage of this can hardly be objective, it's also pretty well-informed.

Why does anyone care about this?

The small-minded literal answer is that both Foer and Wieseltier are very well-liked and well-connected in the journalistic and literary worlds, and when they got fired they deployed their connections to torch Hughes.

The broader, more important, reason is that the New Republic has long been at the center of profound arguments over the direction of American liberalism. It was founded in 1914 by Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and Walter Weyl with financing from Willard Straight and Dorothy Payne Whitney, and it's really only a slight exaggeration to say that the magazine's ideological program laid the foundation for what we now know as the ideology of modern liberalism.

Croly sought a synthesis of the political traditions of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, promoting the view that Hamiltonian means (an active state and a strong central government) were necessary to promote Jeffersonian ends (small-d democracy and an egalitarian economy) under the conditions of modern industrial life. Many of the specific policy views of the Croly-era New Republic would be unrecognizable to the liberalism of a century later, but those broad themes are very evident today and even the subject of a hit musical.

In the 1940s, '50s, and '60s TNR was involved in the struggle to define liberalism's relationship to the Cold War. In the mid-1970s, the magazine was bought by Martin Peretz, who used it to once again try to chart an ideological agenda for liberalism. Under Peretz, the magazine stood for a hawkish, fervently pro-Israel form of liberalism that, while fairly conventional in its domestic politics, was always on the lookout for excessive left-wing deviationism. It sought controversy and made enemies — though it also left a broad network of friends scattered throughout prestige media in the United States.

But by the mid-aughts, Peretz and the magazine were in a state of financial distress; the magazine suffered a series of rounds of budget cuts and was taken over by an unstable set of investors backing Peretz. In 2012, Chris Hughes bought the magazine, provided a much-needed infusion of cash, brought back beloved former editor Frank Foer, and invested in some marquee journalists and new office space.

He was, briefly, hailed as a savior of the magazine. And then it all went wrong.

The Hughes/Foer fallout was a long time coming

TNRmageddon has come to be at the nexus of a wide range of ideological conflicts, but on the most literal level it was about something else entirely. Simply put, from day one Hughes had always wanted to own a version of the New Republic that would be a relevant digital brand in the contemporary world, and Foer was always an editor with a print-first mentality and a deep loyalty to a core group of writers who felt they did their best work at a considerably more leisurely pace than you find at most websites.

This was not primarily a disagreement about ideology, or even one about commercial versus noncommercial values. A number of noncommercial publications — including Mother Jones on the left and National Review on the right — have successfully built large and influential digital operations on the backs of old-time print brands. Commercial publications like the Atlantic and New York magazine have done the same.

Conversely, there are both commercial (the New Yorker) and noncommercial (N+1) publications that have deliberately chosen to march into 2016 still offering a distinctly analog mentality.

The original sin of Foer and Hughes's relationship was that they simply didn't see eye to eye on this.

Hughes is a millennial, a digital native who made his fortune in Facebook stock. To him it is natural that to be a force in the media world means to be a digital force. Foer is older, but more importantly he is a proud neo-traditionalist who thinks Amazon is destroying literary culture, and during both of his editorships he treated digital work as less important than the job of editing the print magazine.

There's nothing wrong with either of these approaches, but the Hughes-Foer TNR renaissance was fundamentally an exercise in mutual deception and self-deception. Hughes brought back Foer in order to gain the prestige and cachet that would come with the acclamation of the TNR alumni network, even though he had no real affection for the kind of journalism Foer values; Foer told Hughes what he wanted to hear in order to get the funding for the magazine of his dreams, even though he had no real affection for the kind of digital publication that Hughes wanted.

When the deception became untenable, Hughes massively mishandled the aftermath. Rather than arranging an amicable parting of ways, he brought in a new CEO, Guy Vidra, with experience at Yahoo who, as Ryan Lizza recounts, "spoke in a Silicon Valley-inflected jargon that many of T.N.R.s journalists found grating and bewildering."

Foer himself discovered that Hughes wanted to replace him with a new editor through leaks rather than a face-to-face conversation. (This method of firing, while appallingly rude, is actually itself a bit of a TNR tradition, as former editor Charles Lane apparently learned he'd been replaced by Beinart from a Washington Post column rather than from Peretz.)

In large part as a result of his own mishandling of the situation, Hughes wound up losing more than a couple of top editors: An enormous fraction of the magazine's staff — including relatively new Hughes-era hires like Julia Ioffe — resigned en masse.

The old guard is promoting a version of TNR that never existed

Rather than break up politely citing irreconcilable differences over digital-first versus print-first editorial strategies, the TNR quitters and their allies in the old guard developed a curious alternate history of the New Republic over the past generation.

In this view, TNR was not a perennially money-losing ego project through which Peretz subsidized a prestigious journalism operation in order to lend a sheen of respectability and influence to his own crank view. It was, instead, a "public trust" that had been owned by wise stewards who, in the words of former TNR senior editor John Judis, had "devoted themselves to philanthropy and to what they understood as the public interest." In contrast, Judis wrote, Hughes's "commitment to social responsibility turned out to be skin-deep."

In this retconning of New Republic history, both Peretz's rancid political views and his mercurial hiring and firing of not-always-obviously-qualified editors vanished down the memory hole. After all, if one acknowledges that Peretz had treated the magazine as his personal property (which, after all, it was), then one would have to acknowledge that Hughes was just as entitled to be fickle as his predecessor.

In fact, the owner who fit Judis's description was not Peretz but Hughes, who, unlike Peretz, is deeply involved in philanthropic pursuits (for example, giving cash grants to desperately poor people in rural East Africa) and does not fancy himself a writer or crave his own byline.

Sean Eldridge's political career is the elephant in the room

What neither side of the dispute really wants to forthrightly acknowledge is the likely connection between Hughes's shifting view of his investment in the New Republic and his husband's failure to win a congressional seat in the 2014 midterms. Hughes was willing to spend generously on Eldridge's political career, outspending Eldridge's opponent 3 to 1 in a district Barack Obama carried in 2012 and contributing ancillary spending on real estate and local charitable endeavors to grease the wheels for Eldridge's run.

In a world where Hughes and Eldridge were a young political power couple, making an open-ended financial commitment to a Washington-based prestige journalism operation made a lot of sense. It was something Hughes could do with his time and money that wouldn't enmesh him in ethical conflicts of interest, and it would allow Eldridge to punch greatly above his weight as a backbench member of the minority party.

With Eldridge's political career in shambles and the couple reevaluating their priorities, the calculus obviously looks different. For Peretz, one major virtue of owning TNR was that it afforded him an opportunity to grind his favored ideological axes. In 2016, any rich guy who wants to gain attention with ideological ax grinding can do it for free on Twitter or Medium. And Hughes doesn't even appear to have any particularly interesting axes to grind. So what's the point?

The result of this, it seems, was that Hughes's willingness to absorb the losses necessary to run the New Republic dimmed. In his announcement that he was putting the magazine up for sale, he said he's invested $20 million in the institution just in the short time he's owned it, and the implication is he's no longer willing to lose that kind of money indefinitely. To many of his critics, that is the core of his betrayal — by purchasing the magazine in the first place, he was committing himself to bearing its attendant losses, perhaps not indefinitely, but certainly for longer than a few years.

Hughes and Foer got sucked into an ideological proxy war

Once the anti-Hughes takes started flying from the TNR old guard, the magazine's owner was clearly in need of allies and swiftly found himself making an alliance of convenience with a group of longtime TNR critics who didn't appreciate the magazine's approach to foreign policy and, especially, race.

Arguments about Peretz-era TNR's content have raged for years and will continue to do so. But one fact that seems essentially indisputable is that Peretz-era TNR was well-known as an incubator of journalistic talent, and the talent that was incubated there was essentially all white and very largely male — unapologetically so, as one of the magazine's main ideological heterodoxies was opposition to affirmative action.

Consequently, as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it during the December 2014 meltdown, "the family rows at TNR's virtual funeral look like the 'Whites Only' section of a Jim Crow-era movie-house."

This critique of TNR and race dovetailed nicely with liberals' longstanding critique of the New Republic's hawkish foreign policy, which was ostensibly animated by high-minded idealism but often seemed grounded in Peretz's crude anti-Arab racism.

If Hughes had been genuinely bothered by these longstanding concerns, he presumably wouldn't have bought the magazine to begin with. But once on the offensive, he and new editor Gabriel Snyder decided to go to war with the allies they had and join the pile-on. Version 2.0 of the Hughes-era TNR featured a much more diverse set of hires, and kicked off with a Jeet Heer feature criticizing TNR's historical record on race.

Foer's allies then mounted a backlash to the backlash, which mostly went to show how real the ideological differences between the magazine's new hires and its ex-staffers had become:

The old guard helped kill TNR

Perhaps the central irony of TNRmageddon is that the scorched earth tactics Foer's allies in the old guard have deployed have fundamentally imperiled the viability of the magazine and its legacy.

After all, the one thing TNR has going for it is the idea of cultural prestige — a bank of influence and importance that long predates the Peretz era and that managed to survive several ownership transitions and many firings of many editors. The mass campaign of op-eds, interviews, and takes proclaiming the death of the New Republic served to massively undermine that prestige.

This succeeded in hurting Hughes's personal standing in society as well as his financial interests, but fundamentally Hughes is still going to be a rich guy living a decent life.

What it also did was massively undermine Hughes's interest in indefinitely subsidizing a prestige journalism play that was no longer bringing him prestige. Worse, it probably undermined anyone else's interest in taking on the burdens of owning TNR.

This is in part a question of money, but in a larger sense it's about risks to reputation. Virtually any other monetary investment in journalism would be less likely to invite loud public second-guessing. The Peretz-era alumni network went after Hughes so viciously that they've made it much less likely anything vibrant will ever thrive under the TNR brand.

The good news for people who enjoy small-circulation, ideas-focused magazines is that, TNR's struggles aside, this genre of publication is thriving perhaps as never before. It's true that niche publishing is an awkward fit for the commercial logic of the internet, where scale rules all. But it's also true that this sort of publication has never been a truly commercial endeavor, whether formally organized as a nonprofit or not. Digital technology, by drastically reducing the cost of publishing and distributing articles, has served to drastically increase the bang for your buck involved in financing such publications.

Consequently, there's been a blossoming of new ideas-focused small publications like New Inquiry, N+1, and Jacobin, joined by a revived version of the Baffler often espousing left-wing ideas well out of the mainstream of the commercial press. The right has its own high-quality journals — of which National Affairs is probably the best — while Democracy holds the torch for a more conventional form of liberalism.