On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Tina Brown — the former editor of Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, the Daily Beast and more — talks about her new book, “The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983 - 1992.”
You can read some of the highlights here, or listen to the entire interview in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Recode Radio presents Recode Decode, coming to you from the Vox Media Podcast Network. Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as the editor of a magazine about whiny Fox News anchors called Hannity Fair, but in my spare time, I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode, a podcast about tech and media’s key players, big ideas and how they’re changing the world we live in. You can find more episodes of Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or just visit recode.net/podcasts for more.
Today in the red chair I am pleased to have Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, the Daily Beast, and so much more, Tatler, everything. She has a new book out that I absolutely adore called “The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983 - 1992.” It is a fantastic read. It has surprised me how much I like it — not that you’re not a great writer, Tina — but welcome to Recode Decode.
Tina Brown: Thank you, Kara. That’s good to hear.
Yeah. I was so surprised by this book. I’m not surprised by a lot of things, I’ll be honest with you, and I want to talk about you doing it, but let’s ... For people who don’t know you, you’ve been more of a techie than most media people, so I want to sort of give people your background and how you got to where you got. So why don’t we just do a very quick biography of Tina Brown?
Okay, so I began in London, went to Oxford, got discovered very early.
Yeah, you were like the enfant terrible.
I was the enfant terrible in Oxford. Age 25, I get leadership of Tatler.
Would you explain what Tatler is, for the non-British people?
Tatler is ... It’s a kind of social magazine. It was like a sort of Town & Country, as it were, for London, except it had a great pedigree. It went back 270 years to when it was founded. By the time I took it over, it was a kind of ailing shiny sheet, and I was given what every 25-year-old wants, which is sort of my own playpen, which was this magazine, because no one else wanted to edit it.
It was slightly naughty, right?
Well, I made it naughty. It wasn’t naughty when I took it over. It was for sort of decaying debutantes. Then it was bought by a real estate guy, and he asked everybody in town to edit it. They all said no, because why would anybody want to edit that, and somebody said to him, “Why don’t you go for youth?” And I was writing pieces that were rather fun and iconoclastic, you know, all over the place, and he came and asked me, and I was 25.
I leapt at it, because I felt what fun it would be to have my own little game. And I had all my friends, and ...
Why did you leap at it? To me, that’s really ...
I leaped at it because I wanted my own show, you know? I was already finding, even at 25, that freelance writers are at the whim of the people who assign them.
And frequently, you’d get, “Well, I don’t think that’s a great idea,” and I began to get irritated. I thought, “I know it’s a good idea,” and if you’re an editor, you get to decide if it’s a good idea. Doesn’t matter if it’s a small show.
So I had all my kind of smart, Young Turk friends, and we started to put out this kind of very insurgent attitude-heavy magazine.
And making fun, poking fun.
Making fun, poking fun. We took the upper class, who was supposed to be the establishment of the magazine, and really made them irreverent. Plus, I also had the biggest social story of the century to cover, which was the rise of Princess Diana. And I mean, we covered that like CNN covered OJ Simpson, you know?
Yep, yep. Yeah.
You know, we were just all over that story. We knew her. I’d met her. My staff had met her, because I was 25. She was 20. You know, it was like, there was a lot of people on our team who sort of knew the world of Diana.
Right, and London is a small place, you know?
And London is a small place.
So that really launched Tatler and made us ... You know, we went from 10 ...
Hot. We were hot and buzzy. We went from 10,000 to 100,000, bought by Conde Nast. Si Newhouse fell in love with Tatler. He thought it was great, came to London, sort of shopped and found us and bought us, and that meant we were part of the mighty Conde Nast, and when they launched Vanity Fair, we’d brought it back from the dead. Then they decided, “Let’s ask the Young Turk from London to come in and edit it.”
Right, and they had had ... They had launched Vanity Fair, correct?
But let’s go into the “Diaries,” really. So they’d launched Vanity Fair and had an editor that wasn’t working out.
It wasn’t getting a very good buzz.
It was the first one.
It launched a huge ...
Who was the first editor?
Richard Loch, and then Leo Lerman.
Very smart guy who’d been editor of the New York Times Book Review, but he wasn’t anyone who’d ever edited a magazine before, and they had all this huge hype that it was coming, and they had posters of John Irving in his underpants, sort of saying, “No contest.”
Oh, I remember the underpants.
And they had pieces saying it was going to be the best magazine anyone had ever read. Disastrous amount of hype. Huge.
Right. Declaring victory before the ...
Declaring victory, vast budget, no one had ever heard such a budget, so they ...
And Vanity Fair, to go back, was another one of these magazines that was sort of the society ...
Well, Vanity Fair, in its heyday, was this sort of cultural, high-toned, witty magazine that was edited by a great editor, Frank Crowninshield, who was the first to publish Cubism in America, and published Clare Booth Luce and Dorothy Parker, and, you know, it was a very good read.
It was the hot book.
It was a hot book, so just predating the New Yorker, which came along and ate its lunch, actually, but it was pre-New Yorker, that was the world.
The Smart Set?
The Smart Set. Actually, yes. That was the title of its rival, as a matter of fact. And so the Smart Set all read it, so they wanted to bring back a new version of Vanity Fair, which would be probably less brittle than the Smart Set era one, but one that was really going to combine the sort of gravitas of the New Yorker with the Smart Set of the past.
But they produced a turkey instead, and it was a disastrous turkey, editor fired. Then they bring in a sort of old ...
Well, he wasn’t supposed to be interim. He was the features editor of Vogue who had been in the company for 40 years, a kind of grand old, you know, culture maven, and then, at that point, they’d asked me to come over and be a consultant from London, because I had ... You know, they had thought, “Let’s bring her in.”
Which you hesitated at.
I hesitated tremendously, but I came, and actually, it was useful to do, because I realized, once I’d been there a few months, that Leo Lerman, the editor, could not do it. I realized that he was as big a fiasco as his predecessor. He was old and pretentious, and the whole thing was just not working, and I felt I could do it. I mean, it helped to sharpen my sense that I could do it when I realized that he couldn’t. But I thought I’d blown it, because I’d said kind of, “No, yes, no, yes,” and you know, I was only a consultant.
So they asked if I would stay. They said, you know, “Will you come and stay and essentially band-aid this editor?” And I was very cocky. I mean, I basically said, “No, it’s either the editorship or I’m going home.” And they did it and said, “We just put him in.” I said, “Okay, well, I’m going back to London.”
And I leapt on a plane, went back to London, and then I felt I’d completely blown it. I sat in London thinking ...
Still head editor of the Tatler, or not?
No, I’d left the Tatler in the meantime. I had got restless. You know, I tend to get restless and jump out of things.
Yeah. You are a restless person. I like that about you.
I jumped out of Tatler to go back to writing and kind of regretted it immediately.
Because it’s a power base.
Because it’s a power base, and I realized I was back to exactly what I felt before, which was I was asking editors if it was okay to write this piece, and they would say, “Well, I don’t know, what about doing this other piece?” You know?
Oh, Tina. I don’t like working for people either.
I just didn’t like it at all. So I sat in London thinking, “God, I choked. I should have just stayed there in New York.” And I kind of thought I’d blown it, but then I suddenly get this call to ask if I would come to New York for an interview. I was just about to go to Barbados with my husband on holiday.
So I arrived from Barbados to go to New York for this job interview, you know, with a kind of suitcase full of cheesecloth bikinis, had the interview with Si Newhouse. He was the owner.
Did you wear a cheesecloth bikini? Because that would be wrong today.
Almost. It would be wrong. It might have been very successful, but it might have been wrong. But you know, Si Newhouse, who owned Conde Nast, and Alexander Liberman, he’s a great editorial director who was a very sort of Douglas Fairbanks character, very Russian.
Mustache, Russian, fantastic.
Mustache, you know, once painter, new Picasso, all of that. They were sitting there, and they interviewed me for this job, and they basically said, “You know, it’s yours if you want it.” And then I didn’t choke. I said, “I want it.” They said, “Okay, well, you have to start right after Christmas.” So I went back to spend Christmas with Harry in Barbados, and he was fantastic. He said, “You’ve got to do it, have to do it. I’ll figure something out.”
Now let’s say who Harry is. Your husband is one of the greatest newspaper editors in British history, right? I mean, really.
Yeah, no actually, Harry ...
And famously fired.
Oh, he’s wonderful, yes. Harry was editor of the Sunday Times, very celebrated. In fact, his newspaper appears, in 2000 voted him the greatest newspaper ever, which I thought was sort of wonderful, and he had ...
He was the Ben Bradley of ...
He was the Ben Bradley of London. Times Newspapers was bought by Rupert Murdoch in ’83, I think it was, and he had a famous noisy kind of front page of the fight with Murdoch, because Murdoch wanted him to skew towards Mrs. Thatcher all the time, and he didn’t. He wanted to keep his news values intact, and so he fired Harry, and Harry, you know, with his swashbuckling end, you know, kind of jumped out of there, and so in a sense, we were both sort of free and ready to make our lives anew.
And he said to me, “Look, I’ll come tomorrow. I’ll figure out something in America. You take this job,” which is how he always is, which is wonderful.
So hence the “Diaries.” We’re going to get to Daily Beast and everything else, Talk.
Yeah. Yes, sure.
We’re going to have to talk about Talk later. But so you kept notes? Were these diaries, or did you add to them? Because they’re very detailed.
They were very much diaries. I mean, as it is in the book is pretty much as it’s written. I mean, I did shape it, cut it ...
Add to it.
... Add to it, explain who people were, but basically, these diaries are ...
... Contemporaneous, and I wrote them in a kind of mad frenzy.
Now every night, you would go ...
Not every night, but a lot of nights. I think if ...
By hand, in my sort of schoolbooks. I’d always been a diarist, you know, in the sense I’d always loved writing a diary, but I also think, because I was new in New York and had so much to sort of ... I was vibrating with the discovery of it all. My husband was in Washington at that point, because he got a job there first.
U.S. News, right?
At U.S. News. So I was there on my own, and I used to come in, and I used to just think, “I’m going to ...” You know, I’d sit down and I would scribble my diary. And also, most of my friends were in London, you know? So I had sort of no one I might have called. If I had been at home, I might have ...
You did go out a lot. We’ll talk about that.
I went out a lot, but I also might have called a girlfriend and unloaded what happened, but I didn’t really have any girlfriends, so I sort of sat and unloaded into my diary, and I’m so glad I did, because those details are what really ...
Yeah, but you never remember that later. You really don’t.
No, not at all, but they’re highly detailed.
It’s highly detailed, and of course, at the time, it also was this wildly social time, so after about a year, I was taken up.
The Reagan administration, right.
When the magazine began to succeed, I got taken up by sort of the New York swirl, which I always saw as the great ...
But you were a character in it, too?
Yeah, I was a character in it, and I also began to find it, it just fed so many stories. It fed the leads, it fed the sources, it fed where I could get stuff, and also, the social world of that time, if you had a glossy upscale magazine, I mean, that was the sort of the ...
Oh, no. You were the center of everything at that time.
Yeah, I was the center of everything, and the magazine had to reflect that, and so it was partly that a lot of it was the quest for that. I would think, “Oh, well, I don’t feel like going. Well, but I might get a story.” And I always did.
Right. Right. You always did. But you get back to the ... So you decided to keep diaries that you later thought you would publish, or just for yourself?
No, I didn’t really think about it.
Well, everything’s material.
I mean, you know, I never thought ... You know, you don’t write letters thinking they’re going to be published, you know? I mean, I just did it because it was a need. It was a therapy need, really. It was about unloading my thoughts and explaining myself to myself. I didn’t think I would necessarily publish them. I thought maybe one day, one sometimes thinks that. I never really thought about that when I was writing them at all.
Well, you wouldn’t have, because you wouldn’t have known how successful it would be, necessarily.
So the descriptiveness, one of the things that’s really great about it is how much you throw people under the bus in a really clever and incredibly truthful way. Some people say ... You know, listen, I get called mean all the time, which is fine with me, but it’s not mean, because it’s truthful, the way you’re talking about these people. I find some of the descriptions just devastating but accurate, you know what I mean? Like, “Ow. Ow, ow, ow, ow.”
You have Denise Hale. Now Denise Hale’s laying back in her chair with a program over her head, and Prentice is drumming his fingers and blaspheming. “Hale is an animal, Tina, an animal.” These quotes that you have are amazing.
“What are our spoiled concerns compared to the pain of all their losses?” Then you turn very sad, and it’s a really interesting revelation into your ... That was at an AIDS event that Steve Rubell did. You just can take ... Carolyne Roehm. All these people, I remember these people of the day, because you also chronicled them in Vanity Fair.
Sure. I mean, in a way, you know, one of my thoughts was, “Here are these sort of ’80s figures with boldface names, you know, W Magazine, some of them. And are they going to still be interesting?” And I decided that, you know, ultimately, they’re kind of all people in a novel, really.
So in the same way, they’re ... You know, it’s like Vanity Fair, the novel. This is like Thackeray’s World. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether this person was called Carolyne Roehm or what she’s called. She’s a character in New York.
Right. Right. She’s a type.
She’s a type. She’s a type.
Were you worried about them not being ... That’s what I was saying, being interesting to today? Because I was utterly riveted to these people.
I trust that in a sense, that I could describe people of a kind and a type, so you don’t have to know or care really who Carolyne Roehm. She’s simply the anorexic socialite who is ...
You know, starey? I think it was starey.
Who is, yeah, starey-eyed anorexic socialite.
There’s a better way to say it. It was really evolved. I loved it.
With, you know, elegant shoulders, you know, who is sort of sailing ...
Yeah, anorexic shoulders.
Anorexic shoulders, who’s sailing through ...
Yeah, here it is. “Whose hungry face and anorexic shoulders were on the other side of Harry. Her eyes were starey with strain and the quest for perspection. She looked worn down by French lessons, and piano lessons, and Cordon bleu master tasters for every dinner party she hosts, and she just goes ...” Like, I felt bad for Carolyne Roehm for the first time in my life.
Well, I don’t know. I think she might really, now, think, “Yeah, that is who I was,” because a lot of people actually have evolved beyond that. I mean, I like people like Gayford Steinberg and Carolyne Roehm today, because they’re not those women actually anymore.
Somehow, the time made them into those women.
And you, at one point, you were depicting your culture: “The thought of the city gives me herpes of the brain, the hairdressing, the breakneck showers, the seething limo rides, the shouting over noisy restaurants, the ceaseless clamor of thirsty egos, the umbrage and dudgeon and fencing and foiling, and yet I know that if I’d left, I’d want to get it back,” which was really interesting.
That’s right. Yeah.
So you were editing a magazine that sort of celebrated a lot of this too, that was very ... Not celebrated ...
We chronicled it.
Chronicled it. Right, right. That’s right.
We chronicled it, we photographed it, we had tongue in the cheek about it, we wrote about their murders and their and their falls.
Lots of murders. There’s a lot of murders .
Yeah, a lot of murders, and Dominique Dunne, of course, was our star writer, and Dominique became the great sort of pulp fiction writer, almost, of Vanity Fair, writing about the rise and fall of decadent people.
Right, exactly. And what were you thinking when you decided to take it on, because you had nothing to lose, right?
Not really, no. I mean, I felt that I was ... This was my big chance. I mean, I’ve always thought, you know, I’m a girl of the arena, you know?
I mean, I like to be in the action. You know I do. I want to be the one who’s sort of striving for the big thing. I don’t want to be sort of dialing myself back and thinking, “I’ll take on something I can handle.” I like biting off things I can’t ... You know, more than I can chew.
Where did you get that tendency, do you think?
I just have a lot of gusto for creative life, you know?
I mean, I’m always restlessly looking for something to create. I have a lot of ideas at any one time, some of them bad, but some of them good and turn out well, and I like the chance to be able to show it and express it.
Right, and you don’t mind having them. I think the entrepreneurialism really shows in the thing, and you talk about that in the book several times, being an entrepreneur and really trying different things, because a lot of what you were doing here was entrepreneurial, introducing new writers, introducing new concepts.
Yeah, I think a good editor has to be an impresario. You know, I think you’re an impresario of talent. You’re the ringmaster. You have to go to bring out the music and bring down the lights, and have writers and editors, and it all has to mix together. A lot of the sort of work of an editor, I think, is sort of casting. It’s not just about, “I will hire a certain editor.” It’s about, “Will this editor work well with this writer in this mix in our office?” You know? You need to cast these things, as I’m sure you’re aware.
Right, and reflective of the time.
And reflective of the time, yeah.
And you did talk about that, and you said, “Surely, what the New Yorker needs is to be not just a writer’s magazine but a readers’ magazine, because writers, unless guided and edited and lured out of their comfort zones, can go off piste into dreary cul-de-sacs of introversion and excess, and entirely forget the questions of content and pace.”
Yeah, I do believe that.
So while you were doing this, what was really interesting to me when you were talking about it is how much ... You’re not easy on yourself either. There’s a lot of stress. There’s, sort of, you called it an addiction, stress being self-inflicted, an addiction. I don’t want to talk about feel-good stuff, but what carries a lot through this is the insecurity of high-ranking jobs like yours, like, that you were always feeling throughout this entire thing, despite the success, just on the edge of disaster.
It felt like a startup in a lot of ways.
Yeah. It did, and well, in many ways, it was. I mean, I think because ... Yeah, I’ve always had that sort of precarious sense that it could all blow up at any minute, and sometimes it has, and I actually think, though, that that’s a spur, you know, to do your best, isn’t it?
I mean, a sense that there’s no such thing as cruising. I’ve never been good at cruising. I really am not cruising.
But it’s more than that. You did an astonishing job on Si Newhouse, and you were not kind to him, but you were not unkind, you know what I mean? Like, he just recently died.
No, I had to manage up. I had to do a lot of ...
Yes. You had a rich guy. You had a rich guy.
I had a rich guy to deal with, but I became very, very fond of Si. He was mercurial. He was a fascinating character, because he was ... He was a sort of reluctantly powerful man. You know, he was so shy and insecure himself and short and nebbishy. And you know, I mean, he wasn’t a guy who threw his weight around.
And he also enjoyed the stardom of his editors, which is very, very unusual. A lot of people feel competitive with the people they hire, and when they start to become celebrated get very sort of angry about it and feel jealous. That was never true of Si. I mean, he was like a great Hollywood studio owner, and he liked his star studio of all his big writers and his big editors, and he liked that very much. And he actually loved my success, and he was very proud of it.
But he was also very mercurial. He was constantly firing people. He was so restless all the time.
Yeah. You often didn’t know what was going to ... if you were going to get fired or something.
Never knew what was going to happen, and actually, we used to find that January was a very dangerous month, because he would never fire anybody between November and Christmas, because it was Christmas. It was holidays, you know? You don’t fire people on Thanksgiving or whatever, but he was obviously restless. He was dying to do it. So he would go off on, always to Vienna, which he always chose, and I once said to him, “Si, why do you always go to Vienna?” He just said, “Well, it’s very boring there, and people answer the phone on the third ring,” and I thought was so typically Si, you know?
Such a Thurber character, really.
And then he would come back in January, and he would just start firing everybody and rearranging it all, and three publishers would go out the door, and two editors, and he’d buy three things, and I suddenly thought was that was the way he expressed his power. He couldn’t express his power any way except doing that. So sometimes, he got really kind of ... Really made a lot of pieces move very, very fast.
And he often turned on you.
Yeah, he did.
Like, let you down or ...
Yeah, well, he could.
Left you hanging.
He could leave me hanging. He could also suddenly go off and do something which really irritated me, which was having ... You know, when I created Vanity Fair, he would just go off and launch, like, Italian Vanity Fair without speaking to me, and I would suddenly find some Italian in my office saying, you know ...
(In an Italian accent) “Hello. Where is the pictures for the April issue?” And I would think, “Who are you?” He says, “I am the founder in Milan of Vanity Fair.” I’m thinking, you know, like, “Screw that.” It’s like, why wasn’t I even consulted here, you know?
But that’s just the way Si was. He was trying to make the point, “It’s mine, actually.”
It’s mine. It’s my ownership, and stuff like that.
Yeah. Yeah. Mm-hmm.
So one of the other parts is the office politics. I think you get them beautifully, and you don’t know these people, but you start to get to know them, and how you put together, and how to fire people. There’s a lot about management in here of, like, someone that wasn’t on your side who was continuing to be backed by someone from the old administration. There’s a lot of ... I learned a lot of management lessons from in here. I don’t do that quite as much, but it was really interesting.
Well, I’m glad you say that, really, because I do sort of want to try to write a book in a sense as well. I did think about this when I was writing it for sort of young women who are sort of coming into power, how to come into power.
I want to get to that later.
And you have to know how to manage, and there are times when it’s very difficult for me to do that, so particularly when I hired friends. And one of the heroes of the book, actually, oddly, is the HR ...
The lady. Yeah, what’s her name?
Pamela van Zandt, who was known as PVZ, and she was a very glamorous figure to me, oddly, because I’d never met a corporate woman before in London. We just didn’t have corporate women in London at all in that era, in ’84, ’85. And Pam van Zandt, you know, I said she had smooth skin like Scandinavian furniture, you know? She seemed to be so blonde and perfect with her ... Just she was so corporate. I can’t explain why, and she would ...
I remember when I got pregnant, she said to me, when I told her I was pregnant, she said, “That’s very interesting. It will give us a chance to test out our maternity blouses.”
What happened to her? Where did she ...
She actually, in the end, she went off to work at Estee Lauder. I’d like to see her again, because she probably didn’t realize she was going to become a hero to me, but she was, because she had this huge binder of people.
And she also could turn on you at any minute, right?
And she would turn on ...
Like, she’s not working for you. She’s working for her.
Exactly right, and she had this word that she would use, which, coming from London, I also didn’t understand, which was, quote, “To have a conversation.” Now I didn’t know that the phrase, “To have a conversation,” meant to fire somebody’s ass out the door, right? So she’d say, “Tina, would you like me to have a conversation with Tracy?” And I go, “Oh, thank you. Yes, I’d love you to have a conversation with her,” and maybe the next thing I know, Tracy’s out the door with her legs ... She’s gone.
It’s like a mob thing. “Would you like me to take care of it? I’ll take care of it.”
And it was great. It was a sense of ... This wonderful person.
So we’re going to get into the next section about what you think about the book and some of your favorite parts of it, but one of the things, before we finish this section, is that there’s nobody that doesn’t get both eyes of yours, you know what I mean? Negative and positive, which I think is really hard. I don’t think a lot of people do that. When you were doing this, were you nervous about that idea, because this has, I’m sure, pissed a lot of people off, I’m guessing.
Well, I have. I decided ...
It’s brutally honest.
Well, I mean, I felt I had to be truthful or forget about it. I wanted ... I mean, I feel, actually, that most of my book is really very affectionate in the end, because I mean, I loved the people that I worked with, but they frustrated me at moments tremendously, as I did them, without a doubt. So it felt important to keep it in the moment, where, you know ... I mean, at one point, I say about Si Newhouse, he has no balls at all, you know?
But that wasn’t always true at all about Si. I mean, I wouldn’t say that my epitaph of Si is that he has no balls at all. I would say quite the reverse, actually. But you know, in the moment, this is how you feel. So either I was going to do a diary, which meant that sometimes ...
It’s what you thought at the time.
It’s like a teenage girl or whatever.
Swift insights radically expressed, and then move on. And I wanted to do that, and I did obviously make a lot of choices about, you know, has this gone too far? And I felt that I kept it on keel, and that most of the time, people would come out of it thinking, “You know what?” There are a few people I’ve met who have had the negative and the positive. They have not been upset. They felt ... it was what it was.
At least you were truthful.
We’re here with Tina Brown. She was the former editor of Vanity Fair, and we’re talking about her new book called “Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983 - 1992.” We’re also going to talk about some of her other jobs, then finish up talking a little bit more about Vanity Fair and what it meant to culture when we get back.
We’re here with Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair. She’s written a book called “The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983 - 1992.”
Tina, let’s talk about the impact of Vanity Fair, because it really did usher in an age, the Reagan years, essentially, but it was the first time ... It was very internetty in the way it presented itself. It was fast. It was chewy. It was gossipy. It was something else. What did you think you were doing, because you changed magazines. Like, people think you have the finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist.
What I wanted to bring was that sort of high-low European approach to journalism, as it were, into America, because ...
And you talk about that a lot in the book.
Yeah, I mean, the British newspapers actually do that high-low thing at their best very well. I mean, they also do cheesy, horrible things, but at their best, they do mingle the gravitas with the irreverence, and they put it all together with a very sort of raised eyebrow skeptical tone, which I’ve always liked very much. And I very much wanted to have something that was at the front edge of the culture, but on many fronts.
You know, one of the things that had happened when I launched Vanity Fair was that people, for the first couple of years, when we couldn’t make advertisers come in, the major problem was they couldn’t understand really what it was.
You spent a lot of time on advertising lunches.
I spent so much time.
That poor guy. I met that guy. Not him, but people like him.
Yeah. I mean, I kept sitting in these meetings, and they say, “Well, is it a fashion magazine, is it a political magazine, is it a culture magazine, or is it a this magazine?” And I thought, “It’s all of those things.”
You know, I remember I had some little pitch which sounds so ridiculous now, saying, “It’s a cross between the New Yorker and W and the Connoisseur magazine.” I was trying to make them understand it had elements of those things.
It’s the Uber of.
It’s the Uber of. Exactly. So I did a lot of that, and after a time, everybody said, “Oh, well there was a gap in the market,” which makes me laugh mirthlessly, because I realized how damned hard it was to create the market for it, actually.
Right, which is essentially a general interest magazine. It’s just a general interest.
Yeah. A general interest magazine.
So you spent a lot of time when you were doing that, but what were you going for? This idea of high-low, or what was your aim?
My aim was to be at the front of what everybody was talking about that month. I mean, that’s what’s really what drove the magazine, and by that, I really mean satisfying my personal curiosity. I mean, it wasn’t as if I was thinking, “What are everybody else going to be talking about?” It just interested me.
So I think most magazines of any worth, when they first launch and create a DNA, they often then have subsequent editors who sort of follow that DNA in a different fashion, but I think founding editors, it’s about satisfying their curiosity in the sense of a story.
Of what you’re interested in.
Or is interested in me.
And you have a lot of wide-ranging interests too.
Yeah. I am a very curious person. I do have a wide range of interests. I’m politics, culture, celebrity culture, crime. I mean, this is my juice, and I followed my nose for the stories that really excited me.
Right. And what do you think it did to magazines, because it was sort of the last ... You know, ’92 was the beginning of the internet, really. That’s when AOL started. And it was in its early stages, and you haven’t gotten to where we are today, and I do want to talk about that, but you kind of created a ... I’m trying to think of another magazine that was this important. There were others that were tried. JFK tried one, Premiere Magazine, The Ink.
But we built on the legacy of some great American magazines, you know? I mean, in between Vanity Fair of the ’30s, you had Clay Felker’s New York Magazine, which was an incredible magazine.
Right, which was Clay Felker.
You had Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone, which was another incredible magazine. You had Harold Hayes’s Esquire. So we had some great magazines, and I did draw from those. I felt that Clay Felker was one of the very best at putting his finger on the “how we live now” story, and I wanted that genre as well. I thought Harold Hayes’s Esquire did some wonderful personal essays, and I wanted those voices. I mean, Harold Hayes, I think, did an amazing job of realizing that a great magazine has to have this cabaret of voices that keep returning and define the magazine.
He was often swaggering.
Dudes, swaggering dudes. I mean, it was exactly right.
It should be called Dude Magazine.
Mailer. Mailer’s a lot in this book, though. It’s interesting.
Yeah, I love Mailer.
I like having Philip Roth there and him and not wanting to be ... That’s one thing that I really like about this book is because you think about these people as icons, and then they’re just regular people who have problems at dinner parties, you know?
Yeah, well, I mean, and they sort of circle each other like these big cats, you know?
No dinner party was big enough for them.
But you made it seem utterly ridiculous that they were doing that. Like, “Oh, really? That’s who they were?” In an odd way, I deal with a lot of the internet moguls who someday will be iconic, but I knew them when they were sort of petty and small and jerks.
Sure. Yeah, no, well, it’s fun.
They argued over desserts.
One of the things I think that’s fun always is to see very iconic people up close and realize they’re so different on the whole to their massive imagery. I mean, it’s somebody like ... I mean, Warren Beatty was so kind of different in a way for the heartfelt image. I mean, he’s kind of bookish and vague and absent-minded and rumpled, and all the things that you wouldn’t think that Warren Beatty would be. And Michael Jackson, on the other hand, you had such a sort of freakish image, I found sort of shy and sort of otherworldly, almost. He told me that he, after his big concerts, he would go back to his hotel and read the short stories of O’Hara and O. Henry. It was like, “What?” You know, Michael Jackson reading New Yorker short stories? It seems so extraordinarily off-brand, if you like.
But how do we know who he is? I mean, the fact is that he did have another secret life, and it was completely different from the one that everybody wrote about.
Right. So you run Vanity Fair with great success, and then went over to the New Yorker? I want to go from beyond this book.
Sure. Sure. And the epilogue ends with me going into this room full of men in horn-rimmed glasses ...
... Looking at me as if I’m about to put Demi Moore on the cover of the New Yorker.
And you had written about Bob Gottlieb, who you didn’t like, and the way he ran that. Was that a mistake for you to do that, or did you ...
No, I mean, I think the New Yorker was ...
Yes, you did change it.
I changed it completely, and I think the New Yorker was probably one of the happiest seven years of my life. I mean, it was ... The stakes were so high. I mean, that felt like “Mission: Impossible” at the beginning, but we did absolutely turn it around.
I mean, we updated it, and completely updated it, and I let go 50 people. I brought in another 50, and of the 50 I brought in — I brought in, you know, David Remnick, who I hired from the Washington Post, Malcolm Gladwell, Ken Auletta, Jeffrey Toobin, Jane Mayer.
Everyone who’s there now.
Everyone who’s there now, yeah. So I mean, they were a wonderful staff.
Do you think you get credit for that? Because one of the things that it has been through your career is, and I find it unfair, I know you’re tough. I get that, and I know you’ve rubbed people the wrong way, but it’s really interesting how people talk about you versus Remnick, for example.
Well, Remnick himself, actually, has been very generous about ...
He really has. I mean, he’s always given me this sort of very sort of generous credit for having created the magazine that he now edits, which he’s done a brilliant job with.
Right. Weird factoid, I used to drive him home from the Washington Post. We lived near each other when we were young.
I love how ...
That he’s so brilliant, and he’s so versatile too. He was always the big star when I was there. One of the things that was wonderful about Remnick is he was always the one who said yes. There’s always that moment when everyone’s exhausted, you’re going home, huge news breaks, “Oh my god. We’re going to press.” Somebody’s got to write a new comment at the front of the magazine, and he would always be the person who’d say, “I will do it.” And he would sit down ...
Do it seconds.
... And write something fantastic, you know? And so I love him forever, indeed, and a day.
But you know, now I think women on the whole tend to get ... I’ve said before that women have to be gold for a silver job, you know? You sort of feel you have to tap dance faster. You have to earn more awards and have more ... We’ll work 13 times harder to get half the amount of pats on the back, and that’s just true of so many women that I know, and it was probably true of me.
Right. What were you trying to go for at the New Yorker? What was your goal there?
Well, the New Yorker, I wanted to wake up the sleeping beauty. I mean, to me, I was very, very clear what I wanted to do with the New Yorker. I felt that it was a literary jewel that had become overgrown with ivy and a sense of its own importance, and it had no visual appeal at all. I mean, in one of my first things I did, as I did at the New Yorker, and I think people underestimate the visual sense.
At Vanity Fair, you mean?
At Vanity Fair. You know, a visual sense is very important if you’re going to edit magazines with ...
Right, and in Vanity Fair, you brought in Annie Leibovitz, who was ...
Annie Leibovitz, and Helmut Newton, and Herb Ritts, and all of those wonderful photographers, and we redesigned it. At the New Yorker, I realized it had to be redesigned immediately, and very carefully. So I actually went back and studied the New Yorker of the ’20s and ’30s, which had been edited by Harold Ross.
And people don’t think about the New Yorker in those terms at all. They think of William Shawn’s New Yorker, because he was there for 40 years, subsequently.
A word church, if you like.
A word church. That’s a great way to put it.
Yeah, with covers of park benches covered in leaves, very decorous, very timid.
It’s like an NPR intro, you know? “Here in the village ...”
Yes, in a lowered voice. And I felt, “No, let’s go back to the Harold Ross New Yorker,” because Harold Ross had full-page cartoons, which people don’t realize. I mean, Peter Arno and Charles Addams, who were the really hot social buzzing people of the day, did these great full-page drawings, covers that were far more kind of racy. I mean, some of those Charles Addams, those Peter Arno covers, were just so racy, you know?
So I wanted to bring back some of that, and also, it had a variety of length, you know? The Talk of the Town was actually little snippets, really, that were, like, 250-word pieces, incredibly. I never quite managed to get them back down to 250 words. I did want to. And I took a lot of the rubrics of the magazine, like Shouts and Murmurs, and Annals of Personal History, and all of that.
Yeah, Annals of Journalism.
And I would bring those, and I brought all of those back into the magazine and did a sort of retro facelift. I took it back to a sparked-up version of the Harold Ross magazine, and as a result, it looked exactly right, I think, as it came out, which was wonderful. So it had a very good reception straight away.
What was different from doing Vanity Fair? Vanity Fair was like, “La la la la,” like, real loud.
Yeah, yeah. Vanity Fair was a Big Top. It was a big circus. It was colorful. It was jazzy. It was ...
And the New Yorker was the Sleeping Beauty. It was a tower, really, an academic tower in a sense. I love being able to go back to my own literary roots, because when I began journalism before Tatler, I was writing for the New Statesman, which was really like a ... It was a literary weekly like the New Republic, in a sense, and I thought how exciting it was just to be able to work with writers on their stories and not have to keep wondering about when Madonna was available to Herb Ritts’s photo shoot or ...
You know, I haven’t got time for that.
I didn’t want to get into the celebrity wrangling.
Yeah, exactly. I did all that. I was tired of celebrity wrangling. I was a bit tired of the celebrity stuff in general, and I thought I wanted to raise my game again, and I did, I think, and you know, we ... When I went in, I thought, “I’m tired of these big long pieces in the New Yorker. I’m going to cut them all back.” But then I realized that there were many pieces that needed a lot of length, and I did a whole issue, a 50,000 word piece I did on a massacre in El Salvador by Mark Danner, you know? And I did a lot of pieces in the New Yorker which were very sort of profoundly rich and long and actually did raise my game a lot with all of these great writers.
Right. And so you’re there seven years, and then by the time you leave, the internet is suddenly a thing.
It is, but that wasn’t so much ... It was that offstage thing that was happening, where people were relegated to another room to do the ...
It was like all of these newspapers were starting internet arms, and they would do things like, I think the Washington Post put everybody across the river or in some other side.
They did. They put everyone across the river.
So it was like a black site. It was like some CIA rendition.
It was union. It was because of union.
To work on the digital stuff was to be sort of relegated to be the person who had been kicked out of the newsroom where all the ...
It’s very metaphorical.
Very metaphorical. So I mean, yeah, that stuff was happening, but it wasn’t really ... What I did want to do, though, and the reason I ... It really was the reason I left the New Yorker, was I wanted the New Yorker to be more than a magazine, and being restless ...
With the brand. You were a brand person.
Yeah, I did. I went to Si, and I said to him, “I want the New Yorker to be a book company, a radio show.”
Making movies. Yeah, and I had tried to persuade him to do that at Vanity Fair. In fact, I tried, at the end of the ’90s. At the end of the “Diaries” there’s an entry where I talk about bringing in this terrific TV producer from ABC, Susan Mercandetti, and she had pitched doing a Vanity Fair show, and Si never wanted to know. It was one of his most irritating traits, I have to say, was he would start to shake his head from side to side before you’d finished the sentence.
So I used to learn to put everything in writing, because it made me crazy when I’d say, “So what I’d like to do is a TV show and ...” And he’d start nodding, “No, no, no.” And I wanted just to shake him and say, “Listen!” You know?
Yes, yes, yes.
But he didn’t, and so I left the New Yorker, because along comes Harvey Weinstein, who at that time is doing wonderful films, you know? He was doing “The English Patient.”
And other things, as it turns out.
Well, as it turns out, but what I saw was “The English Patient” was ... “Shakespeare in Love” was ... “My Left Foot” was my beautiful. Everything I ever liked he seemed to have done, and he said, “You know what you should be doing is a magazine that’s also a book company and a movie company.”
So I thought, “Wait a minute. This guy’s speaking my language.” You know?
He’s a rough diamond. Okay. It’s not going to be easy, but I need that shaking up, like after 18 years in the French court of Louis XIV, it will be exciting for me to now be in the entrepreneurial rough and tumble of this world.
Do you think you’re entrepreneurial?
I do think I’m entrepreneurial, but I think I also need a business partner to then take all my spinning plates and ...
Right, because you sort of ... I mean, in that way, you did see the writing on the wall that things were changing in terms of entrepreneur, and you do write about them. Like, I’ll find it in a second, but you were in the top job in magazine journalism, really, pretty much, at the New Yorker.
Right. I was. I was. It was the best job.
And a lot of people just desiccate in those jobs, as far as I can tell.
Yeah. I tend to feel that eight to 10 years is about the right amount of time to be in one place.
It’s almost like running a TV show, right?
Yeah, and unless you’re going to span it out. I mean, Remnick’s been there longer, but he’s doing all these other wonderful things, which are the things that I suggested doing a long time ago, although, of course, there were no podcasts in those days.
But so I left to go with Harvey, and of course, immediately, within 20 minutes, I realized that was just a giant mistake, because ...
Although you had one of the biggest parties. A disastrous party.
Listen, that was the best party of the freaking 20th century.
It was so crazy.
It was crazy, at the Statue of Liberty.
Yeah, we had this party at the Statue of Liberty where the whole thing went completely into the stratosphere. It was like the additional effect of what I would usually do, amped up by 30,000 by having Harvey as a partner.
And you know, so we took over the Statue of Liberty, and we had these barges arriving. I called it the ship of fools, because it was, like, every celebrity, it was an ark. It like a Noah’s Ark of celebrity culture, and they came two by two. Madonna and Demi Moore, and Salman Rushdie and Henry Kissinger. It was completely mad.
Oh man. He floats around your boat.
He floats around, and there was no electricity on the island.
“Let’s do the conga.” Sorry.
I know. So it was like that, and we had all these Chinese Lanterns hanging, and we have Macy Gray who just hadn’t really been discovered yet being the band, and George Clinton doing the fireworks. It was absolutely amazing. I have no regrets.
Except that it set me up for the most devastating collapse.
Yes, it did. It certainly did. So what ... We’ll get to Harvey Weinstein in a second, but what were you trying to do with Talk? I mean, because Talk was the first multimedia ... You know, Martha Stewart was doing it.
I love Talk magazine, and you know, one of the things that’s very funny to me, on this book tour even, is that there are certain people, there’s always, like, one woman in four, one person in four comes up and says, with a copy of Talk magazine, and says, “You know, I want to tell you that I love Talk magazine,” and I want to throw my arms around them and say, “Join my lifeboat.”
No, I mean, I had a very, very strong image of what I wanted to do with Talk.
I now wanted to do, what I thought ... I was obsessed, because I do get obsessed, with European news magazines, right? I love magazines like Paris Match.
No, Paris Match, Stern in Germany. I love those magazines. Slightly thinner paper, and covers with multiple images on them, right?
So you’ll have four images. You won’t have a big fat celebrity face. You’ll have a picture of, as it were, Mark Zuckerberg, and a picture of, as it were, Ashley Judd, and a picture ... You know, you’d have the zeitgeist on the cover.
And I loved that idea. Nobody was doing that, actually, and I liked having it not perfect bound, but with a staple through it. I had a very strong feeling of what it should be, and I wanted it to be somewhat oversized, like Paris Match was.
And there was a Dutch magazine called Twin in the ’60s, actually, that was my model, which is one of my obsessions. So I hired this, the whole concept was to do that. I did not want to do Vanity Fair again. Otherwise, why would I have left? And I didn’t want to do the New Yorker again, otherwise, why would I have left? I had this other idea.
But Harvey did not like that idea. I mean, it turns out it was a classic thing. I was once told by the director Sam Spiegel, he said, “You have to make sure you’re all making the same movie.”
Right, right. That’s a very good quote.
And so everybody goes blithely on their way. Everybody has a different vision in their mind. It turns out Harvey wanted me to do another Vanity Fair, and he really wanted me to do another Vanity Fair, I then realized, as I got into it, to grow his own power base, to assign stories that would then keep them from writing about him, and to basically have a media power base which enabled him to wield power over journalists.
Even more, right.
Yeah, which we know now why he was so keen to wield power over journalists. So that really was the clash right from the beginning is that he wanted ...
And you hadn’t discussed this in advance?
Well, I thought I had, but he obviously wasn’t listening. You know, the fact is, people don’t listen when they want something.
So when the first issue came out and was absolutely a huge success. I mean, it was the reverse of ...
Who was on the ... What was the cover?
Oh, it was an amazing issue. It’s still an amazing issue. It had ... It’s a scoop ... It had Hillary Clinton, and we had the first interview ever given about Monica Lewinsky. We had George Bush, candidate, George W. Bush by Tucker Carlson, who was our political writer. Our political writers were Jake Tapper and Tucker Carlson in their early days.
We had a great little picture of, I think it was ... It was a murder. I know that. Typical of me, but it was. Oh, I know what it was. It was an investigation into the death of Princess Diana in the new lawsuit against the El Fayed. So we had this wonderful mix on the cover and lots of scoops, and we made enormous news, particularly with the Hillary piece, which ended up being one of those huge sensation pieces, because she said the famous words, “It was a sin of weakness,” about Monica, about Bill Clinton, which went everywhere, sin of weakness.
So that was absolutely huge, and then after that, we had to keep following up, and I had spent probably way too much of my story capital on the first issue. But mostly, Harvey hated the way it looked, and he wanted me to turn it into Vanity Fair. So we had these battles, which really kind of destabilized me as an editor, because I wasn’t used to having somebody interfere. I just wasn’t handling it.
I didn’t handle that well.
And he was able to do that?
Well, he would berate you, and he would continually bully and shout, and want what he wanted, and humiliate, and denigrate, and it’s hard, hard, very hard to keep your focus when you’re working in that kind of situation. And you know, I began to kind of lose my sense of ...
20 minutes in, you were like, “Oh.”
Yeah, 20 minutes in, I hated it, but I had an amazing team there. I mean, I had Maer Roshan, who’s absolutely fantastic. I had Jonathan Mahler, who went to the New York Times, and Janna Metunya went to the New York Times, and Sam Sifton, who became the New York Times food editor. It was everybody at the New York Times, actually, after we folded. So they were an immensely good team, and it was a great magazine, I think.
But the battle about what it should be began to afflict the pages. I mean, you could see that it lost focus, and Harvey won. I mean, he said, “You have to make it glossy, and you have to make it ...” And I never liked the way it looked after that. I liked the way it looked when it came out.
When it came out. All right. We’re here talking to Tina Brown. We’re talking about Talk magazine and Harvey Weinstein, of all things. When we get back, we’re going to talk more about that, and also how she moved into the internet with The Daily Beast, and where she thinks things are right now for magazine and regular journalism.
We’re here with Tina Brown. She’s the former editor of Vanity Fair, and her book is called “The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983 - 1992,” as she presided over probably one of the most successful relaunches of a magazine in history, I think, one of them. One that became one of the most iconic magazines for sure, and later, she went on to edit the New Yorker, Talk magazine, which we’ve just been talking about, and The Daily Beast, which is an online publication.
Let’s finish up with Harvey Weinstein. I think everyone’s asking those things. Were you aware of these?
No, I wasn’t. I mean, ultimately, I didn’t hang with Harvey. I really didn’t. And it was after hours, it was in his office. I never hung with Harvey.
And you hadn’t heard the rumors?
No, I had not heard those rumors, no. I mean, I assume that he was someone who it was girls galore, you know?
But I never saw it, actually.
And were you surprised just recently when you ... You had dealt with him on a bullying level, a berating level.
I wasn’t surprised on one level, and I was very surprised on another. I had no idea it was so assaultive, that there was rape. I really didn’t. I mean, I thought he was just a gross, you know, a womanizer. I didn’t think that he was an abusive person in that sense. I just didn’t see it. It was a shocking thing. I mean, I’ve been shocked again and again.
What didn’t shock me, though, was the fact that he had ex-Mossad agents, because Harvey was so paranoid, it was one of the things that I first noticed about him. I thought, “Why is this man, who seems such a kind of big Daddy Warbucks ...”
Yeah, mogul. He was ... The slightest negative comment, anything, you know, if you said that he arrived late and seemed sleepy, he would go ballistic and mean, conducting huge inquiries as to who said this, and how they said it, and fire the person who would remotely ... It was really extraordinary how thin-skinned he was, which speaks to a deep insecurity.
Trumpian. Funny enough, I’ve said that about him, is that, yeah, the person he most reminds me of is Trump, this kind of bizarre, mountainous ...
Who you wrote a lot of about in a lot of your magazine.
Yeah. Constantly. Yeah, yeah.
Right. So we’ll talk about Trump in a second. But you were here, and how many issues did you put out before it just went ...
There was two years of issues.
Two years of issues?
And what happened?
What happened, actually, was that it got horrible schadenfreude press, and kind of relentlessly so, and there comes a point where ... It’s just endless. It affects advertisers, actually, so I was constantly trying to battle that.
But actually, we had got beyond that by the second year, and it was really looking much better in terms of the whole business picture. But then 9/11 happened, and all the advertisers, as you probably remember, sort of went into this hideous kind of wait-and-see mode, where they just didn’t want to commit to budgets.
Right, which makes sense.
And we were ... You had to be part of a big company to be able to sustain that weight, if you like, and so we were facing a lot of losses, and basically, Harvey just didn’t want to wait any longer, and he pulled the plug. I mean, I don’t fully blame him, really. I mean, he was going to have to lose money, and had lost money, and you know. But he also was a factor in the losing money, so my major sadness was I thought it was really a very good magazine.
Mm-hmm. So you then found yourself having edited all these things, and definitely, there was a lot of schadenfreude around that magazine.
It was unusual.
Oh, it was really bitter, critical.
Really, people were quite cruel, almost.
They were rooting for it to fail. I understand. I’d had two successes, and you know ...
And you were tough, too. You didn’t pull any punches.
And I was tough. I’d made enemies. I’d rejected a lot of pieces. I mean, you know, that starts to stack up, and then when things go wrong, they pounce.
But I was okay. I went off for two years, and I wrote my book on Princess Diana, and that was a wonderfully sort of salving thing to do. It was back to who I was. I had a wonderful time with my children. I wrote my book. I was thoroughly sort of healed by that whole process.
So by the time I finished the book, Barry Diller, who’d been calling me while I was writing it, wanted me to come work with him and start something online. And I kept saying, “No, I’m writing my book on Diana. I’m not an online person. I don’t want to do it. I’m done with all of that.” You know? I really didn’t think I was going to go back to editing, actually.
And he said, “No, come on. We’re not finished here.” He said, “Come in and do this.” He said, “You know, if you don’t like it, it doesn’t matter. You can try and create something. Maybe I’ll like it and do it, or I won’t like it, but let’s just ... No strings, just come in and create something online that has your kind of sensibility with news.”
So I came in, and at first, I didn’t think I was going to like doing this at all, but I sat with Brandon Ralph at Code and Theory, who was an incredibly talented digital designer and conceiver of online ...
It’s a very Code and Theory site.
Yeah, it is. And I wanted to do something that felt like a glossy, upscale tabloid. I felt how exciting it would be to have the tabloid flavor of energy, but designed in a way that was kind of glamorous, and yet also was very intelligent and had ...
Dishy. It was very dishy.
Yeah, dishy and intelligent at the same time. Again, the high-low thing. When the high stuff was very, very good, and you have people like Simon Sharma writing for it, but then the dishy stuff was also really fun. And I called it The Daily Beast because that was the name of the Fleet Street newspaper in Evelyn Waugh’s novels, and I wanted it to have that sort of retro tabloid flair.
Scoop. Right, yeah.
Yeah, scoop thing. And I mean, I think it had a nice identity from the beginning. I think the title was one of the reasons, actually, because it immediately said, “This is antic, this is a little bit retro chic.” And I did everything the opposite for Talk. I said, “I don’t even want to say this is coming out. It is the opposite of the Liberty Island Noah’s Ark.”
No party. Absolutely no party. We will launch this. We’ve got to get it out before the 2008 election so we can ride that wave, but we will just sneak it out. One day, we’ll post.
Right. Well, you were a digital person. You had watched Arianna, I guess. She’s in your book quite a bit.
Yeah, yeah, I had.
I love your depictions of her. She’s a survivor.
I mean, Arianna was a very old friend. I love her to death. I’ve known her for 40 years, I’ve known her since she was Cambridge and I was at Oxford, right? We came here together, in a sense.
You know, when she came to Uber, they were all making fun of her, as usual, and I was like, “Don’t turn your back on her, ever.”
Oh, she’s smart, and she has so much EQ.
You will be eaten, and you will enjoy it in some weird, strange way.
She’s amazing. She really is.
Well, she’s something. Yeah.
And so yeah, I watched that. I thought that was incredibly smart of her, and I also know that, you know, I’ve always wanted to edit a newspaper, so in a way, this was my chance to edit a newspaper.
Right. But you had no digital background. What did you think of the internet at the time?
At the time, I was rather scared of it. I kind of thought ...
Facebook had just started, really.
Yeah, I was kind of afraid of it. But then, from the first moment that we posted our first piece, and for the first time that I realized that designing it with Brandon was very exciting, it was so responsive, you know? And you could create things that were just so kind of expansive, expanding on what I had ever done before, that I loved that whole design process.
And from the moment we posted our first few pieces, I was totally hooked. Within a few days, we published, very early on, a piece by Christopher Buckley where he endorsed Barack Obama. And of course, being from the Republican Buckley family, it made tremendous news. And I remember thinking it was like ... It must be like going fishing and getting a salmon on a hook or something, because you suddenly felt the tweaking and the tweaking of the internet, and the explosion of traffic, and we watched the Chartbeat thing going right up, you know? More and more and more and more.
Did you understand how quick the cycles were? Because you had been on a magazine cycle. One of the things I’ve always noticed about old media people is they’re so slow. And they’re like, “Wow, that was fast.” I’m like, “What? No, it wasn’t.” I move very quickly.
Very quickly. Well, I’ve always been very speedy. In fact, the criticism of me is that I’m tearing things up. I’m speeding, you know. So actually, for me, it was finding a medium that was commensurate to my own impatience, actually, and it fitted very well with my impatience.
What I came to love was being able to sit in a café with my Blackberry, as I then had, and just be reading, reading, reading, and assigning, assigning, assigning, and finding how receptive people were if you could get them about the things they were interested in at the moment that they were interested in them, which is the great joy of being a digital editor, because you’re literally sitting and reading and you’re thinking, “I know who’ll have something to say about that, and I know who’ll be sitting there thinking, ‘I’m really just boiling to say something.’” Get them at six o’clock in the morning.
Is there anything that surprised you about internet editing?
I was surprised at the quality of what I could get, frankly, for very tiny sums of money. I mean, we only had a budget to pay 250 bucks a piece, but if you can tap into the passions of writers, that’s what I love about writers. I mean, their desire to say something, and say it in a place where other people they know will read it.
I mean, the great important thing for writers, I think, is to know you’re being read, and that you’re being read by people who you respect. So for us, we had to create, in The Daily Beast, and I think we did, an intelligent playground. And in that intelligent playground, we could get anyone to come and play, because they came to realize they got great traction. They’d write a piece, and they’d have 20 emails.
And that’s just worth everything. Writers feel orphaned right now. They don’t get any response. Nobody ever replies to their emails. Most editors really ... They don’t really care, it seems. There are plenty of editors that do care, but you know, there’s a sense that writers and editors themselves are so harried by the world they’re in, they’re so pushed around and so kind of doing things that in too much with less money, and so they’re often quite ... You know, they don’t get back to people, because they are hassled.
So writers feel very orphaned, you know? And so I think if you can show love to writers, and if you can respond quickly and say, “Great piece. Can you do this?” it’s amazing what people will write for you.
So what do you make of what has happened in the content space around the internet? Because really, all the action is happening there now. Even the New York Times, even all of them. How do you look at it? So you left Daily Beast because?
I left Daily Beast because after — what it was, six years, I think, five, six years — again, I felt I had launched there a new conference. You know, The Women in the World Summit, and I got very absorbed by that, and I felt The Women in the World Summit is what I wanted to develop, and that it was enough of doing this at The Daily Beast, and I wanted to kind of ...
It’s exhausting, isn’t it?
It’s exhausting, exactly, and I felt I wanted now to do something that enabled us to have deep conversations at a lesser adrenaline turnover. But and that’s all ... It has it’s own exhaustions, as you well know.
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I do know. I do them all.
You know, I know. That’s what’s so impressive about you. You are mighty.
But when you think about what’s happened, there’s a couple people, I think, who really, at least, they’re trying to shift. Arianna was one of them. You were one of them. There’s a couple of people that do it. Others are very, are still hoping this internet thing goes away, it feels like.
No, the internet’s completely won. Screens have won, and it’s all won.
So how do you look at it? What has it done to journalism? What has it done to magazines?
Well, look, I am very angry and upset about the way that advertising revenue has been essentially pirated by the Facebook, Google world, without nearly enough giveback, no giveback, really, to the people who create those brilliant pieces that are posted all over their platforms. And I think it’s high time that they gave back to journalism. I mean, you know, I do think that they should create a huge journalism fund for journalists, which could fund local journalists, can fund new periodicals.
I don’t think they care whatsoever.
They have no interest. No, I realize that. I’m just telling you what I think they should do.
But they won’t.
They want all the money and none of the responsibility.
Right, exactly right.
Being a media company in the modern age.
That’s exactly right. It’s, “Oh, we’re not a media company. We’re a quote ‘platform.’” Okay, well, guess what? I mean, when you don’t have human beings who have judgment, who have taste, who have a sense of responsibility, you can have any old Russian hacker dishing it out to the American public.
Right, which is what happened, but they do make the point that there are so many billions of transactions happening in any one day.
They can make the point all they like, but we well know that opinion-forming influential content, it’s very hard to find and support and have an impact with. I think the major problem is, with so much, there isn’t enough impact for the things that are important, and people don’t know what is important or where to find it. So it doesn’t wash to basically say, “There’s so many transactions. Everybody can find it.” I mean, it’s a needle in a haystack for so many people.
What do you think they’re doing to this? Let’s end talking about Trump. He’s the Tweeter in Chief, essentially, has used these platforms very deftly. Russians or no, he still uses them. A lot of our discourses happening becomes fractured. There seems to be no intelligence in any of it anymore. A lot of times, these magazines and news shows used to lead the way, you know? There was a cohesiveness. Maybe it was a monoculture of people of New York, largely white people, largely men, but what do you think’s happening now, in this space? There’s some excitement, but at the same time ...
I welcome the diversity of voices, and I welcome the way the digital media allows so many people who would never find a way in to express themselves, and many great voices are coming out that wouldn’t have had that chance, and also, it’s convening power in terms of making things important is a fantastic addition.
What I miss, though, is the ability to marshal an audience around an important subject and know that you can speak to that big audience and know that that audience is going to understand that this, because you’re speaking to them, that it is actually an important and believable avenue. And that’s what I think has greatly been lost, which is why people are ... They’re so confused about what’s happening in the world, and they’re very stressed, actually, because half the time, people don’t know what is true.
I also am very concerned by what I think of as the flash mob of social media, that a flash mob can suddenly form, very, very quickly, around a person, and wow. Suddenly their reputation is shredded, and they’re sent spinning by a dissent of 1,000 people writing abusive stuff about them. And it’s a frightening thing, actually. It can actually lead to, I think, a lot of stress and a lot of dangerous emotions, which could ultimately lead to violence.
And I think we’ve also seen the empowering of a lot of very delinquent voices, in a sense, that in the past would be some crazy person muttering in a bar. And all of a sudden, there’s a huge community around those voices.
Right, exactly. And they have influence and power, and they can multiply and so on, and I think that adds to the toxicity of the culture. So there’s a lot of things to worry about.
What would you do if you were ... How do you think Trump uses it, just in that ...?
Well, Trump is a ... Look, let’s face it. I mean, Trump is a brilliant user of the medium, and one thing I think that you’ve got to salute Trump for is he really understands how to express himself in a memorable, pungent and instantly communicating way, you know?
I mean, he says things that people remember, and that’s gifted. You have to recognize that. He is good at that. Unfortunately, he’s also able to just put absolute crass mendacity into the world and has millions of people believing it, because he has so many followers.
I haven’t heard mendacity since I saw a Tennessee Williams play. I don’t ...
Mendacity. That means lies, people who need to look it up on Google.
So let’s end talking just briefly about what, if you were Tina Brown, 25 years old but coming out of Oxford today, where would you go, and what would you do?
I think I’d go to India, actually.
I want to know what you’re doing next.
I think I will go to India.
Because India’s just full of vibrant literary culture. It’s absolutely fabulous, India. I mean, it’s got so many ... It still believes in print. It’s got a lot of really terrific literary magazines. It has just a kind of collective intellectual debate class, still, in a way, that’s just exciting to be around. It’s very exciting, India is, actually. And it’s got a still sort of discovering how to express things, and you know, online in a way that’s very interesting.
So I might go there, but on the other hand, I might find living in Delhi at 25 rather dangerous.
Yeah. There’s a story about how bad the air is in India right now. If you had to work at an internet company, where would you work?
I want to work for Recode.
Oh, no, you can’t do that.
I don’t have enough money, Tina.
No, no, no. I would I want to go where I felt there was a pungent strong editor who could teach me things.
Oh, no. I think you’re doing just fine.
No, no. No, I’m not. I mean, the main thing that young people who I speak to want is they really want to attach themselves to somebody smart who can teach them something, because so many kids now are just told to kind of sit there at their screens and just post.
Type, right. Yeah, and just type.
And they don’t know whether what they wrote was any good.
Nothing. I call them raised by wolves.
They’re raised by wolves, and so they’re longing to have somebody say ... I have. I was lucky. When I first wrote, I was writing for the editor of the New Statesman, who was so high, severe. You would write this stuff, “This is not good enough. This sentence doesn’t make any sense. What are you trying to tell me?” And it was scary, and I loved him, because he taught me.
Right. So of all the internet companies, which one do you feel is the most important, when you think about, from a journalism perspective. What is the one that you ...
Let me see what I’m interested in. Well, I still read my Daily Beast every day. I like what Axios are doing. I think I marvel at what they’ve started. I like all kinds of things. I like France 24. I like reading that. What else do I read every morning? I read so many things every day. I like Vox, actually. I think it’s a very smart site. I think the New Yorker are doing good stuff now online. The Washington Post I now read every day, which I didn’t.
“Democracy dies in darkness.” That’s a great story, how they decided to do that.
I know. It’s wonderfully sort of Shakespearean, isn’t it?
Yeah, I love it. They tested it. It was supposed to be Democracy something. It was something else. It was shorter, and then they decided to just go whole hog, whole, like, very dark, and you know.
I think it’s great.
Yeah, me too.
Go all in.
Yeah, exactly. So when you think about who’s going to be important in journalism over the next couple years, if you had to look at all the ... Obviously, Apple’s getting into stuff, YouTube, Google, Facebook. Do you see any of them helping journalism move forward?
Well, I have sort of high hopes about what Apple might do, actually.
Because, well, I think that Apple’s always had such a high sense of quality, you know? I think it’s always been ... You know, Steve Jobs was a typographer himself, and so he always cared about design, and he cared about ... There’s a sense of excellence there that has always been about rejection of the mediocre.
So I’m hoping that they might step into being ... To do something really good in journalism, because ultimately, we can’t keep on just impoverishing and draining journalism as we are. I mean, it’s tragic to see how great journalists, I mean, really good ones, are unable to scarcely get by. People who are earning a living wage are having to kind of scrape together three to four gigs to earn just about the nut to send their kid to college.
It’s certainly changing. It’s certainly changing. And what are you doing next? You write this book, and then what?
Well, I’m growing my Women in the World platform.
Women in the World platform.
Yeah, yeah. I love doing it. I have a very talented staff who are putting out very strong journalistic live material, so I love doing that. I’d like to kind of expand that, the voices of that, I think, now, so that you see the world through the eyes of women, not as a kind of women’s issues sort of, you know? I don’t want to do that, but I love hearing from women who you don’t normally hear from all over the world about the stories of the day, and that’s what I’d like to do.
Right, and would you start a company, another company, another magazine?
I never say never to anything, quite honestly, you know? I mean, I’m a news junkie, so I miss that, I suppose. I mean, I miss actually the Daily Beast energy more than I expected to, in the end, because it was actually a great outlet for my news gene.
Yeah. You say that in the book. “It all suggests the need for an entrepreneurial financial independence so you’re not at the mercy of the whims of our masters,” when you were talking about Si Newhouse there. But the idea.
No, no. I think that’s absolutely right.
Will there be another magazine?
Who knows? It wouldn’t be a ... I don’t think it would be a print magazine anymore. I’ve decided that when I took over Newsweek that it was a mistake.
Oh, right. I forgot Newsweek.
Yeah, well, you’d do well to do that.
Oh my goodness.
Again, we had the most amazing staff in that magazine, but it was like having an affair with your ex-husband, you know? I mean, ultimately, it was like, “What am I doing back in print? It doesn’t work to have ... This business model doesn’t work.”
Oh man. How did they get you to do it?
Oh god. I don’t know. I was deluded. But I do wish ... I tell you who I am excited about is Radhika Jones, the editor of Vanity Fair.
Yes. Oh yeah, so we forgot. Let me finish on that.
Yeah. I think Radhika Jones is a really great choice. She’s younger. She’s very literary background, but she knows how to put magazines together. I do believe that she’ll bring a sort of fresh eye completely on Vanity Fair, which has fabulous DNA and is a wonderful magazine, but now as time goes on, the wheels will turn again, and for it to let in new influences.
Right. I think that’ll be interesting. She’s a really interesting choice, and we were ... We had gotten a tip that it was someone that I couldn’t figure out. Of course, this stupid person said, “It’s someone you can’t figure out.” And I was like, “Now I know.” And I had a few clues, but it’s a really interesting and surprising choice, which was kind of interesting.
On that note, Tina Brown, thank you so much. You’re a riveting person. I think you could do whatever you ... You could leave right now and leave the stage if you felt like it, but I’m glad you’re still working.
Again, we’re here with Tina Brown. She’s a former editor of Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, The Daily Beast, Talk, and I forgot Newsweek. Sorry. You’re going to have to mention that in there. And she’s the author of a new book that I really recommend. It is very funny, and sad, and poignant, and a really great testament to the times that she was editing Vanity Fair. It’s called “The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983 - 1992,” and I just love it. You really should buy it. I don’t recommend that many books, and this is one I do.
Anyway, Tina, it was great talking to you. Thank you for coming on the show.
Thank you, Kara.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.