Facebook Prince Purges The New Republic: Inside the Destruction of a 100-Year-Old Magazine
Facebook billionaire Chris Hughes and his lieutenant from Yahoo gut one of journalism's great publications, setting off waves of resignations and tears.
When Facebook billionaire Chris Hughes, the owner of The New Republic, and TNR’s newly installed CEO, former Yahoo News executive Guy Vidra, visited the storied magazine’s Washington headquarters on Friday morning to meet with the staff, they were greeted by a skeleton crew of a few editorial interns and junior employees.
Hughes’s and Vidra’s decision to abruptly change the 100-year-old journal of politics, policy, art and culture into what Hughes calls a “digital media company” and relocate to Manhattan—and in the process get rid of top editor Franklin Foer, who has run the magazine on and off since 2006, and literary editor Leon Wieseltier, a major figure at TNR since the early 1980s—has prompted a mass exodus by more than two dozen senior editors and writers. Among the brand-name TNR veterans who submitted their resignations Friday were senior editors John B. Judis, Julia Ioffe, Jeff Rosen, Jason Zengerle, Judith Shulevitz, and Alec MacGillis. At least a dozen contributing editors have also demanded to be removed from the masthead, and the list is expected to keep growing as the day goes on.
A letter of resignation to Chris Hughes was signed by 10 contributing editors, including Ryan Lizza, poet and literary critic Helen Vendler and Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz:
“Dear Mr. Hughes,
“We are contributing editors of The New Republic, and our commitment to the venerable principles of the magazine requires us now to resign. Please remove our names from the masthead.
Paul Berman,Jonathan Chait,William Deresiewicz,Ruth Franklin,Anthony Grafton,Enrique Krauze,Ryan Lizza,Sacha Z. Scoblic,Helen Vendler,Sean Wilentz.”
Hughes, apparently taken by surprise, issued the following statement: "I am saddened by the loss of such great talent, many of whom have played an important role in making The New Republic so successful in the past. It has been a privilege to work with them, and I wish them only the best. This is a time of transition, but I am excited to work with our team—both new and old alike—as we pave a new way forward. The singular importance of The New Republic as an institution can and will be preserved, because it's bigger than any one of us." Such warm expressions of devotion would come as news to Foer and Wieseltier.
“Leon said he’s never seen any editor be so disrespected and dicked around—I’m paraphrasing—as Frank has been treated for the last couple of months,” said senior editor Julia Ioffe, describing the meeting Thursday afternoon in the newsroom, at which Wieseltier and Foer announced that they’d quit.
“It was like the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones.”
“Frank told people that this would the best job he’d ever have, that he loved working at The New Republic,” Ioffe continued. “Leon said that we shouldn’t be depressed and think this is all about clicks, that we should retain our lofty ideas about journalism and making an impact on the world through journalism, through writing and ideas, and not through ‘digital media companies.’ He said—and this a quote—‘This is the best fucking thing I’ve ever done in my little life.’”
Ioffe—who had yet to pack up her office belongings Thursday evening but was among the TNR staffers not expected to return to the newsroom just above the Spy Museum in downtown Washington—said Foer and Wieseltier received a tearful standing ovation from the two dozen staffers present. “People have been crying all afternoon,” she added.
Lizza tweeted Friday morning:
Late Friday, a statement released from 19 former editors and writers at The New Republic read:
“As former editors and writers for The New Republic, we write to express our dismay and sorrow at its destruction in all but name.
From its founding in 1914, The New Republic has been the flagship and forum of American liberalism. Its reporting and commentary on politics, society, and arts and letters have nurtured a broad liberal spirit in our national life.
The magazine’s present owner and managers claim they are giving it new relevance while remaining true to its century-old mission. Instead, they seem determined to strip it of the intellectual, literary, and political commitments that have been its essence and meaning. Their pronouncements suggest that they hold those commitments in contempt.
The New Republic cannot be merely a “brand.” It has never been and cannot be a “media company” that markets “content.” Its essays, criticism, reportage, and poetry are not “product.” It is not, or not primarily, a business. It is a voice, even a cause. It has lasted through numerous transformations of the “media landscape”—transformations that, far from rendering its work obsolete, have made that work ever more valuable.
The New Republic is a kind of public trust. That is something all its previous owners and publishers understood and respected. The legacy has now been trashed, the trust violated.
It is a sad irony that at this perilous moment, with a reactionary variant of conservatism in the ascendancy, liberalism’s central journal should be scuttled with flagrant and frivolous abandon. The promise of American life has been dealt a lamentable blow.”
For Foer, Wieseltier and others at the magazine, the brutal shakeup by Vidra, 40, who was hired in September, and his 30-year-old patron, Hughes—who purchased TNR two-and-a-half years ago for an undisclosed sum from a consortium that included longtime owner Martin Peretz—didn’t come as a surprise. Tensions have been building since the summer. According to multiple sources, Hughes came to think of his writers and editors as “spoiled brats,” and especially disliked the flamboyant, feud-prone, white-maned Wieseltier, who was more than twice his age. Much of Hughes’s distaste was telegraphed in his body language; he strikes many TNR staffers as passive-aggressive and averse to confrontation.
The friction escalated with the arrival of Vidra, who is said to have complained to Foer that the magazine was boring and that he couldn’t bring himself to read past the first 500 words of an article. According to witnesses, Vidra did little to hide his disrespect for TNR’s tradition of long-form storytelling and rigorous, if occasionally dense, intellectual and political analysis—to say nothing of his lack of interest in the magazine’s distinguished history—at an all-hands meeting in early October.
Presiding at the head of a long conference table, Vidra didn’t acknowledge Foer, who was seated beside him; he didn’t look at him; he didn’t mention him. Instead, as he started to speak, Vidra confided that he liked to stand up and move around the room as he communicated his thoughts, as though he were Steve Jobs unveiling the latest technological marvel. Oddly, he stood up, but he didn’t move.
Vidra spoke in what one witness described as “Silicon Valley jargon,” and, using a tech cliché, declared: “We’re going to break shit”—a vow hardly calculated to ingratiate himself with TNR’s veteran belle-lettrists, who feared that he was threatening the magazine’s destruction. Only a few interns dared to ask questions, which Vidra repeatedly dodged. “The senior people were too shocked to speak,” said a witness. “Jaws were dropping to the floor.” Through it all, Chris Hughes nodded approvingly, an unnerving grin on his face.
To be sure, that meeting was a warning sign. But the manner in which the two technology mavens administered their coup de grâce only two months later has left a bitter taste.
According to informed sources, Hughes and Vidra didn’t bother to inform Foer that he was out of a job. Instead, the editor was placed in the humiliating position of having to phone Hughes to get confirmation after Gawker.com posted an item at 2:35 p.m. reporting the rumor that Bloomberg Media editor Gabriel Snyder, himself a onetime Gawker editor, had been hired as Foer’s replacement. Yes, it’s true, Hughes sheepishly admitted, notwithstanding that he and Vidra had given Foer repeated assurances that his job was safe. (Hughes and Vidra didn’t respond to voicemail messages seeking comment.)
The irony is that the end of TNR as we know it comes less than three weeks after Hughes—who had the good fortune to have been Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard roommate, and helped Zuckerberg launch the social networking behemoth—spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to stage a gala Washington dinner celebrating the magazine’s 100th anniversary. Among the 400 attendees—who supped on “ribbons of beet-cured char,” “beef tenderloin [with] truffled potato crepes” and “apple pecan tart [with] warm bourbon-caramel sauce”—were keynote speaker Bill Clinton, Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Wynton Marsalis entertained. Vidra also gave a speech, talking mostly about himself, according to one attendee, and, in a brief mention of TNR’s editor, mispronouncing Foer as “foyer”—a gaffe that provoked gasps and laughter.
Meanwhile, the peripatetic Snyder—who also edited the Atlantic Wire and covered the film industry in Los Angeles for Variety—had been making no secret of his latest career move; he has been actively recruiting writers and editors for a new, restructured TNR based in Manhattan’s Union Square neighborhood. The new TNR—derisively called "another Buzzfeed" by a former staffer—will exist mostly online and print only 10 issues a year compared with 24 currently.
“It was cowardly, the way Chris and Guy went about this,” Ioffe said. “Media reporters have been calling for months, asking, ‘Is Frank fired?,’ and they’ve been lying to everybody, including Frank.”
It is far from clear whether the remaining, relatively inexperienced staff will be able to get out the next issue, which is scheduled to close on Wednesday. Two multi-thousand-word pieces slated for publication—a profile of Jeb Bush by Alec MacGillis and a report on Vladmir Putin’s political arch enemy, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, by Russian expert Ioffe—were still being edited when the axe fell. And even if the newbies manage to produce the issue, it will be accomplished in an atmosphere of outrage, recrimination and sorrow over the apparent death—some would say murder—of an American institution that was, for decades, a bulwark of liberal thought, cultural criticism and groundbreaking journalism.
“The New Republic was always a small political magazine that was trying to change the world,” said senior editor John Judis, who was trying to figure out late Thursday night if he could continue to work for the magazine. “My impression of what happened is Hughes and Vidra have decided to transform the magazine into a profit-making media center that is entirely different from what the magazine historically has been and what it has represented and entirely different from what The New Republic has been at its core—and this has led to this cataclysm where Frank and Leon have both left. I liked the old New Republic. I thought it had a really important role to play in America and I’m sorry if it’s no longer going to play that role.”
David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, began his magazine career writing for TNR. “It’s hard to look at the moves today and be anything but pessimistic,” he told The Daily Beast. “I just hate to see the values and ambitions of something great being undermined, and I fear that’s what is going on.”