His Masters Voice
Sep 01, 1982
THE evening began as most Friday evenings do at Time magazine: We were hanging around, waiting for copy to be edited. I had joined the staff only a month before, but I was already familiar with the end-of-the-week routine — idle hours spent watching the network newscasts, making sure nothing important had happened; sipping Scotch with others in the ‘Economy & Business’ section; settling in for another post-midnight wrap-up. Earlier in the week, I had been assigned a story on the Congressional defeat of the Consumer Protection Agency and, more specifically, on what had become of Ralph Nader. The files from the Washington bureau had been a bit on the derogatory side, but the written story had turned out to be fair, I thought, considering that Nader’s personality occasionally gets in his own way. We were awaiting word from the ‘top’ editors, the final judgment for all Time articles.
At about nine o’clock, Associate Editor Jim Grant came by my cubicle to tell me the Nader story was in trouble: The ‘thirty-fourth floor’ wanted the story changed. Even to a Time neophyte the message was clear: The company brass presided over Time Incorporated from the thirty-fourth floor; corporate editor Henry Grunwald had spoken.
‘What does Grunwald want?’ I asked Grant
‘A hatchet job,’ he said.
I hurried to Church’s office. ‘We have to make the Nader piece tougher,’ he told me. I argued, a little meekly, that I thought the story was tough, and fair. Church paused, swallowed a mouthful of Dewar’ s White Label, and sighed. ‘Henry Grunwald,’ he said, ‘just hates Ralph Nader.’ And that was that. Church went to work on the copy, shifting sentences, honing the ridicule. And that sharpened axe of Time did fall on Nader (‘imperious,’ ‘a driven zealot’) and his ‘consumerism empire.’ The real empire strikes back.
The incident didn’t really surprise me. After all, this was the magazine of Henry Luce, and the powerful institution he founded in 1923 has never failed to carry his banner: the celebration of big business, the ethos of mass consumption, and the blossoming of the ‘American Century.’ Luce and his successors have refined a strategy of managing the news in the service of corporate America.
The casual reader of Time is likely to notice its lively prose, its apparent breadth (if not depth) of knowledge, its amusing anecdotes, its ponderous political centrism. What is less visible, what is finely threaded through the magazine, is a rigid dogmatism pervasively integrated with the ‘news.’ That dogmatism is never acknowledged as advocacy journalism. Rather, it parades as ‘Americana,’ the sober judgment of experts, the tough choices of a free-enterprise society. Only when Time targets its enemies does a more obvious sniping emerge, what literary critic Edmund Wilson once called Time’s ‘jeering rancor.’ Several decades ago, the magazine was widely recognized as an apologist for tycoons and generals, but as the American corporation has evolved a more sophisticated image, so too has Time It has shed it's jingoism and Social Darwinism for the cool manipulations of Madison Avenue. But the generals and tycoons are still the heroes.
In foreign policy, for example, Time appeals less to inflated patriotism and more to a sense of America’s sacred duty as the world’s greatest superpower. Military glory was particularly dear to Henry Luce in the halcyon days of 'America First,' but after the ascent of Luce’s successor, Hedley Donovan, a sense of probity appeared, hazily reflecting the nation’s outrage over Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, and other instances of U.S. bullying. Time stories began to take a ‘liberal’ view of the complex problems of the Third World, the need for foreign aid, the wisdom of detente.
In the last two years, however, Time has struck more of the old Lucean notes — but in the muted corporate style of Henry Kissinger (Grunwald’ s idol) and the Trilateral Commission. Profiles of Alexander Haig and General David Jones extol the virtues of ‘resolve’ and brinkmanship. Resolve and duty do avail if we dust off the old-school shibboleths — increase Pentagon spending, loosen the reins on the CIA, show the flag in the Persian Gulf, prop up our right-wing friends ‘The challenge,’ diplomatic correspondent Strobe Talbot tells us, ‘is to distinguish between viable authoritarian regimes and ones that are doomed’. It’s all so simple.
Even in its handling of the civil rights conflicts of the last two decades, for which it won a reputation for liberalism, Time’s limited approval of equality is best understood not as tearing down the walls of racism or intolerance, but as opening the doors to the Time-defined American Dream. Cultural liberty, equality of opportunity, and lifestyle diversity are ultimately encouraged because they expand the arena of consumerism: the ‘Me Decade’ was good for the tycoons. The wretched of the Earth, once they have been invited into the marketplace, are expected to defend it.
Such attitudes should come as no surprise. The editors’ prejudices are no more remarkable than those of their class classmates and neighbours who now hold similar rank in other enterprises. These corporate executives — largely white, male, Ivy League, and suburban (from Grunwald down to the editors and senior writers, twenty-four of twenty-five are men, and all are white) have a view of the world that is informed by a relatively simply faith in corporate management, military power, and a fuzzy cultural pluralism. Time’s peculiar system of group journalism helps fix and perpetuate those attitudes, for the editors and writers need never leave the Time & Life Building; they draw their understanding of the world from Time files, People portraits, and Fortune commentary.
Time editors have never been shy about its incestuous relations with the captains of industry. Time Inc. itself is a giant multinational, with revenues of $2.5 billion — the largest magazine publishing company in the world (Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, Money, Life, and Discover). It owns The Washington Star; Time-Life Books; Little, Brown & Co.; Book-of-the-Month Club; and large interests in publishing firms in Germany, France, Mexico, and Japan. In 1973, it enlarged its forestry division by purchasing Temple Industries, making it one of the largest landowners in the United States, and added the Inland Container Corporation in 1978.
Not to be denied its share of the booming video communications market, Time Inc. bought the American Television and Communications Corporations in 1978 to complement its own creation, Home Box Office, now the largest supplier of pay television programs in the country. Both television operations are expanding rapidly, as are Time-Life Films and the Time-Life Satellite Network.
At times the magazine’s pursuit of self-interest is blatant. Early in 1979, a Time Inc. lawyer confided to me that the Justice Department was ‘looking’ at the company for possible antitrust action. A few months later, the magazine sponsored an antitrust conference in Washington, DC, with dozens of business barons in attendance (including executives from Gulf, Bechtel, Transamerica, Phillips Petroleum, Arco). The resultant Time story trumpeted the expected:
‘The purpose of antitrust policy should be to enhance efficiency. Most conference participants felt that a further tightening of antitrust policy might promote inefficiency.’ One editor described the conference as a ‘cynical, pre-emptive strike on the Justice Department. If the government started an antitrust action, we’d scream about it being punitive and hide behind the ‘First Amendment’. The antitrust conference, perhaps cynical, merely maintained the magazine’s repeated endorsement of corporate giantism. A cover story on ‘The New American Farmer’ happily cautions: ‘The rule is: Get big or get out’.
At the highest levels, Time is serious about managing the news in Wall Street’s favour. The evolution of the Time system has supplied it with several potent weapons.
A journalistic arsenal includes what I call Omission, Misdirection, Derision, the Fact Fetish, and the Style Machine.
Omission. Easily the most efficient way to manage the news is to exclude coverage of those aspects that do not correspond with the corporate view. In the summer of 1978, I suggested a story on the manifold problems of the nuclear power industry (new plant orders down, cancellations by the dozens, costs skyrocketing, protest mounting). The written suggestion was routinely sent to the New York bureau, through which it would, ordinarily, circulate to the appropriate editors. But the acting bureau chief, Bob Parker, came to my office and informed me that he would not send the suggestion through - a highly unusual block of the flow. 'Nuclear power wasn't really in trouble', he said, 'and besides, we need nukes'. I noted that suggestions are simply meant to provoke ideas and that the reporting would uncover the real story. 'Sorry', Parker replied, 'the suggestion won’t go'. A few weeks later, Peter Stoler’s rabidly pro-nuclear essay, ‘The Irrational Opposition to Nuclear Power,’ appeared in the magazine.
Time’s determination to define political legitimacy requires the exclusion of critics of big business. For a cover story on leadership in America, the editors selected 50 young go-getters, including the somewhat puzzling choices of Frank Shorter, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and museum director Phillippe de Montebello. One innocent wondered aloud about Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, noticeably absent from the list ‘Well,’ replied Executive Editor Jason McManus, ‘we want to pick people who agree with us.’
Misdirection. The editors are quick to frame issues in ways most amenable to their ideology. An example is the recurrent theme of ‘excessive’ government regulation. In my years at Time, a week hardly went by without a caustic swipe at the ‘zealous’ regulators who hamper the free-enterprise system. One ‘news’ story declared: ‘The imperial regulatory juggernaut has clearly gone too far... The nation can no longer afford the luxury of costly and inefficient government control.’ Business editors, in particular, accepted uncritically the widest estimates of regulatory costs but never reported the many careful studies showing the broad, if hard to calculate, benefits of environmental or occupational health standards.
One business writer, when I pressed him for some fairness in a story about the costs of clean air, replied that it was futile: The editors wanted the sniping, and whatever balance he put in would be edited out. Another striking example concerned inflation; virtually the only remedy endorsed by Time was cut-backs in government spending for domestic programs. When an incomes policy was suggested, it was cursorily dismissed, without a thoughtful assessment, as unworkable’ (even though the 1973 wage and-price-control inflation rate of 3.2 per cent looks fabulous today).
Derision. Ad Hominem attacks are familiar to Time readers. Just as the leaders of business are treated with deference, their adversaries are frequently treated with contempt. Among national leaders, few have been targeted for more nastiness than California’s Governor Jerry Brown. His support of farm workers, ecology, anti-nuclear and pro-solar politics are not appreciated in Rockefeller Center. Essayist Lance Morrow writes: ‘Jerry Brown, with his sleek vocabularies of “planetary realism,” sounds like an item from The Whole Earth Catalog. Brown possesses a disco Jesuit allure.’ He is, intoned Morrow, ‘a welterweight opportunist’.
At times the personal attacks are indirect. A recent ‘American Scene’ told of the conversion of a 1960s Seattle peace activist who has forsaken his Left politics and signed on with a real estate developer (‘Even profit doesn’t bother me as it did’). The piece not only sings praises of this model apostate, but vilifies progressives as ‘the dwindled, sullen ranks of the New Left’ who invoke Bernadette Dohrn as a ‘cult role model,’ and indulge in the politics of ’Jane Fonda chic’ or ‘Hanoi hysterics’. The last line of the parable is the quoted confession: ‘“Maybe we were completely wrong on Vietnam.”
The Fact Fetish. A typical Time subscription pitch boldly proclaims the magazine’s devotion to the truth: 'Time . . . the most colourful coverage of the week — and the most accurate'. ‘Indeed, the staff is scrupulous about details, with every name spelled correctly and double-checked, every figure on target, every quotation carefully confirmed. This attention to minutiae allows the magazine to claim a kind of accuracy that implies an unwarranted omniscience. Another ad: ‘Time brings you more than just the news. Time clarifies the complex and explains the significance of what is elsewhere merely reported.’ This blend of claims — that the magazine is both accurate and gives an incisive analysis greater than mere reporting — has, over the decades, created a spurious air of insider’s authority buttressed by an endless stream of insignificant details.
Early in my tenure, when I was working on a story assessing the issue of nuclear waste, the first version reflected a certain horror at mismanagement of disposal sites. Jim Grant was editing that night, and he called in two of us who were working on the story. The tone of our version was too anti-nuclear, he said, and he’d have to moderate it. My colleague was incensed, and a shouting match ensued. ‘Listen,’ Grant finally said, ‘I don’t care about nukes one way or the other. I just know this has to be changed.’ His implication was, of course, that the top editors would not accept such bald skepticism about the nuclear industry. The story, which was somewhat technical in nature, was shifted enough to mute the impact, but the ‘facts’ never changed.
The Style Machine. The typical Time story springs to life on a Monday morning in several small gatherings of the staff. The editors have consulted with their higher-ups, have read story suggestions from reporters in Time’s 30 bureaus around the world, and have constructed a ‘story list’. It’s likely that stories on that Monday list will be changed, or killed, or postponed by week’ send. But the assignments are made anyway, quickly and perfunctorily, in the ‘conferences’ that often last no more than two minutes. The global assembly line is then set in motion. It is the very essence of ‘group journalism’, the system perfected 60 years ago by Henry Luce.
Reporters are sent ‘queries’, the sometimes elaborate set of questions that convey how ‘New York’ wants the story reported. The routine then rolls forward through the week until the late Friday close: reporters and researchers gather information and compile ‘files’, writers read the files and construct highly-stylized prose; senior editors edit, and frequently rewrite, the writers’ version; ‘top’ editors edit the senior editors’ copy; researchers check the story for accuracy. Even the corporate brass will get in on the act now and then. A dozen or more people may work on any given story.
This system serves several purposes. It can get a story into print quickly, while preserving Time’s distinctive language. But the machine’s effect — probably intentional — is far more pervasive. By fragmenting the functions of journalism, Time fragments responsibility for content — and vastly enlarges the capacity for editorial control.
‘The bias in any Time story,’ says one Time writer, ‘begins with the query. From the moment it is sent out, the shape of the story has been established.’
Moreover, the assembly-line system keeps most staffers — editors, writers, researchers — in house, with no connection to the flesh and blood of the news. The insularity breeds not only a dependence on others’ eyes and ears, but an almost inescapable cynicism. Stuart Schoffman, who was a Time writer for four years, now describes that role as one of 'an apparatchik' in the service of the corporation’s ideas. ‘The institution embodies the very system it extols — the alienation of the workers from their own work’.
For all its tirades against Big Government, Time is a perfect example of a stultifying bureaucracy. The monotonous advocacy of laissez-faire mythology is partially due, as one writer puts it, to a ‘conspiracy of obsequiousness’ at the magazine — the constant tendency to play it safe. ‘Eighty per cent of the effort each week is spent trying to avoid problems,’ says another Time veteran. ‘The nuances of politics, the unconventional perspective, the diversity of opinion are left out because they present problems. It’s always easier to fit things to what you think the top editors will want.’ The bureaucratic system, coupled with its knee-jerk adulation of its corporate brethren, has been the source of Time’s relentless weakness as a purveyor of current events.
In addition to his stint at Time, John Tirman has written for The Nation, Newsday, The New York Times, The Progressive and other publications.
Reprinted by permission from The Progressive, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53703.