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NEW YORK — Welcome to the fifth stage of Tina Brown’s career.
It wasn’t immediately clear when Talk closed that there would be another one. While Brown’s resume was undeniably legendary, so was her indefatigable predilection for spending too much of other people’s money. Enter her column for The Times of London — at a salary estimated in the lower six figures and with no clothing allowance.
In just four weeks, Brown — ex-Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk editor in chief — has made a talking point of herself yet again, even though the only way Americans can read her missives is on the Internet. And face it: It’s more attention than The Times of London has received in the U.S. in memory. After all, how many Americans are desperate to read her co-columnists, Anatole Kaletsky, Richard Morrison or Bruce Anderson?
William Powers in The National Journal credited Brown with waking up America, Entertainment Weekly said the column was “hot” and declared a moratorium on Tina Brown bashing and The New York Times proclaimed it a success. Even Andrew Sullivan, who nastily compared her despair for attention to Ozzy Osbourne, and Michael Wolff, who accused her of stealing his columns for New York magazine and implied she was racist, couldn’t deny the obvious: Her column had heat.
On Wednesday, WWD sat down with Brown at the Mercer Hotel to talk about corporate malfeasance, synergy, and surfing the Web.
WWD: In your first month on the job for The Times of London, you’ve written on everyone from Gerald Levin, who you compared to a hamster, to Barry Diller, who you called this reigning daddy cool of American business. What is it about the state of corporate America that interested you?
Brown: What has always fascinated me about America is what I’d call the boom and crash of reputation. Over the last year, that process has been accelerated to an operatic degree so that the kind of story you might have seen evolving over a five-year period suddenly is evolving over the course of two months. It’s an unbelievable comic opera. And I guess not having a magazine, which I would now be full blast covering such a thing, now has an outlet with my column.
This story first appeared in the November 1, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD: Do you find it easier to go after people now than you did when you had a glossy magazine?
Brown: I don’t really see it as going after people. I just write about what I see. I think I have the same approach with the column that I had with the magazine. With the magazine, we were able to do some tough pieces and we also did complimentary pieces, and I see the column the same way.
WWD: Did you see the current state of things coming while you were at Talk?
Brown: I feel that we’ve been in some kind of millennial blowout for quite some time. All the way through the Internet boom, I felt the tom-toms of the inevitable day of reckoning, largely because I found the whole time to be the most ungratifying period of my life. The market was so intense, everybody was so overpaid, and if they weren’t overpaid they seemed to be wildly attitudinal. And I was toiling with a startup that didn’t have the budget I’d had in the last few incarnations. It was also just very unattractive. It was the only time I was not interested in the kind of Zeitgeist figures that were emerging. I never found the Internet-boom people appealing. The people during the Reagan era were much more interesting, though admittedly, the Internet boom was fascinating in the sense that it was a gold rush. But I was quite happy to see that go.
WWD: Graydon Carter famously said that 9/11 was the end of irony, with the implication being that celebrity was over as well. How do you think the recent spate of corporate scandals relates to this? Is making a household name out of Kenneth Lay a departure from celebrity, or merely a new way of experiencing it?
Brown: I don’t think it points to the end of celebrity. The celebrity cycle is rise, adoration, overexposure, a fall, a comeback and that’s just been applied to business. I don’t think business people realized how dangerous the arch of publicity was going to become for them. I think people realize now that the ultimate mistake is to be on the cover of Fortune because you’re inviting the next stage. That’s what you’re seeing with Dennis Koslowski and Kenneth Lay. They were completely disconnected from the business end because they were on another planet altogether.
WWD: When you launched Talk, you argued that the marriage between a film company and a magazine was the perfect new synergistic media proposition. Three years later, Talk has folded and the merger of AOL Time Warner is being described as a disaster. Have your views on synergy changed in any way??
Brown: A certain amount. With Talk, the book company and the movie company existed very well together. I think synergy is very difficult to pull off, because you have to make people agree to work together, and very often people in different divisions of a company have competing interests. Even at our little company, sometimes the book division, for instance, really wanted the magazine to take an extract and there were times when it really wasn’t suited for it. And as I wore the two hats, I would decide that I wasn’t going to do it for the magazine, even though it would help the book. But you could see, on a bigger level, how difficult all of that was going to be. And people can get very bitter. I know that at Time, there was a sense that the magazine “ought” to want to do these things for the movies, but in fact the magazine was trying to be a real magazine.
WWD: Do you think it’s insulting to readers?
Brown: I do. I think anything that doesn’t feel organic doesn’t work. We often used to get written about as a shill for Miramax and in point of fact, we weren’t, but what became a burden was the perception somehow that if we did a Gwyneth Paltrow cover, it was some sort of payback. In fact, it worked against us.
WWD: You recently told The Wall Street Journal that if you were to launch a magazine now, you’d do it on the Web. Since the online media publications — from Inside to Salon — have not been among the most successful business propositions of the last few years, could you elaborate on your reasoning? What is it about a Web magazine that remains attractive to you?
Brown: What I meant by that was that it would have been great to develop something on the Web — refine the formula, get the voices, use it almost as a kind of out-of-town tryout and once that formula got really comfortable with itself, bring it to print. I think it could have been a smart way to develop a magazine and have our process without the hype that went with it. We started stark naked on Broadway. I mean, of course, you have hindsight. At the time, that wouldn’t have occurred to me. At the time, I just thought we were going to do this big magazine launch.
WWD: What do you read on the Web?
Brown: I do like Salon and Slate, and I do read Romenesko and Mediabistro. I read all the kind of media stuff, I think it’s a great tool for journalists. It makes writing articles a thousand times more convenient.
WWD: Several months ago, Graydon Carter asked you to pen a column for Vanity Fair. What made you turn him down and say yes to The Times of London?
Brown: I wanted to be in a newspaper. I wanted the frequency. I wanted the freshness and the informality. I did not want to go back into that time warp thing of filing something and having it in the fridge for three weeks.
WWD: Wasn’t the offer from Carter also a little condescending?
Brown: Well, who knows the spirit in which it was made?
WWD: There’s a certain interest — almost an obsession — in your column with success and failure, again the quintessential examples being Barry Diller, who looks like a winner, and Gerald Levin, who is out of a job. Does Tina Brown ever side with the losers?
Brown: Well, yes, of course. But I don’t see Jerry Levin as a loser. I see him as a perpetrator. I do [side with losers]. There are people that are not doing things. Robert Hughes no longer has a column and he’s the greatest writer. I don’t see talent as about winners and losers. I see the corporate world as winners and losers. It’s a game of snakes and ladders.
WWD: What is your political point of view?
Brown: I don’t have a political point of view. I think it’s important not to have one. What I have always gone for is the writing, the idea, the stories, the characters. Obviously, things turn me off, but I do think it’s important to have the same questioning outlook as a journalist. I’m more attracted to the Democrats most of the time, but I’ve been a big fan of Pataki. I like to have a curiosity about all of it, and I don’t want to have a position, really.
WWD: Having recently gotten back on the horse, do you have any advice for Martha Stewart?
Brown: I really think she’s being involved in a witch hunt. I think it’s absolutely grotesque. Out of all the corporate malfeasance we’ve seen, Martha Stewart is the one that’s going to go to trial? I do think it would be great if she could show some humor. I think in some strange way, she’s being punished for her sheer lack of image. She has made it worse for herself. She needs to do standup in a comedy club. She needs someone to start doing gags for her. Get her a writer from “Saturday Night Live” to do a sketch with her stomach hanging out at a Hamptons horse show. She needs something to say that could ionize her position.
WWD: Do you think people are simply impressed with the column or do you also think that the same kind of schadenfraude that brought you down is in some weird, Hillary Clinton-like way bringing you back up again? Was this chapter of your story partially written before it even happened?
Brown: Yes, I think so. Whenever I have a positive piece written, I only feel the mounting dread because I know what the next turn of the dial is going to be. One of the reasons I wanted to do something in London was that I wanted to lower the temperature, and in some way it had a reverse playback.
WWD: Do you have any plans to syndicate the column in America?
Brown: I’m not going to make a decision on that for the rest of this year. I want to grow the voice in England. It seems like a fun way to get into the column, which anyway has dramatized for me that there’s really such a thing as a global elite reading public. There is just [because of the Web] no such thing as local anymore, because if people are interested, it will disseminate with enormous speed.
WWD: And it has. How did you feel about Michael Wolff saying that you copied him, and insinuating that the column was racist?
Brown: I regard everything he writes about me as unrequited love. With regards to my being racist, I thought that was just him clutching for straws, and I’m planning on going as him for Halloween.
WWD: You and S.I. Newhouse have never talked about one another publicly since you left Condé Nast for Talk. [Both WWD and Condé Nast are owned by Advance Publications, whose chairman is Newhouse.] Have you spoken?
Brown: I’ve seen him at dinner parties. We’re on very cordial terms, but I don’t see him often.
WWD: And Harvey Weinstein?
Brown: Very good terms. I went to a screening of his the other night for “Four Feathers.”
WWD: Do you see yourself ever doing another magazine?
Brown: No. I don’t think that opportunity would arise. I do think a newspaper would be fun. But again, I don’t see an opportunity there. And I am very happy with this column, happier than I’ve been in many years.