Magazine editors are behind-the-scenes people, rather like central bank presidents.
They should appear in public as little as possible, and, when they do, keep
their mouths shut. Anna Wintour, of Vogue, has the right idea: only
appear behind dark glasses, and preserve a mystique. Graydon Carter, of Vanity
Fair, rarely says anything in public, and when he does (remember when he
said "irony is dead" after September 11?) he would have been best
advised not to. Graydon knows this, too: he hates Toby Young’s book
about him not because of how he’s portrayed, but because he’s a central character.
A good editor never lets his personality overshadow that of his magazine. When
that happens, a good proprietor (Felix Dennis) will kick
his editor (Greg Gutfeld) out. Gutfeld had a much stronger personality than
Stuff ever did, which is obviously the wrong way round.
Consider one of the greatest editors in UK newspaper history, Harold Evans.
He ran the Sunday Times at the absolute height of its power and influence,
and it’s hard to find anyone (except Toby Young, of course) who’ll say a bad
word about him. But even though he’s very well known, he’s basically a kind
of eminence grise, writing impossibly
grand books on impossibly grand subjects.
And then… and then, consider his wife. Tina Brown is the exception to all
these rules. She loves the limelight, always has a quote for anyone who asks,
and after moving to New York, quickly became one of this city’s brightest celebrities.
She turned both Vanity Fair and the New Yorker into bibles
of buzz, which were even bigger than she was. But her third US magazine, Talk,
was her comeuppance. For a while, it was going to be called Tina, and
in most peoples’ minds, Tina it remained. It never developed much of a readership,
it was losing vast amounts of money at a time when the bubble was bursting,
and it eventually imploded in January 2002.
The lesson of Talk was essentially that Tina Brown’s name alone, plus
$3.49, will buy you tall decaf latté at Starbucks. She’s a star, to be
sure, and New Yorkers love to gossip about
her, but none of that is the kind of thing which can be monetized. A flashy
and fabulous launch party at the Statue of Liberty? That she can do. A successful
media venture whose main selling point is, um, Tina Brown? That won’t work.
But history repeats itself, and if Talk was tragedy, then Topic [A]
With Tina Brown, her new talk show on CNBC, is farce. It’s a quarterly show,
which means it appears too infrequently to build up any kind of momentum or
following. It’s done on the cheap from the CNBC studios in New Jersey, where
20-year-old production assistants chop up the interviews into incoherent concatenations
of meaningless soundbites. It’s presided over by a nervously giggling Tina,
who, having brought on her friends (Lord Black is "Conrad" to her),
sucks up to them shamelessly and then asks them silly questions in her bizarre
The first episode featured Tina’s pet writers from the New Yorker (Simon Schama
and Malcom Gladwell – the latter dressed for a radio interview opposite
the ever-dapper Barry Diller) as well as one writer whom she’d optioned when
she was running Talk Miramax Books (Queen Noor of Jordan, who, unlike "Conrad"
and "Barry", remained ever "Your Majesty"). We also had
Howard Stringer, of Sony America, rambling on pointlessly about the Dixie Chicks.
Between the half-dozen studio guests plus Tina herself, not one of them managed
to say anything intelligent or interesting, mainly because all responses were
cut down to no more than a few seconds. The level of debate reached its apotheosis
when Gladwell was asked to describe Diller in one word, and managed to come
up with "well-dressed".
The only compelling piece of television came when Tina introduced Bill O’Reilly.
Tina brought up Fox News and its success quite a few times during the course
of the programme, and is obviously interested in whether the right-wing politics
is an integral part of that success. But her flibbertigibbet questioning only
served to reveal the huge gulf in professionalism between the two news hosts,
with O’Reilly bulldozing his way over his newest rival yet remaining infinitely
more relaxed than Tina will ever be.
Bill O’Reilly is at home on TV, in a way that, maybe, Greg Gutfeld could be
as well. He has an outsize personality, is compelling to watch, and is at ease
in the medium. Tina, on the other hand, seems flighty and lightweight, and isn’t
helped by her effusiveness over her guests. She’s so nice to them all that you
have no idea what her own opinions are – and in fact, received wisdom
in New York media circles is that she doesn’t actually have any opinions at
all. She’ll fawn over Henry Kissinger or Bill Clinton alike, and Topic [A] becomes
a mutual admiration society, with nothing to grab on to. The guests are paired
off, but not because they can strike sparks off each other, so much as to give
the editors someone else to cut to when one person speaks for more than two
Topic [A] got managed to attract
74,000 people on Wednesday night: about 3.5% of the audience for Hannity &
Colmes that same evening over on Fox. Most of those 74,000, I should imagine,
were viewers curious about what Tina might come up with: they’re not going to
stick around for the second show. But at least Tina’s not going to have to worry
about the sales assistant in the fruit shop in Pimlico telling
her that the show sucked: that’s the advantage of presenting a show that
no one watches.