The Publisher, Then and Now

The Publisher, Then and Now

What Henry Luce teaches us about the state of media today.


Let me congratulate my old boss and current colleague Greg Mitchell on his fabulous new media blog.

Now, if he doesn’t mind, I’ll encroach onto his turf for a few minutes.

Last night I attended a great conversation between New York Times columnist Frank Rich and Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley at the 92nd Street Y on Brinkley’s new book, The Publisher, a biography of famed media tycoon Henry Luce. Luce, of course, started Time, Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated, becoming, in Brinkley’s words, “the most powerful journalistic publisher in the mid 20th century.” With so much discussion about the state of media today, Rich said that Brinkley’s book “could not be more timely.”

Luce started Time in 1923, which originated as a journal for “smart-ass, opinionated kids from Yale,” Brinkley said. But it soon grew in prominence and Luce used the platform to promote his strongly Republican, fiercely anti-Communist views. Luce grew up the son of missionaries in China and called the fall of that country to Communism the saddest day of his life. He supported US intervention in Vietnam as a way to trigger a war with China, which he viewed as long overdue. 

Though Brinkley started researching the project before the inception of Fox News, Rupert Murdoch is no doubt following in Luce’s footsteps. Rich read an anti-Roosevelt editorial published in Time that trumpeted the dangers of “state socialism” and the threat posed by FDR to free enterprise in America. “It’s so similar to what’s being written about Obama today,” he noted.

“The hatred of Obama [on the right] is like nothing I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Brinkley responded. The Tea Partiers may very well be motivated by factors other than race or racism, Brinkley said, but when they speak of “taking back America,” he noted, “they want to take the country back for white people.”

Time and Life, incidentally, tended to be supportive of the civil rights movement and Luce, though rigid in his foreign and economic policy viewpoints, preferred moderate Republicans like Wendell Wilkie over fire-breathing conservatives like Barry Goldwater. Despite its conservative editorials, many Democratic families—Rich and Brinkley’s included—subscribed to Time. It was a surprisingly highbrow magazine for such a mass audience.

The same can’t be said of Time today, which is a shell of its former self, nor of its chief competitor, Newsweek, whose days may be numbered. “Would Luce recognize Time today?” Rich asked.

“Well, he’d recognize the logo,” Brinkley responded.  


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