Some people really need organizations. Like Marty Peretz, for example

October 19, 2010

The Boston Globe has a Local-Boy-Made-Controversial story about Marty Peretz (it was in yesterday’s paper, but I just got around to reading it today). There’s nothing much new in it, but it got me thinking about the changing division of labor in journalism and how it hasn’t worked out equally well for everybody.

Peretz is in trouble for making some sweeping and denigratory generalizations about Muslims in his blog, and then not-quite-apologizing for it. I would imagine that Peretz has held similar opinions for decades. But he’s only started getting himself into big trouble for them in the past four years: that is, since he launched his blog, The Spine. Until then, Peretz was mostly judged in the context of the institution that he bought in 1974 and has been editor-in-chief of ever since (even while selling his majority stake in 2000 and then repurchasing it in 2009), The New Republic. In that context, he came off pretty well. As Eric Alterman wrote a few  years ago in an otherwise critical account of the Peretz era at TNR:

I think any honest reader would be forced to admit that for many if not most of these years, The New Republic was, despite everything, a truly terrific little magazine.

The main reason: Peretz knew how to hire, and keep, talented people. Here’s Alterman again:

“Try, try very hard not to hire anybody who isn’t smarter than you, and wiser,” Peretz says he promised himself. In this, he notes, he succeeded. He might have added “and more liberal.” For in the days when the neoliberal Kinsley and old-fashioned social democrat Hertzberg traded off the magazine’s editorship, literary and political giants did indeed walk the TNR hallways. Just 28 and still in law school when he initially took over the magazine, Kinsley’s contrarian nature and inimitable example would prod not only The New Republic but an entire generation of pundits in the direction of Mickey Kaus/Jacob Weisberg–style smart-ass neoliberalism.

So as the head of an institution, Peretz was (at least until recently) undeniably successful—even if, like Alterman, you didn’t like the direction in which he pushed that institution. As a writer and thinker, though, he was always something of a dud. I was an enthusiastic reader of TNR in the 1980s and early 1990s, but I learned to skip the magazine’s “Diarist” page whenever Peretz wrote it. In a magazine characterized by intellectual sparkle and surprise, Peretz’s dispatches, mostly devoted to Middle Eastern affairs, were leaden and predictable. But so what? They were just a few pages a year in an otherwise great magazine. And look at all the brilliant people Peretz hired!

Since 2006, though, Peretz has had a blog. This allows him to share his opinions as often as he wants, without the intervention of smarter, wiser TNR editors who in past years might have protected him from his most intemperate and infelicitous phrasings. It also allows him to reach readers who probably aren’t interested in the rest of TNR’s content. That is, Peretz has to a certain extent been allowed to break free from his organization. Similar new freedoms have been granted in recent years to lots of journalists, myself included, and many of us have found it wonderfully liberating. Heck, Peretz probably finds it liberating too. But it’s done permanent damage to his reputation. For 90% of the people who’ve ever heard of him, he’s now that anti-Muslim fanatic, not the guy who hired Hertzberg and Kinsley and did what he could to promote the career of the young Al Gore. He was far better off and more valuable as part of an organization—an organization that he happened to own—than as a mostly independent pundit.

Why do I go on and on about this? Not to defend Marty Peretz, but to observe that institutions have been getting short shrift lately, especially in the world of journalism. And for sure, a lot of existing journalistic institutions are deserving of no shrift at all. But the idea of journalistic organizations in which people specialize, in which editors keep writers from making fools of themselves, in which cranks have a place as long as they’re good at something, isn’t entirely archaic. We’re not all cut out to be freestanding journalistic brands.

Update: Jack Shafer e-mails to point out that Marty Peretz was writing loopy stuff, and occasionally getting called a racist, back in the 1980s and early 1990s too. But he has  definitely taken it up a notch or three since he started blogging, and he never got into the amount of trouble then that he finds himself in now. Also, I failed to mention my favorite Peretz controversy of the past year, when he approvingly quoted from a Tunku Varadarajan Daily Beast column that compared John McCain to Liza Minnelli in a way that reflected poorly on both, then issued a bizarre apology the next day for “slighting … her and her gifts.”

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Not to lower the tone of the article, but I read someone make a similar point about the films of George Lucas. Fantastic in collaboration with other directors, but when given carte blanche demonstrated a troubling lack of self control.

It’s not to say that there aren’t great individual thinkers, since there are obviously people who thrive in a freeform space. But some people could use a healthy amount of external editing.

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