Frame Game

The Politics of Talk

What does it take to win an election? First you must establish name identification, viability, and a “vision.” Then you must lower the media’s expectations, rebut charges of pandering and profligacy, and fend off attacks on your character. What does it take to launch a magazine successfully? As Talk Editor Tina Brown demonstrated this week, the answer is: pretty much the same thing.

1. Name identification. Having served in two high-profile offices over the past 15 years (Vanity Fair and The New Yorker), Brown was well positioned for a run at Talk. She scored an early publicity coup by getting Hillary Clinton to appear in the magazine at its debut. But Brown also benefited from a gaffe by her opponent, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who responded to Clinton’s appearance by banishing Talk’s launch party from a city-owned site. His attack on Brown made the front pages of the New York tabloids, giving Talk a free media hit.

2. Pandering. Many editors, like politicians, broaden their audience by appealing to the public’s lowest instincts–and, like politicians, are accused of pandering. The rap on Brown is that she’s “vapid” and “shallow,” and her magazine is “fluff” and “froth.” A parody Web site calls Talk “Chatter! Banter! Emotion! Solipsism! Pretense!” As often happens in campaigns, Brown suffered an embarrassing defection last month, when writer Walter Kirn quit and told the press he had been saddled with “celebrity profile assignments.”

Brown’s surrogates have replied that a good editor, like a good politician, must toss a bit of red meat to the crowd now and then to sustain her popularity and her movement. But Brown, like Dan Quayle, has lent credence to her caricature. She has told the press that her editorial knack lies in being “easily bored” and that the problem with celebrity hype is that it’s “dull.” Faced with the charge that she’s “lowbrow,” Brown has espoused a “high-low” formula under which Talk will endeavor, according to one staffer, “to balance the higher-brow stuff and the trashier stuff.” Brown’s critics have also circulated her quote that magazines should “be places where people can picnic intellectually.” These comments create an impression of flippancy and flip-flopping, which bolsters the argument that Brown lacks conviction.

3. Vision. The best way to deflect charges of pandering and flip-flopping is to articulate an essential message or “vision.” Brown constantly boasts that Talk has a “point of view.” But when called upon to define it, she speaks of a “look,” a “tone,” and an “atmosphere.” Talk, she told the Wall Street Journal, is “about expressing–without encumbrance of any kind–a vision, in a sense, of the times that we are in.” She comes off sounding like President Bush, whose ruminations on “the vision thing” convinced everyone that he recognized the importance of having a vision but didn’t quite know what the word meant. Instead, Brown speaks often of her “passion” and “desire” for good writing. Message: I care.

4. Character. Some of Brown’s opponents have gone negative, calling her “ruthless” and tyrannical. She seems unsure whether to stay on message–“The dogs bark and the caravan moves on,” she told London’s Sunday Telegraph–or to make negative campaigning an issue. While her surrogates decry the “long knives” arrayed against her, Brown accuses her rivals of “blood sport.” At times, she plays to the center, projecting kindness and tolerance: “I don’t understand this fear thing. I’m not vindictive.” At other times, she plays to her base, wearing her enemies’ scorn as a badge of honor: “I’ve fired a lot of people and killed a lot [of copy]. I don’t make friends that way.” Like any smart politician, Brown spins the attacks on her as evidence of her formidability. As New York Post columnist Liz Smith puts it, “What is it about her that scares the rest of the press?”

Brown also has a Clintonian streak that threatens to escalate pandering into a character issue. Bill Clinton pitches himself as the man who feels your pain. Brown pitches Talk as the magazine of “intimacy,” starting with its cover story, “The Intimate Hillary,” in which the first lady divulges her “feelings” about her husband’s infidelities. The consensus among political pundits is that whether Brown used Mrs. Clinton, vice versa, or both, the whole thing was “calculated” rather than intimate. Brown’s assertions that the piece plumbs the “depth” of the Clintons’ “shared passions” and “spiritual intensity” add to the impression that she’s more interested in advertising intimacy than in achieving it.

5. Fiscal responsibility. The old rap on Brown was that she spent wastefully and ran up big deficits at TheNew Yorker. Brown’s spin is that she cut the deficit: “When I arrived, it was losing money, and when I left, it was losing less money.” But the old rap has been overtaken by a new rap–that Brown is fielding a “B team” of writers because she’s no longer paying top rates. Meanwhile, the hard-times ethic of fiscal austerity has given way to a good-times ethic of “invest and grow,” which frowns on frugality. Brown’s successor at The New Yorker, David Remnick, is criticized for being “weak on the buzz factor,” “sheepish” about courting fashion designers, and addicted to “earnest seriousness.” A colleague likens Remnick’s avoidance of limousine service to President Carter’s despised modesty.

6. Expectations. An editor, like a candidate, must limit expectations so that she can impress everyone by exceeding them. Brown has done so. A week ago, the hype about Talk had spent itself. “Expectation is so high that her enemies are already predicting the biggest let-down since Eyes Wide Shut,” crowed the Telegraph. New York’s Daily News said critics were predicting a “gigantic fizzle.” But by the time the magazine came out, the backlash, too, had spent itself. According to Time, “the correct attitude” prior to Talk’s debut “was to be sick of it already without having seen it. But Brown has created something that shouts READ ME.”

And being read, ultimately, is the name of the game. The magazine market is less like a general election, in which the candidate with the higher negative rating always loses, than like a crowded primary, in which the fight for attention is crucial, and it’s worth alienating some people in order to attract others. The more Brown is attacked, the better she does. When Giuliani vetoed Talk’s party site and told the press it was “unimportant” and “irrelevant,” all he did was make the magazine important and relevant. The Journal put the point succinctly to Brown: “Is any publicity good publicity?” She answered: “People are rarely indifferent to the magazines I’ve put out. Sometimes they hate it, but they are engaged.” In other words, yes.