The Conversation

Tina Brown Gets a Buzz Cut

Elsewhere, the dross includes Tom Stoppard's sheepish announcement that he's discovered he's Jewish— and you'd be sheepish too, if you found the fact as nonearthshaking and the topic as bracketed by obligatory attitudes (that is, secondhand even if felt, no pleasant spot for a writer who prefers original perceptions) as Stoppard plainly does. Even if he's commuted to Dutchess County for 20 years, getting a suave type like Michael Korda to write about the joys of country life is like hiring Bill McKibben as a nightclub columnist. And speaking of obligatory, did you really think that Tina wouldn't find a way to invite Di's corpse to Talk's debut? But even if Gerald Posner has become the go-to guy on debunking conspiracy that Michael Beschloss is on presidents, his piece about Mohammed Al Fayed's quest to prove that his son and the chick with him didn't die by accident nicely balances analytical skepticism with modest investigative surprises.

However, unlike Fayed's list of perps, not all of Talk's writers are the usual suspects. If you ask me— and maybe you shouldn't, since he's been to my house— Tina's best stroke was hiring Washington City Paper vet Eddie Dean, whose account of life in a Virginia trailer park should tell you why he's been a local treasure in D.C. for years. All the same, that Dean's piece winds up cheek by jowl with two pages of Angelina Jolie in the layout, with no indication of a break in mood, is symptomatic. So far as I can tell, Tina isn't competing with any existing magazine. She's competing with Wal-Mart, cramming in everything from high to low and portentous to trivial in the hope that all of it will stick, right down to Hillary and George W. balancing each other on the cover. (To blunt if not moot the obvious questions raised by the Miramax connection, however, she includes no movie reviews— or any other critical writing, except for a book section that's darned proud to have Martin Amis on the team.) The simple explanation for this glut is ambition combined with insecure taste, which I suspect Tina's is when she steps up to the net to serve instead of volley.

But even if that's true, you could say she's also quit playing tennis. As you squint at this pudding in search of its theme, you notice omissions more than continuities. For one thing, the contents aren't particularly youth-oriented; not only do the prattling lists of what and who's in practically reek of anxiety, their function as a vaccine against cluelessness helps you pin down the context by being noticeably incongruous. For another, despite a cursory nod to Cornel West and a haven't-our-readers-seen-you-somewhere-before to Queen Latifah, Talk isn't particularly multiculti. Always something of a mouse in parrot's clothing, Herself does have her old-fashioned side; after all, if she were really forward-looking, she wouldn't have started a magazine, but something more post-Gutenberg. Instead, not only has she stayed in Printland, this is her trad move— a mag whose only discernible message, peeking through the hoopla, is that it's hip to be square. Again. Tina's PR burblings about reviving the golden age of American magazines named no specific titles, and no wonder: the model she doesn't want to acknowledge, if only because it would alarm her advertisers, is the magazine that Norman Rockwell used to do illustrations for.

She invited Di's corpse to Talk's debut.
photo: Marina Garnier
She invited Di's corpse to Talk's debut.

One reason she's probably eager to put irony behind her is that humor has never been her strong suit— and isn't in evidence here, despite her attempt to prove she's a good sport by including a parody letters column that isn't nearly as funny as other people's prepublication parodies of Talk. Then again, those parodies also guessed wrong, since they took an ever more frantic pursuit of glitz for granted. Nobody expected Tina to produce The Saturday Evening Post-Modern, and decide the time was right to turn the cutting edge into a giant spoon. Call the consensus she's gambling on the new middlebrowism if not the new fuddy-duddyism, and while you're at it, feel bad Norman Rockwell's dead. His portrait of Bill and Hillary in postcoital glow— he checking his library plans in boxers-not-briefs, she consulting Harold Ickes with sheet demurely yanked to breast— would have been Talk's ideal cover.

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