Sunday, March 31, 2013

A few brief thoughts on Timothy Noah's reaction to the firing of Timothy Noah

I didn't really have any strong feeling about the firing of Timothy Noah, but when I came across this Politico excerpt in Talking Points Memo, it seemed rather odd to me.
“Once, shortly after he bought it, he said he liked a piece I'd written advocating an energy tax,” Noah wrote. “Another time, after I wrote a piece about Jim DeMint's departure from the Senate headlined 'Requiem For A Wingnut,' he emailed me to say ... wait, I've got it here: ‘I have little esteem for Jim DeMint, but I also want us to make a rule of not name-calling in headlines. We have strong opinions, but name-calling so outrightly undermines the seriousness of what we are trying to do here.’”

“I quietly changed the headline to the somewhat clumsy, ‘Farewell, Filibusteringest Senator’ and quietly worried whether the magazine's new owner (who around that time also told an audience at the Kennedy School that he'd like to co-brand a chain of cafes called the New Republic) might be a young man with more money than sense,” he said.

And, he added, “my firing is an additional data point.”
I've read this over a few times and it still seems a bit strange. A publisher told a writer to tone down a title. There was nothing particularly special about the title and the the publisher gave a reasonably sounding explanation for why he wanted the change. This bothered the writer enough to cause him to worry about the publisher's competence and to later use it as the basis of a very public criticism.

I realize that Noah may be understandably angry, but even factoring that in there seems to be a weird disconnect here, as if, when he tells me that a publisher changed one of his titles, he expects me to conclude that there's something wrong with the publisher. It's not immediately clear to me that the publisher was wrong, either about this particular title or about the policy of avoiding taking shots in a title, but even if the publisher were clearly wrong, it would still strike me as part of the normal friction of putting out a magazine.

I also get the feeling that Mackenzie Weinger, the author of the Politico piece, had the same reaction as Noah, especially given the snark about the New Republic cafes. (two quick points: first, speakers at events like this are expected to toss out big, interesting, out-of-the-box ideas like co-branding seemingly unrelated businesses; second, weird co-branding ideas are common. By the standards of the field and in the context of the speech, this suggestion wasn't particularly outrageous.)

What makes this more interesting than just than just another case of an ex-employee griping about a former boss is the way it supplies what Noah might call an additional data point for some ongoing concerns about the state of journalism, the idea that the profession has a problem with arrogance and tribalism.

To the tribalism point, this is the second time in recent memory when Politico's Media column has uncritically taken the side of Washington journalistic insiders (such as Noah) against outsider (such as Hughes). It was the Media column where Dylan Byers went after Nate Silver because, to be blunt, he was making the the DC journalism insiders look bad and, more to the point, expendable.

And having journalism critics who uncritically take the side of other journalists is not a good thing.


  1. Mark:

    I'd give Noah a break. If you can't badmouth a guy who just fired you, who can you badmouth?

    But I'd just like to pick up on a glib phrase of Noah's, one of those journalistic formulations that sounds good at first but dissolves on closer inspection: the idea that Chris Hughes, the publisher of the New Republic, has "more money than sense."

    That sounds like a put-down, but to the extent that you can put money and sense on a common scale: Of course Hughes has more money than sense. Hughes has close to a billion dollars. I don't know exactly how much money people in this country have (it must depend on how you count mortgages etc), but in any case Hughes has thousands or hundreds of thousands of times as much money as the median American. It doesn't matter how much sense Hughes has, he doesn't have that much. Warren Buffett also has much more money than sense. So do Bill Gates, Mike Bloomberg, and all the other billionaires we keep hearing about. Bring Plato back to life and give him a billion dollars, and he'd have more money than sense too.

    1. Andrew,

      The original title for the post was something about how when you're Hughes rich, "more money than sense" isn't really a put-down.

      I probably should have spent less time on Noah (like you said, if you can't badmouth the guy who fired you...) and more on Politico. Their reaction is harder to explain (and is more of a pattern).