Time Magazine remains, even today, an important American institution. In recent years it has done a lot to squander its legacy of smart middlebrow journalism (think James Agee, Whittaker Chambers, and Dwight MacDonald), but it still has a circulation of over three million, which is higher than Newsweek’s, higher than U.S. News and World Report‘s, higher than the circulations of the Atlantic, the Economist, and the New Yorker combined. So, even in this age of cutting and gutting in the newsroom, one expects competence, if not excellence. Certainly, one does not expect an article about cancer to start like this:
Got cancer? It’s all the rage. Actress Christina Applegate, Senator Ted Kennedy, Olympic swimmer Eric Shanteau, columnist Robert Novak are just the highest profile of the 1.4 million Americans who will get a diagnosis of cancer this year.
Or an article about the Slow Food movement and rising food prices to end like this:
In the end, Slow Food is more interested in producing better-tasting food than leading a jihad against chemical fertilizers, and there’s something to be said for appealing to the stomach to get to the head.
“Jihad”? “Something to be said…”? This article leaves a lot to be said. You might think the Slow Food movement was a complicated story all by itself, even without reference to rising food prices. But the Time article takes care of both subjects in 488 words. It is essentially a long caption for two photographs — one of a woman harvesting bok choy on a farm in Massachusetts, one of hungry Somalians in a food line. The article, like the photos, comes off as nothing more than an arbitrary juxtaposition.
Time‘s managing editor, Richard Stengel, has described Time‘s new approach as “branded expertise.” His own expertise is often on display in a “To Our Readers” page, which usually includes several photographs of Stengel himself — a studio shot next to the title and then one or two pictures of him and sometimes his children hanging out with an important person featured in that week’s issue. Anyway, the branding is ubiquitous. The expertise, not so much. True, all the celebrity columnists now get head shots, and some of them really are experts (and a few of these write very well), but the general effect is one of self-pleased superficiality: lots of eye candy embedded with little chunks of snarky prose that trivializes whatever it touches. Not middlebrow, just dumb.