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Serving Time

I used to work for Time; or was it sell? A Lucemployee is always a salesman first, and then a journalist of whatever degree. For most of three years, I was listed on the masthead as a correspondent in the San Francisco and Los Angeles bureaus, where I was assigned coverage of anything that could conceivably find its way into the magazine (except, of course, politics, which was left to wiser heads). I once investigated the left-foot braking trend—that is, the use of the left foot to apply the brakes on cars without a clutch. The trend was soon aborted. Shortly thereafter, I accompanied Conrad Hilton halfway around the world on a sentimental chevauchée, from one Hilton hotel to another. That ended abruptly when Pope John’s untimely death canceled the gala opening of the Rome Hilton. On other occasions, I was sent to Fairbanks in late December by a superior who seemed to be made nervous by my presence in his bureau; to Aspen to ski-along with the Kennedys; to Tijuana to follow El Cordobés into the bullring; to Portland to watch open-heart surgery; to Baja California to observe the copulation of whales. Some of all that activity (and a lot of Business Section reporting, which I have repressed) eventually became bits and pieces of articles. But it occurred to me, long after I left Time for the distinctly drearier world of liberal political journalism, that reporting had been my secondary function. First of all, I was a drummer for the largest, most powerful publishing corporation in the world.

Time‘s business is to promote Time Inc. as a corporate empire. Like all imperial systems, it is ultimately self-justifying; worlds must be conquered because they are there. Along the way, one or another rationalization can be made: it makes money for stockholders, employs talented journalists, imparts useful information to a mass audience, invigorates the economy through advertising, and helps US policy in Vietnam. All that may be true, but the basic urge is to its own expansion. The metastasis is the message.

For shorter or longer periods, Time‘s writers and reporters can believe that their jobs are largely separate from the machinery of the imperial corporation. They do their journalistic thing and the business types do theirs. Except for a few annoying extra-reportorial chores (I can recall two: finding scuba equipment for Clare Boothe Luce, and checking out a graduate school for an executive’s son), correspondents are generally left to their whales and what-not. In their minds they perceive a gulf fixed between them and the corporate side. But at last it is only in their minds. They are company men as surely as any ad salesman. They function not as independent journalists but as operatives of an institution which is not primarily journalistic. Interests which have nothing to do with news reporting form the context in which the reporters must work, and the institutional values flow accordingly. Careerism, status, non-involvement, flippancy, a patronizing tone: it’s all built into the system. Whatever it once may have been, working for Time is not now like working for Le Monde or The National Review or the Arkansas Gazette. A Time reporter might as well be a junior executive at Hunt Foods or Unilever: all corporate conglomerates are essentially the same.

John Kobler’s thin, chatty—altogether Timey—biography of Henry Luce1 lists some of the effects of Time‘s “corporate journalism,” but it hardly discusses the implications. Luce’s life—at least in the telling of it—has a certain one-dimensionality, a uniform gruffness that leads biographers to proclaim honesty, integrity, and foresight and then find themselves stumped for a second chapter. (Luce’s co-founder of Time Inc., Briton Hadden, was much more interesting, but he died of a sore throat at an early age.) In any case, Luce is only the beginning of the story of Time.

In that beginning, Luce had a dream (fantasy?) of “corporate journalism.” There were two inspirations—Calvinism and capitalism—and two aspects: the corporate process in which reporters, writers, and editors work assembly-line fashion; and the corporate adventure to assemble power on a national (and now international) scale.

THERE IS NO MYSTERY in the way the old Time religion served the development of the Company. Luce imparted the strict missionary values he learned from his parents in Tengchow to the corporate child of his own creation. Professor Tawney could have had no better case-study. Kobler reports that Luce used to turn on to acid, but it seems hardly necessary (anyway it was Clare’s idea); he was on a permanent Presbyterian high. From time to time on that trip he would see John Calvin, Adam Smith, and George Washington walking together through the gates of Paradise. Time reflected that hallucination. The company’s financial success was final proof of its moral validity.

Like its two sources, the two streams of corporate journalism fed each other. Time‘s internal organization was uniquely suited to its external development. Like Alfred Sloan’s General Motors, Luce’s Time Inc. built its power on a base of decentralized divisions. The company was able to expand in depth and extent with equal facility. What was most important was the role of the individual: isolated, dependent, and fragmented. Time journalists are kept out of the general community of journalism by the peculiar anonymity of their work. At the same time, they become profoundly dependent on the Company for visible and invisible means of support. Finally, their work within Time is so utterly fragmented that, after a while, they seem to lose integrity even out of the office. The ultimate alienation (metaphorically) takes place on Saturday evenings, as the major front-of-the-book sections of Time are closing: writers, editors, and researchers are served an elegant Restaurant Associates dinner, cafeteria-style from steam tables, in a barren meeting room on one of Time-Edit’s floors in the Rockefeller Center building. Then each person takes his or her tray back to his or her little cubicle, a modular-plan office which can be reshaped or eliminated entirely overnight (and often is). The meal is usually eaten in silence and isolation, and when it is over, the diner places the tray outside the sliding door on the clickety-clackety floor. At some indeterminate time during the next few hours, an underpaid Puerto Rican pads by with a cart and removes the tray. Very clean; very efficient.

In group journalism, an individual reporter or writer is reduced to an unnecessary and insufficient production component. Even the collectivity is unimportant; only the process counts. The local bureaus and the various news departments in New York are not communes of journalists, but units of journalistic production. No one individual or unit ever sees a piece of work—the article—through from beginning to end. The correspondent reports it, the researcher checks it, the writer writes it, the senior editor changes it, and the top editor disposes of it both ideologically and mechanically. The lines cannot be crossed. If a correspondent in a bureau wrote the perfect “finished” Time story, all fit to size and complete in every detail, he would be reprimanded. His job was to write the perfect unfinished research file, containing ten times as much information as “New York” needed to know.

LIKE THE STATE OF GRACE, Time is inevitable. It appears each week regardless of the works of men, who nonetheless feel themselves prisoners, under a crushing imperative to act as if what they did really made a difference. The basic Calvinist contradiction—the necessity of work against its unimportance—drives most Time staffers to distraction, or bars, or other jobs. In recent years, the more contemporary among Time‘s managers have tried to devise various methods to support their workers’ individuality. There are intra-office congratulations, occasional plugs in the Publisher’s Letter, and once in a great while, a direct quotation from a correspondent’s file in an actual printed story. But most Time writers have to read their names in six-point type on the masthead each week just to be sure that they are still alive.

Except for an occasional appearance on “Meet the Press,” or a free-lance article in a “non-competing” publication, Time journalists have no opportunity to earn a reputation outside the company. The New York Times‘s David Halberstam became a national celebrity as a reporter in Vietnam; Time‘s Charles Mohr (who had more experience, a bigger salary, and a larger circulation) was virtually unknown until he quit the magazine and told all (to Halberstam, naturally, who wrote it all up). If reputation is a writer’s capital, Time staffers can never invest. On the contrary: they are forever in debt to Time itself, which supports them in a manner to which they quickly become accustomed, and from which it is extremely hard to descend.

Time‘s institutional importance may lend a reporter a certain anonymous status on the scene (“there’s the man from Time“) but he cannot claim the fame as his own; it belongs to the company. Inside Time, office politics offers its opportunities for advancement, but only vertically in Rockefeller Center, not laterally to other publications. (Once staked out exclusively for gentile Ivy Leaguers according to Luce’s preferences, Time is now meritocratic enough to allow a midwestern newspaper reporter almost as much chance as an Eastern preppy.) Time is liberal with its salaries and positively radical with its expense allowances, which serve as indices of a reporter’s success in covering his field. Traditionally, new correspondents are called in by their bureau chief after the first month’s expense record is lodged, and told that they must entertain and travel more freely if their value is to be appreciated in New York. “You have Air Travel cards. Use them!” a news service memo once urged in a directive to correspondents, who thereupon winged off in all directions. There are minor restrictions, but for the most part Time staffers are free to spend almost anything for any purpose and “put it down as a lunch.” The phrase is almost a corporate philosophy.

Many young journalists who come to work for Time reckon that they will stay for lunch and then leave after a few years, just at the moment that their souls begin to slip away to corporate ownership. Some do eat and run; but it is harder than they think. The process of assimilation into Time style (corporate and literary) begins quickly, and before very long they are both selling and sold.

What we disliked most about Time was not its politics or its style or its support of this or that idea, but its manipulation of us. All the rest we had come to accept, and we knew it was no better on other magazines or papers. (The New York Times too has terrible politics, worse style, and it supports bad ideas.) But what dominated our lives was the Time process; it was the topic of every four-martini lunch. The atmosphere of extreme alienation helped produce many of the effects which readers of Time can easily spot: the phony crisis, the false narrative integrity of a story, the flip cynicism, the hollow know-it-all airs, the adolescent sexual leers. In any case, the formulization of Time stories2 became almost a ritual response to our situation; the obsessive puns and excessive jokes were a pathological symptom.

  1. 1

    Luce: His Time, Life and Fortune, Doubleday, 312 pp., $4.95

  2. 2

    The basic structure of the Time formula is the extrapolation from insignificant detail to cosmic truth. It has its origin in an (apocryphal) Life photo caption: Under a one-column cut of Hitler eating from a bowl with a spoon: “ADOLF HITLER EATS corn-flakes for breakfast, wants to conquer world.”

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