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Serving Time

THE SIMPLE MECHANISM of alienation was universal un-responsibility. Correspondents believed that nothing they wrote would ever be printed in any recognizable form, and any facts they might supply (or invent) would be checked and corrected by researchers at some point along the way. Writers had no connection at all with the realities of the stories they wrote; they just supplied the structure (Otto Friedrich, of Newsweek and The Saturday Evening Post, once described it all in a Harper’s article called “There are 00 Trees in Russia.” In the classic newsmagazine tradition, writers never need know facts at all; they leave blanks for researchers to fill in). No one was accountable for anything. Dissimulation to sources became the only possible defense; to an interviewee, devastated by a brutal attack in Time, a correspondent will always say: “I wrote it better.”

If Time style is at least partly a function of the reporting and writing process, Time‘s content is largely determined by its corporate role. Bureaus are more than news-gathering depots; they are missions to centers of power. Bureau chiefs naturally have ambassadorial status. Kobler reports that Luce told a correspondent on his way to Berlin in 1940, “When you get there, remember you’re second only to the American ambassador.” Abroad, Time editors travel in semi-state formality, commanding interviews with native potentates and, occasionally, granting interviews themselves to important figures. Time Inc. for many years had a roving ambassador-without-port-folio, John Scott, whose job was to travel abroad for periods of time and then make speeches about world affairs to businessmen’s dinners in the US (he had other jobs, too, but they remained shadowy).

In domestic bureaus, Time reporters have a less stately but more critical role. They minister to the interests of the local business and political leaders, or at least those with whom Time Inc. Must do business or politics. In Los Angeles, for instance, the bureau chief is given a large subsidy for a fancy house in which he can entertain Southern California fat cats in a style they will appreciate. Every so often, one of them is encouraged in his appreciation by a favorable story. The highest tribute is a cover story (followed by the presentation of the original cover portrait to the subject), and the cats all scramble for that honor. Over the last several years, the L.A. bureau has done covers on Mrs. Norman Chandler (Los Angeles Times, University of California, culture patron), Charles “Tex” Thornton (Litton Industries, exwhiz kid at Ford), William Pereira (architecture and planning), Courtlandt Gross (Lockheed), Norton Simon (Hunt Foods), Tom Jones (Northrop Corporation), Conrad Hilton. Each of the articles may contain one or two uncomplimentary facts or comments (Mr. X picks his nose at dinner parties) but by and large they eulogize the subject and all his works. Over the years, coverboys and girls represent those interests with which Time Inc. will associate itself. On the simplest level, the subjects help provide advertising for many of Time’s publications. But beyond that, they are tied into the same elite establishments as Time, and mutual back-scratching is the rule of that club. Along with Time‘s cover on Mrs. Chandler (“Buffy”), for example, Time Inc. made an enormous gift to the L.A. Music Center, which was her personal promotion.

MY OWN REALIZATION of Time‘s public relations function came by way of the first assignment I had in Los Angeles. As a young “trainee” in the bureau, I was asked to check on a minor development in the business dealings of Edward Carter, the head of a huge department store chain (as well as a chairman of the Board of Regents of the University of California). I phoned Carter’s office, assuming an assistant would give me the required information. But Carter himself answered and immediately offered to come to see me. He was in my office in a flash. I remember wondering why he had been so incredibly eager and accommodating; when he left, an older reporter told me that Carter would do just about anything for a cover story in Time. (He hasn’t made it yet.)

The pay-offs for Time‘s favors are by no means direct (nor always forthcoming). Time will cut an important political figure as often as promote him, and it is difficult (perhaps irrelevant) to determine the reason. Hatchet jobs may spring from the whims of an editor as well as from his ideology, or Time‘s corporate interests. In a way, it makes good sense to build a certain arbitrariness into the magazine. Back-of-the-book cover stories (culture, science, education) are generally throw-aways as far as the business of Time is concerned, but there are occasional benefits there too. The most enjoyable work I ever did for Time was a cover file on Andrew Wyeth, but I see now that that story began a long and profitable association of Time with Wyeth. (Besides, Time‘s original reasons for choosing Wyeth were philistine—and wrong.)

In the long run, it is perfectly clear which side Time is on—not because of its particular stories but because of the meaning of the magazine as an institutional package. Stories are just one item in the box. They give the offering a certain appeal, but overall they are of minor significance. Insofar as Time promotes a view of what’s important about the world, the advertising copy is far heavier than the news. Readers can easily challenge a particular piece of reportage; advertising works much more subtly. Over the weeks and years, it is the ads which tell readers what to think, how to dress, what to buy, and what to value in life. Much more than the articles, the ads transmit a sense of social class and a basic political consciousness. The preponderance of insurance, airline, securities, Scotch whisky, and communications media advertising (not to exclude those toney double-page “institutional” ads featuring abstract designs and scribbled quotations by Lucretius, Lao-Tse, and Alfred North Whitehead) makes the point. Further, the whole feel of Time (and the other Time Inc. publications, in their various ways), its design, its audience, its marketing methods, and its trans-verbal tones give it a cultural position—and by extension, a political one—which mere articles could never establish.

Journalists promote the package; the package promotes the corporation. From an event in journalistic history which changed everyone’s conception of news presentation, Time became an event in marketing history. Surely Henry Luce had not dreamed of that eventuality, even if somewhere down below the possibilities were embedded in corporate Calvinism. But Time is largely a product of what has happened to America in the last half-century: specifically, how corporations have developed an organizational position so controlling that the whole system can be called “corporatism.” Time’s movement is nicely illustrative of that process. Since Luce’s death, Time has become more “liberal” while burrowing deeper into the corporate ethic. Reactionary social policy does not promote the image of the new establishment, which is more interested in co-optation than repression, more concerned with creating new markets than restricting consumption. The recent change in Time‘s managing editorship—from the middle-brow midwestern conservative Otto Fuerbringer to the sophisticated Viennese cosmopolite Henry Anatole Grunwald—reflects the corporation’s new conception of itself.

IN THE EARLY SIXTIES, we received a teletype memo in the Los Angeles bureau announcing the establishment of a “Research and Development” office for Time Inc. The idea struck us as pretentious and amusing; Time seemed to be imitating the technological corporations of Southern California about which we had been writing. As things turned out, it was not all that funny. Time‘s managers (in particular, Luce’s successor, a brilliant, Kennedyesque, former Fortune editor named Hedley Donovan) began to understand the dynamic of empire: rationalize or die. One way of looking at things, which was Donovan’s way, was that Time was in the “education business,” and education theory was in a highly volatile state. McLuhan was just peeking up from underground, a generation of new educationists was coming into its own, and John Kennedy was preparing to spend billions of dollars on schools.

At the same time, Donovan was worried that Time Inc. itself was irrationally and inefficiently managed. Too many decisions were left to chance encounters at Piping Rock, and the cleverest people in each magazine did not have the bureaucratic space to analyze their own problems objectively. Donovan’s solution was to set up “R and D” outside the traditional flow-chart of Time Inc., a super-department apart from the publications and business divisions. Its first job, in 1963, was to study the future of mass magazines, and in due course there appeared a report which was, among other things, sharply critical of Life. The burden of the criticism was that in trying to compete with television (basically, for advertising revenue), Life had become impossibly confused and unprofitable to boot. The report recommended a change of format and personnel, both of which were quickly effected.

There were a few other studies (video-tape, closed circuit television), but the major effort was a research project undertaken by Charles Silberman, a Fortune writer (author of Crisis in Black and White), on the future of the education industry. Silberman assembled a high-powered staff (Jerome Bruner was a consultant) and came up with a secret report that explored the implications of the new educational technology. Various intellectual and managerial arguments raged on the issues Silberman raised, but in the end the burden of his conclusions was accepted. The most important tangible result was Time Inc.’s deal with General Electric to form the General Learning Corporation, to develop, produce, and promote “teaching machines” and programs.

The debate on the issues along the way would make a fascinating study in itself. Donovan worried about the shortage of talent for new projects; Andrew Heiskell (whose contacts with G.E. as head of Urban America led to the final deal) was worried about financing; James Linen was worried about profit. Some executives were troubled by the Lucean myth that Time Inc. was not out to make money but to further the public interest (they obviously had not read Professor Tawney), but Donovan assured his colleagues that if making money were not Time‘s objective, it was both a means for reaching that objective and a measure of success. In the fullness of time, expansion provided its own rationale, and the objections were discarded.

As it happened, the experience with G.E. was disappointing. According to some Time Inc. cynics, G.E. thought it was “buying Time‘s Washington bureau for its $18.5 million, in order to sniff out where the contracts were at the Pentagon and the Office of Education.” Time Inc. was presumed to be an innocent led astray by the G.E. heavies. Francis Keppel, the former Commissioner of Education who became head of General Learning, was said to be confused as to the direction his corporation should take. In fact, the problem was mostly managerial, G.E. certainly wanted its inside track, but so did Time Inc. In those years—as a consequence of John Kennedy’s Keynesianism—corporation planners began to see that they might eventually make as much money out of domestic “welfare” contracts with government agencies as the defense industries had done with the Pentagon. The idea was to substitute corporate planning for socialist planning. By doing their own R and D, defense companies had been able to “make policy” and thus calculate their needs far into the future. Now non-military corporations—both Time and G.E.—wanted the same kind of advantage. By developing and producing teaching “systems” (the theory went), General Learning could in effect make educational policy, and be able to plan ahead for financing, materials, marketing, and personnel. Its (temporary) failure was in poor management and an inaccurate estimate of the readiness of American education to accept a wholesale imposition of the new systems. (Also, the theory is incomplete, as G.L.C. now knows.)

Only slightly put off by General Learning’s inadequacies, Time Inc. has continued to advance its frontiers. R and D has been renamed and re-fashioned “Corporate Development.” Time Inc. has embarked on a series of mergers with other publishing outfits; the latest acquisition is Little, Brown (a deal to buy the Newark Evening News was canceled at the last minute, but Time is said to be in the market for other newspapers). The basic impetus is to branch out horizontally into all the reaches of the “communications” industry, ready to take advantage of whatever McLuhanesque developments may appear. Like RCA, which owns the Random House complex, Time Inc. needs to prepare for the coming age of electronic publishing.

ALREADY, Time’s own Book Division, which was started in 1961, is a $60 million business. Time owns 300,000 shares of MGM stock, and has interests in prestige publishing houses in Europe (Robert Lafont in France, Rowohlt in Germany). In the US, Time has its legal quota of television outlets and a string of radio stations; it controls, or has an interest in, television in Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand, Germany, and Hong Kong. In Italy and Argentina it publishes a magazine called Panorama with local companies; in Japan it puts out President. In the US it has interests in pulp and paper mills, a marketing company and printing firm, and the New York Graphic Society. And of course it publishes those magazines. It all comes to $500 million a year, give or take a few million, and makes Time Inc. the 174th largest industrial corporation in the US.

Time’s sheer wealth and power would be intimidating enough, like some imposing Alp. But the implications of rapidly expanding corporate journalism are much more dreadful. For the society (and now that Time is international, for many societies), it can produce mass ideological manipulation, create worthless demand, and impose a whole range of values which are important to the interests of the corporation but destructive of the individual. Time has tried its hand at all that, and in some instances (China lobbying; anti-communism; the “business ethic”) its success is impressive. If it seems now that the mass media are much more vulnerable than people used to think they would be, it is still true that it takes a great deal of energy to overcome their effect. Resistance is difficult to organize; Time can be uncommonly subtle. Its treatment of the hippies, for example, amounted to a puff-piece on one level. But in a deeper sense, the tone of the article and, more important, what surrounded it in the magazine had the effect of isolating, patronizing, and ultimately discrediting the hippie phenomenon as a kind of amusing piece of social pathology (which nonetheless held lessons for all us straight, healthy people).

Corporate journalism’s effect is much more clearly seen on the consciousness of its employee/victims. I know that Time worked its power on me, as it does on all its journalists, and I am sure that none of us can escape a lasting taint. The best example of the mechanics of corruption in my own Time experience concerns a situation in California in 1964, just before I left the magazine. That fall, I was commuting between the Los Angeles and San Francisco bureaus. In Berkeley, almost within sniping range from Time‘s offices in a San Francisco skyscraper, the students had begun the first demonstrations in the Free Speech Movement. That story was being covered by another reporter in the bureau. My feeling was that he had no basic understanding of the movement; but although I remember “supporting” the students from instinct, I did not try to take the assignment of covering their actions. I probably rationalized by saying that I had other work in progress, or that the bureau colleague got to Berkeley first, or that reporting a riot is too messy. But if I had cared enough, all those excuses would have melted away.

I think I did not care because Time wouldn’t let me. (A few months later, when I was part of a different institution, I found that I cared about the FSM enormously, so I concluded that the trouble had been with my situation, not my constitution.) At lunch or cocktails in San Francisco, I defended the student movement, but in all those months I never even crossed the bridge to Berkeley to see it for myself, either in my role as a reporter or simply as a person. I knew that I could have no real effect on Time‘s attitude toward student revolution, even if my research “file” had been brilliant, and I guessed that any report I did would have too many half-conscious “qualifications” thrown in to appease hostile editors and convince them of the legitimacy of my political judgment. The contradiction between how I knew I would respond to the FSM and what I knew I could accomplish was too pressing; without knowing why, I fled from the dissonance, back to stories which presented no such problems, and a social life which offered no conflicts of conscience.

In a very general way, that must be how most people react to conflicts in the wider society. The big “system” turns people off the way Time‘s smaller system did. It is too painfully dissonant to confront issues without the power to effect solutions, even partially; it is difficult to admit discord with the neighbors or the boss. Time (and the big system) supports those who like insurance companies, airlines, Nelson Rockefeller, and the American Empire; it makes life difficult for those who dig black revolution, hippies, and the Viet Cong. There is nothing surprising in that, but before I went to work selling Time I never knew why it was so.

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