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 …

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