What, Exactly, Is Stengel Doing to Time?

What kind of "understanding" did Time's managing editor have with Apple's CEO?

There’s an interesting piece by Joe Hagan in this week’s New York magazine about Time magazine’s new managing editor, Richard Stengel. (Hat tip to the National Review’s Stephen Spruiell for initially flagging the piece, and raising some questions about Stengel which were spot-on.)

There’s nothing wrong with the piece itself, which is a great read, but one passage raises an important question about what kind of deal Time’s managing editor had with the subject of a story. See if you can spot the problem here:

In January, Time published an exclusive story on the new iPhone, in which writer Lev Grossman…suggested that Apple had “some explaining” to do about backdated stock options. When the story hit the Web, [Apple CEO Steve] Jobs called Stengel to complain (as it happens, Apple is a major advertiser in Time, and Jobs is a good friend of Huey’s). Stengel reacted by immediately excising the offending paragraphs from the Web (they have since been restored). Then he had Grossman come into the office to rewrite part of the piece for the print edition. Grossman was infuriated.

“I feel bad about the whole episode on both sides,” Stengel now says, explaining that the flap resulted from a miscommunication. “I’ll take the blame in the sense that there was an understanding that I had with Steve, which I did not tell the writer and that was an oversight on my part.” The backdated-stock-options part of the story wasn’t eliminated, he argues, just moved into a sidebar that ran in the magazine. Still, Stengel concedes that it was a weak moment for the magazine’s journalism.

Spruiell marks this passage, as do we, over the questions it raises as to what this “understanding” was that Stengel had with Jobs. We realize that getting access to any high-salaried corporate leader takes no small amount of effort and finesse, but we’re curious as to why Stengel seems to have gone the extra mile here in order to tweak the story to Jobs’ liking. Granted, Stengel restored the text that he initially had removed from the Web version, but the fact that he reacted so strongly to the complaints from Jobs is curious, to say the least.

A few other things that Stengel said caught our eye, as well. The first was when Hagan wrote that Stengel “has aggressively ramped up the opinion in Time, hiring established, brand-name white guys who telegraph wonkishness. There’s liberal columnist Michael Kinsley, Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, and of course Walter Isaacson.”

It might sound like we’re really picking a nit here, but labels and language are important, and the excerpt cited above is a little too opaque where it counts. We suppose Kinsley can be defined as “liberal,” but for anyone who reads him on a regular basis, it’s obvious that he is a more heterodox writer and thinker than that vastly oversimplified (and loaded) label suggests. And since he’s “liberal,” why isn’t William Kristol identified as conservative? Granted, this isn’t the kind of thing that will cause heads to roll at New York, but it’s important, if only for the way that Hagan makes it sound like Kinsey’s “liberal” tendencies might offset Kristol’s conservative ideals. These “established, brand-name white guys” that Stengel has brought on are hardly a diverse lot. Beyond Kinsley and the conservative Kristol, Stengel also publishes hardcore conservatives Richard Brookheiser of National Review and Charles Krauthammer, has an online deal with Real Clear Politics, a content aggregator for primarily conservative opinion pieces, and just lost conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan to the Atlantic.

Is any of this inherently bad? No. Scandalous? Of course not. But in looking at how Stengel is trying to change the venerable newsweekly, it’s worth exploring why he hired these particular columnists. These aren’t just your average op-ed page writers — Krauthammer, Kristol and Brookheiser all come from the far right of the conservative movement — and it should be noted because for a magazine like Time to move in this direction is an important development in our national discourse.

Finally — and to end on a lighter note — we have to comment on Stengel calling columnist Joel Stein “a god to people in their twenties and thirties.” Speaking from our vast experience with people in their twenties and thirties, we can tell you that in the pantheon of our generational “gods,” Stein doesn’t make the cut. While he’s every editor’s dream — a completely harmless hire who will churn out vaguely amusing copy — let’s not get too crazy about the whole thing.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.