In the program booklet for Tina Brown’s fifth annual Women in the World summit, which took place this past weekend at Lincoln Center, she calls it a “live journalism event” meant to expose Americans to the voices and experiences of women around the globe, and to connect full wallets with worthy causes.
But in her opening remarks, she eschewed journalism, making a bid for unmediated access to global women’s issues. “In today’s fractured media environment, so many great reporters and photojournalists and broadcasters are denied the means to do what they’re best at doing, and long to do, which is tell stories, and tell them with an understanding, and a depth, and a complexity not possible in just soundbites and trafficbait,” she said Friday evening. “That’s why the mission of this convening is to bring us the wider world as seen through the stories of women. Let them tell those stories without mediation.”
That didn’t happen there. Women in the World was much less an unmediated peek into different lives than a slick, well-edited moneymaker, in which developing-world narratives were packaged—complete with videos and mood music—to convince Westerners to pony up. That is, Brown produced the live-action equivalent of the magazine covers on which she built her career: It was a glossy and eye-catching means to attracting revenue.
Women in the World, the flagship event of Tina Brown Live Media, is Brown’s latest act, launched this year after a high-profile failure to revitalize Newsweek by merging it with The Daily Beast, the site she created in 2008 with financial backing from IAC (head Barry Diller’s wife, designer Diane Von Furstenberg, was a large presence at Women in the World). Brown’s career before The Daily Beast is the stuff of media legend: stints helming Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, creating Talk, and penning a book on Princess Diana. Through it all, she’s developed a reputation for excess, throwing lavish launch parties and scrapping expensive cover stories despite looming deadlines.
She does not have a career-reputation as a feminist. She clearly didn’t leave a legacy of fostering women’s voices at The New Yorker, where bylines are 75 percent male. And that number is only 5 percent better at The Daily Beast, created by Brown just six years ago. That is, she either didn’t try, or failed, to reduce the byline disparity that perpetuates the prevalence of men’s voices and issues in the public sphere, though doing so across decades would have a much broader effect on broadcasting women’s stories than one-off events.
So Brown’s foray, now, into feel-good celebrity feminism can be read as an opportunistic ploy to monetize the zeitgeist in this Hillary-for-president era—the initial beneficiary of packing the theater is Tina Brown, and it only helps all the global activists onstage if attendees choose to donate at one of the many kiosks beyond the $3,900 ticket. (Some portion of the ticket proceeds is donated to Vital Voices, but attempts to learn the percentage were unsuccessful.)
To be clear: Women in the World was a supremely entertaining event. There was delicious free popcorn and unlimited Coke beverages. There were free car rides home courtesy of Toyota. I saw Jon Stewart, Hillary Clinton, Christine Lagarde, Sarah Silverman, and Katie Couric from my first-ring press seat in the Koch theater. And, yes, I learned or was reminded of the dire struggles that mark many women’s daily reality. If any of this inspired the in-person or livestream audience to give, Brown deserves plaudits for it.
But the whole experience, contra Brown, was nothing if not highly mediated, from the big-name journalists shaping the interviews to the slick videos that framed each issue under discussion. Most uncomfortably, disadvantaged women and teens crying their way through horrific autobiographies for a sympathetic, mostly female, audience, made much of the summit feel like an episode of Oprah, where one person’s grief is a crowd’s entertainment. That’s not “live journalism,” or unmediated truthtelling—it’s packaged activism, with Brown’s name ever-present on the backdrop. And while it will hopefully benefit many women, it will definitely benefit one.