Time Out Of Joint
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Republished by VDARE.com on September 25, 2003

The Times (London)
March 18 1989

NEW YORK—All of us New Yorkers are very worried right now that the felling of Brazilian rain forests by greedy loggers and ranchers will result in a serious deterioration in the quality of the exhaust fumes we breathe.

But there's another little-known and fragile ecology threatened by encroaching entrepreneurs right here in our own city. I'm referring to Time Incorporated, publisher of the weekly Time news magazine, with its characteristic red-framed cover, which is now about to merge with the Los Angeles-based entertainment conglomerate Warner Communications Inc.

Time Inc plays a key role in cleansing (or at least flavouring) the American environment. But for those of us toiling in the journalism trade, the potential loss is much more serious: the fabled working conditions and benefit packages of Time Inc editors and writers have long had the inspirational effect on us that the rumour of El Dorado, the city of gold, must have had on the early explorers when they were up to their armpits in alligators in the South American jungle.

'You realize that they'll pay shrink bills for you and your wife?' a friend enthused on learning that I had been offered a job at Fortune magazine, Time's fortnightly sister business paper. What she didn't add was that we would need it.

Time Inc turned out to be less like El Dorado and more like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World—a plateau somehow cut off from history, where all sorts of exotic flora and fauna were still flourishing long after their extinction elsewhere. Perhaps I should have guessed as much from the popular tradition that it was still haunted by Wasps—a legendary tribe that supposedly passed through New York in the wake of the Manhattan Indians.

The Time-Life Building (Life was a once-great Picture Post- type sister paper, now deceased) was indeed haunted by myriads of hard-working, able young people all with degrees from elite colleges.

But I noticed that they tended to be concentrated in an oppressed proletariat of 'reporter-researchers' who did the grunt-work of telephoning sources and checking facts. The large number of senior staff, the 'Time-Lifers' as I came to think of them, had become complete creatures of their peculiar habitat.

For one thing, they spent money like tap water. Writers and researchers were routinely ordered around the globe for stories that I thought could have been obtained over the phone and which might then be dropped without compunction. (Admittedly, I was easily shocked. My first assignment in journalism, working for a paper run by Scottish Canadians, was to ring a company to see if I could hitch a lift out to the airport hotel where it was holding its annual meeting.)

For another thing, the Time-Lifers seemed to be operating on some sort of different time from other journalists. When you handed in a story, editors came from under rocks and out of caves and carried it off. Not merely would everything you wrote be rewritten, but also everything each editor wrote. The article would start to look like the proverbial axe that had had five new heads and six new handles. The process would take days, and still when it came to time to go to press we would all have to stay until the small hours of the morning sometimes the quite large hours if at the last moment the Editor-in-Chief of Time Inc intervened from his Olympus on some higher floor, as he might do on the smallest detail.

The Time-Lifers, night people all, would accept this unquestioningly and go off to have an expense-account dinner. I began to see that you had to be bred to it.

But it bothered me that I could never get them to complain. I thought it was unnatural and positively eerie for journalists to be so loyal. A friend on Wall Street diagnosed the problem. 'They're not journalists at all, ' he said. 'They're corporate employees. Do they refer to the company as 'We' as in 'We don't do things like that'?'

They did. Frequently. I also realized that the famous American writers who worked for Time Inc—John Kenneth Galbraith, James Agee, Archibald MacLeish—all became famous outside the organization.

I left. For some time afterwards, I got calls from editors about a story I had just finished which was rising and sinking through the system quite without any help from me rather like a drowned corpse. (It eventually surfaced in print, but I never read it.) And a whole year later I got a call about a story idea of mine that had at last made it through the ponderous story approval committee.

The American novelist Herman Wouk in The Caine Mutiny has one of his characters describe the bureaucratic peace-time US Navy as 'a machine designed by a genius to be run by an idiot'. I suspect Time Inc was a machine designed by a genius to be run by a genius—Henry Luce, its brilliant founder. He managed it by thunderbolt, regularly descending on his magazines and purging them, maintaining a state of permanent revolution. After he died in 1965, life was more peaceful. But also, as it has turned out, finite.

The author is a senior editor of Forbes magazine in New York.

[Originally published in England, spelling and grammar vary slightly from American style.]

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