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Collectivised clicks
December 2017 / January 2018


Dominic Green: "New media have degraded print culture into  multi-platform entertainment"


When a big pig loses his footing, the little squealers get squashed. The fall of Harvey Weinstein has brought down less powerful and famous swine, including Leon Wieseltier. Now, Wieseltier was only famous in the small world of American media and politics. But for the same reason, he was quite powerful.

As Books & Arts editor of the New Republic, Wieseltier appointed himself court jester to the bicoastal elite: movie nights with Barbara Streisand, supper with Katharine Graham, owner of the Washington Post. An Olympic-class social mountaineer, Wieseltier promoted himself as the philosopher king of the Republic of Letters. This left him little time for actual writing. He did, it now emerges, find time to grope, kiss and harass the New Republic’s female employees.

By the Nineties, Wieseltier looked like a casualty from a Seventies rock band — cowboy boots and scarves, puffballs of white hair over his ears, red eyes and bloated face. Still, when the internet devastated print publishing, his survival at the New Republic attested to the possibility that digitisation might not wholly degrade America’s public life.

In 2012, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought the New Republic and set about infantilising it for a millennial audience. In 2014, the senior staff revolted, and Wieseltier resigned very publicly. The hero landed on his feet: a teaching job at Harvard, a fellowship at the Brookings Institution, and a spot on the masthead of the Atlantic. Best of all, Wieseltier promised to avenge the dumbing-down of America’s media by launching Idea, a culture journal funded by the Emerson Collective.

This is a curious name for a collective. Waldo Emerson, freelance journalist and Yankee individualist, was utterly opposed to collectivism. Society, Emerson wrote in Self-Reliance, is “everywhere in conspiracy” against the individual, and works like “a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater”. Anyone who has bought one Apple product, and found that using it involves further purchases, knows that feeling. But the Emerson Collective isn’t really a collective. It is a philanthropic behemoth, one of those distinctively American machines for the generation of good works and tax breaks, and it belongs to one person: Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs.

Emerson Collective describes its objectives as “removing barriers to opportunity so people can live to their full potential”, and executing “innovative solutions that will spur change and promote equality”. It has donated generously to schools, and to media businesses including film production companies, journalistic start-ups like the California Sunday Magazine and  the news website Axios, and non-profit journalism outlets like the Marshall Project and ProPublica.

In July, Emerson Collective bought a majority stake in one of Waldo Emerson’s regular gigs, the Atlantic magazine. The price was undisclosed, but the deal gives Emerson Collective the option of taking full ownership of the magazine and its ancillary businesses in the near future.
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