One Monarch Too Many
Morale at The New Republic plummets after Editor Michael Kelly is fired.
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
After a weekend of long conversations with friends and family, William Powers, The New Republic's media critic, walked into a job he loved one Monday morning last month and quit.
Powers--who had no position lined up and a pregnant wife (Washington Post writer Martha Sherrill) on leave--says he resigned on principle. New Republic Editor Michael Kelly, the man who hired Powers, had been summarily fired three days earlier by TNR's owner and editor in chief, Martin Peretz. Senior Editor Charles Lane, 35, was quickly promoted to editor of the 83-year-old weekly.
``It was very clear to me that I couldn't stay here as a media critic," Powers says. ``My position and the integrity of the magazine had been completely undermined."
Why was Kelly, a brilliant writer who had no idea his job was in jeopardy, suddenly dispatched? Explanations from the Peretz and Kelly camps differ. But no one disputes that the editor's dismissal, via telephone call, was handled clumsily. Morale at TNR plummeted after the popular Kelly was canned despite the widespread view that he had improved the magazine since he succeeded Andrew Sullivan last year.
But Kelly and Peretz do agree on one thing: The owner didn't like the editor's unrelenting attacks on President Clinton in his weekly column.
Also figuring in the controversy is Vice President Gore, a close friend of Peretz for over three decades, ever since Gore was Peretz's student at Harvard. Although Kelly had written little about Gore, he had attracted widespread attention through his highly critical ``TRB" columns on the Clinton scandals, particularly those involving Democratic fundraising practices. By early September, press attention was turning toward Gore's role in the burgeoning contretemps.
``I knew that we had growing tension on the subject of Gore," says Kelly, 40, who hadn't settled on his next move at press time. ``The bottom line is that Marty decided I was increasingly going to represent a threat to Gore, and I'd proven to not be sufficiently malleable and responsive to his somewhat erratic will."
Not true, says Peretz, who bought the liberal opinion magazine in 1974. ``Michael didn't understand the intellectual and political balance of The New Republic," says the owner of his handpicked choice to run his magazine. ``This is not just a magazine of close reporting, but of big ideas. It started out with big ideas. And the truth is Michael Kelly wouldn't recognize a big idea if it hit him in the face. The whole business about Gore is fabricated."
Peretz says hiring Kelly was a ``disastrous" mistake. ``I know the morality tale that develops when an owner fires an editor," Peretz says. ``I'm the bad guy. In retrospect, I should have fired him the first month. I turned to each issue with a pit in my stomach. I should turn to it with expectant exhilaration."
Peretz made it clear to Kelly all along that he thought his columns were too often focused on the ethical controversies swirling around Clinton. ``He did more than half his columns just on the Clinton scandals," says Peretz. ``That was a man fixated."
Kelly admits he made the Democratic fundraising brouhaha a cause, but says he believed Peretz had given him the editorial freedom to write whatever he wanted.
But the underlying tension was apparent. National Journal reporter Paul Starobin picked up on the friction in an April 5 story that began: ``Woof-woof. Grrr. Uh-oh: The New Republic's two biggest dogs are warily circling each other, marking turf and baring teeth."
The stress came to a head in early September, Kelly says, after the Washington Post ran two front page articles linking Gore with the Democratic soft money troubles. Kelly says Peretz wrote an unsigned Notebook item indicating the new wave of Gore stories was `` `nonsense and should not be paid attention to.' I told Marty I had a problem with it and sent a three-page memo saying I didn't want to run it, that I didn't think it was true…. He called me and said he disagreed, but since I felt so strongly, we wouldn't run the item."
Kelly says he thought the matter had been resolved. But Peretz wanted to make a move before going to Europe for three weeks, which is why, he says, he called Kelly to fire him.
Kelly's quick departure doesn't faze his successor. ``I wouldn't be doing this if I felt that I am going to be running a dishonest or corrupt magazine," Lane says. ``Marty has assured me we are going to run an honest magazine."
Kelly, too, says he received assurances that he would be able to make decisions without being second-guessed. ``Marty did not wish to interfere all the time," Kelly says. ``But when he did wish to, he really intended to get his way. I always assumed he didn't have to get his way. If he wanted to do something that I thought was not good for the staff or magazine, it was part of my job to challenge him. I did this all the time from the first week on through numerous showdowns. He found that increasingly distressing, I guess."
As editor in chief, Peretz can function as an editor and assign stories. As owner, he holds all the cards.
``You have a dual monarch situation," says Starobin, a dedicated TNR fan. ``Magazines need to have one king. And at The New Republic, it's just not clear who the king is. Marty is the owner so it would appear he wears the biggest crown. But if he wants to hire a talented guy like Kelly, Kelly will want to wear the crown. It's just a continuing problem at The New Republic."
It's exacerbated by the spotlight on the relationship between Peretz and Gore as the latter gears up for a run at the presidency. ``As long as the magazine is owned by Marty, it's in a no-win situation," says new Editor Lane. ``No matter what we do, or whether Mike stayed, there will be those who choose to see us through the prism of Marty's friendship with Gore."