Tina Brown speaks in New York City in April 2017. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)
Jamie McCarthy;Getty Images
By Samuel P. Jacobs
November 14, 2017
IDEAS
Samuel P. Jacobs is digital director and executive editor at TIME.

In 1983, the British editor Tina Brown arrived in New York City at the age of 29. She had already led the British society chronicler Tatler to renewed vigor, catching the attention of Conde Nast’s Si Newhouse who rewarded her with the editorship of Vanity Fair. After eight years at Vanity Fair, which she boasted gave “intellectuals movie star treatment and move stars an intellectual sheen,” she went on to edit The New Yorker, and later launched experiments like Talk magazine in 1999 and The Daily Beast in 2008, marrying the online upstart with the old-line Newsweek into one company in 2010. (I worked for Brown at The Daily Beast and Newsweek.) Like any good journalist, she took notes along the way.

Those notes are now a memoir, The Vanity Fair Diaries, out Nov. 14. Brown talked with TIME about her book, the new wave of sexual harassment allegations (including those involving her former business partner Harvey Weinstein), the appeal of Donald Trump, and what Facebook and Google owe journalists.

I was rereading the interview you did with Michael Kinsley five years ago. You seemed so over print. What are you doing publishing a book?

I’m not over books, you know.

You’re publishing your diaries. What do you keep private?

There’s plenty of that diary that didn’t make it into publication. I’m an introverted, off-stage character. But I also love the arena. I say in the book I’m a girl of the arena. I like to be sitting there in the heart of the action. The two strands pull at me all the time and I vacillate depending on the day and the mood.

One of the book’s most touching stories is about raising your son George. You write about watching Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” and thinking that the role might tell you something about George. What has it been like to raise him?

My son has Asperger’s. It makes for a kind of amazing unfiltered person. There’s a lot of joy raising Georgie because he’s so unfiltered. When he met Anna Wintour at my publishing party this week, he said to her, “Are you Camilla Parker Bowles or some other person from the ‘80s?”

What did she say?

She laughed. But I just thought, “My god, classic Georgie.” He once told a teacher that she needed a facelift. So that’s the great joy of Georgie. The unvarnished truth. And in fact raising Georgie taught me how much we all have to lie to make the world go around, right?

You’ve been praised for creating”buzz” around magazines you edit. You write in the book, “I feel a nagging sense this ‘buzz’ bullshit would not keep being said about a male editor.” How have you been treated differently than male editors?

I definitely think that for a silver job women always have to be gold. As a woman I never felt I could wing it. And I was always envious of men who could wing it. I can’t wing it.

What don’t you miss about editing magazines?

I don’t miss the dinner parties. When I read my diaries again I was just utterly perplexed and blown away by the volume and the intensity of the social life that the world of Vanity Fair was in. And I would actually pay good money not to go to a black tie benefit in any shape or form. My husband’s great motto is the best dinner party is the one that’s cancelled.

Your allergy to alcohol helped.

Yes, I do think that if I had had a drink in my hand I would not have been so beadily observing whatever everyone was saying and doing.

What advice do you have for the next editor of Vanity Fair?

Oh, completely rip it up, and start again if you want. I’m a huge believer in reinvention. And we put out amazing DNA that lasted for, good lord from ’84 to where we are now. It’s time for it to be rethought. I don’t think you want to stay in template left by your predecessor.

We have to talk about Donald Trump I’m afraid.

He’s in the book. He’s always weaving in and out.

You wrote in your diary, “There’s something authentic about Trump’s bullshit.” He’s “an entertaining con man and I suspect the American public would like nothing better.” This was thirty or so years ago. Do you think that’s why he won the White House?

There is something so deeply American about his appeal. At the end of the day, Donald Trump is a man with a golden tower and a big airplane and a model wife. That’s a very easy thing to understand as a success story. People don’t really understand what bankers do. They don’t understand what Facebook entrepreneurs do particularly all day long. But they do know what it means to build the golden tower and have a model wife.

People blame celebrity culture for Trump’s success, and some people blame you for our obsession with celebrity culture. Is that unfair?

Look, celebrity culture began with Ronald Reagan. And I’m not blaming him. When I arrived in America, Ronald Reagan was on a glide path to the election.

And it’s very interesting in the diary how that night when he beat Mondale my reporter Marie Brenner is calling me and saying she’s sitting in Georgetown at one of the Georgetown WASP evenings and they’re all bemoaning the fact that this actor has got into the White House and the liberals are in the descent.

It’s quite striking to read it today, how it could almost be the first act of where we are today. Sure, I certainly was the kind of chronicler and precursor of much of what has happened in terms of where we are.

How would you grade the media’s performance over the past year?

I think we’ve seen a fantastic resurgence in journalism in the last year. I’m very excited by what journalists are doing right now. There’s a fantastic, relentless sort of rigor now about continuing to not be deflected by Trump’s aggressions and mendacity and simply to keep on keeping honest with the public and publishing what he is doing in a way that’s very exciting.

You liked to say as an editor, “If you don’t have a budget, get yourself a point of view.” Budgets are still shrinking. Do you worry about the future of journalism?

I do worry very much about the business model. I think it’s high time that Facebook and Google created a vast philanthropy fund to fund journalism. They have stolen so much that it’s high time they gave some of it back.

Which has been worst for journalism: Google, Facebook, or Twitter?

I think Facebook probably because it’s world domination…I think journalists for years have had to be berated with this word, exposure—as if anyone can live off exposure. There should be revenue that comes back to journalism. It’s just not right in my view. And I think that the worm is turning in that actually.

In what way?

I have a feeling that we’re going to see some kind of a push back that finally benefits. I think the world needs journalism, and I think that people are beginning to understand that, even though the press never seems to be in any poll to be in particular high regard. Maybe we’re coming to a time when writing words can be valued the same as writing code.

What do you make of Theresa May and the direction of the United Kingdom?

Unfortunately, Theresa May was a classic glass-cliff candidate in that she was the last one standing after a whole bunch of Etonian men had bollocksed it all up, right?

You wrote in your diary in 1986, “Boris Johnson is an epic shit.” Who do you think is worse: young Boris Johnson or old Boris Johnson?

He has simply fulfilled this early prediction as far as I‘m concerned. Never was there a better crystal ball than that statement.

I find diaries enthralling because you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You know Boris Johnson appears, he’s an epic shit, you don’t know who he is at the time. And there he is caught in the moment without any reflection about what he became later. And that is the joy of diaries.

You’ve covered the British royal family for many years. What do you make of Meghan Markle?

Here is this really beautiful and smart and biracial woman, and she and Harry are going to be rock stars together, in the nicest of ways. I think that Diana’s boys turn out to have been not just a boon to the royal family but a reinvention.

Do you think Diana would have liked her?

I think Diana would be over the moon.

Do you still want to write a book about Hillary Clinton?

I think all the books have been written about Hillary now.

What did you make of her loss?

Look, there was an explosion, a perfect storm of terrible forces came together. I did write a column before then saying that I didn’t think she should run. I believed that she should have her post-presidency without going through the hell of running. I was proven to be correct. It’s all about the post-presidency these days, not the presidency.

At one point, you wrote in your diary, “Most of my role models have been men. They always had the lives I wanted.” Why?

Particularly at the time that I was growing up, men had the jobs I wanted. I looked around and it was a man managing TIME and it was a man editing Newsweek and it was a man editing Vanity Fair and a man managing The New Yorker. So I wanted to be that. And so I admired the people who were doing that.

Have things improved for women today?

It has definitely improved, but not enough. It’s still stalled. And that is what the rage that we are seeing now is all about. It’s about not only about sexual harassment, which God knows is bad enough, but it’s also about women feeling that things have been stalled and quietly working towards improving them is just not working. It’s time for explosions of much more radical action. And a sense of rallying, which social media can do. The “Me Too” campaign wouldn’t have been possible fifteen years ago. So that can make change.

I’m sure you’re aware of the so-called “shitty men” in media list. How many shitty men in media have you known?

I have also known many great men in media actually, and I married a great man in media. I’ve been just extremely blessed in not being plagued by men who wished to thwart me. Sometimes I didn’t notice when they tried to thwart me, and I decided that the best strategy was successfully beating them from trying to thwart me. You get a lot of jealousy as a woman. Male reporters are always trying to get women to be featured in stories as being competitive with other women. But actually it was the men who were the most jealous of the women, not the other way around, I always found. So I haven’t had that issue really.

Leon Wielseltier wrote for you at Vanity Fair, and you’ve known him for many years. Were you surprised by the reports about his behavior at The New Republic?

He was always an outrageous flirt but I never felt that he was harassing women. I never worked with Leon in an office, so I didn’t see that side of Leon. With me, he was always appropriate. What can I say? And he was someone who couldn’t do that to me. And I just don’t know. I mean the trouble is today that the shoe drops and you have no idea what’s coming down the pike. So these are tough times.

Do you regret going into business with Harvey Weinstein?

I certainly do. I regretted that long before the sexual harassment complaints. I regretted it within about twenty-five minutes of signing the contract. No, it was a very, shall we say, unwise career move on my part. And when I learned about what had been happening, I had no idea that that was happening. But the rest of his personality did not make me think, “What a surprise.”

Do you think this generation of women is different from the ones that preceded it?

I guess there’s safety in numbers. And I think women have often felt “Oh, this is what it’s like, I’m just going to take it.” And I think it’s very, very good right now, even if there’s an overcorrection for a time, for a new culture to be set so that women do not feel that it’s just part of life that they have to put up with the kind of behavior that we’re reading about.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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