February 13 - 20, 1 9 9 7
[Don't Quote Me]

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Work in progress

Michael Kelly's first hire at The New Republic, media critic William Powers, makes a striking debut. But even Powers admits he's got a lot to learn.

by Dan Kennedy

If outrage is the sincerest form of flattery, then the reaction provoked by New Republic media critic William Powers proves that he's off to a fast start.

In his first three pieces, Powers managed to piss off 1) the Washington press corps, which he accused of liberal bias in its coverage of the Clinton scandals; 2) free-press advocates, whom he offended by siding with Food Lion in its hidden-camera suit against ABC's PrimeTime Live; and 3) the White House, whose fulminations against right-wing conspiracy theories Powers characterized as being on a par with paranoid rants about black helicopters.

Powers -- a 35-year-old Harvard graduate who was the Washington Post's magazine critic before coming to TNR -- has quickly established himself as a voice to be reckoned with. He is The New Republic's first full-time media critic, and he brings to the position a lively, disputatious intellect and keen powers of observation.

He is also the clearest indication to date of where new editor Michael Kelly intends to take the 83-year-old weekly, a journal of opinion whose roots are in liberalism, but which has become increasingly centrist and contrarian during the two decades under owner and editor-in-chief Martin Peretz.

Kelly, a hard-nosed Clinton-basher who's written for the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine, was brought in by Peretz to give a tough political edge to a publication that had de-emphasized politics under the previous editor, Andrew Sullivan, who was more interested in cultural and social issues. Powers was Kelly's first hire, and the early indications are that Powers is a media critic in Kelly's image: smart, sardonic, and unrelentingly anti-Clinton.

Unfortunately, Powers also shares Kelly's instinct to provoke for provocation's sake. That instinct led Powers, in his December 16 debut on coverage of the Clinton scandals, to overreach. He transformed a few piquant observations about the media's slipshod coverage of the Paula Jones story and its flagging interest in the endless Whitewater saga into an unsupportable charge of liberal bias.

The problem, as Powers sees it, is one of emphasis: "The major news organizations played the story, but they played it mostly down." The reason: "the mainstream press is liberal. Most Washington reporters share with the Clinton aides a language, a value system, a set of buttons. Outrage at, say, `partial-birth infanticide' is not one of the buttons of this class. Outrage at `right-wing abortion activists' is."

"Ridiculous," wrote Newsweek's Jonathan Alter in the webzine Slate, kicking off a two-week, online debate with Powers.

"A classic case of taking a bunch of interesting points and hyping them into a big, lapel-grabbing cover story," Powers's former Washington Post colleague Howard Kurtz, the paper's media reporter, told the Phoenix.

Indeed, the real explanation for whatever slack the media may have cut Clinton last year was the murkiness of the charges against him. The media's true bias is for news, and by 1996 Whitewater was supplying damned little. By contrast, the White House fundraising scandals, which began coming to light in the closing days of the campaign, have energized even such relentlessly pro-Clinton news organizations as the Boston Globe. "I actually have been quite impressed by the media's coverage of this stuff," Powers admits.

Powers was on more-solid ground with his January 20 analysis of the verdict against ABC. Most commentators howled in pain over the First Amendment implications when the jury decided that the journalists were wrong to go undercover to film Food Lion's repackaging of old meat. Powers, though, was among the first to note that the jury saw outtakes in which, among other things, a Food Lion employee was seen selling moldy sausage -- and both the seller and the buyer were undercover ABC producers. Revelations of such ethically dubious practices cast the jury's verdict -- and the subsequent $5.5 million award to Food Lion -- in an entirely different light.

It was back to less-defensible turf on February 3, though, when Powers mocked the White House's attempt to link right-wing conspiracy theories with Clinton-scandal stories in the mainstream media. Powers's point -- that tales spread by right-wing nuts don't disprove more-credible anti-Clinton stories -- was fair enough. But Clinton has long been tortured by such grotesqueries as his alleged cocaine airdrop in Mena, Arkansas, and the "murder" of Vincent Foster. To suggest that these fictions haven't had a huge negative effect on Clinton's ability to defend himself is to be willfully naive.

Not surprisingly, Powers's performance has raised suspicions that he (and Kelly) were brought in by Peretz to drag The New Republic to the right. "Powers is so conservative that his analytic powers are lauded in the New York Post by right-wing fanatic Hilton Kramer," sneered the left-liberal Nation's Eric Alterman in a recent attack on Kelly's stewardship. Both Powers and Kelly, though, describe themselves as non-ideological; Powers says he voted for Clinton in 1992 and Bob Dole in '96. Indeed, the conclusion one would draw from both men's work is that they are centrists repulsed by Clinton's conduct, not by his policies.

Although Powers may be new on the national scene, he is an old Washington hand. He grew up in Cranston, Rhode Island, where he attended Catholic schools. Following Harvard and a year's study at the University of Madrid, he was hired as a foreign and military policy aide to US Senator John Chafee (R-Rhode Island). From 1988 to '91 he was a research assistant to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward, a well-established steppingstone for young journalists, working on Woodward's book about the military, The Commanders.

After moving to the Post in 1991, Powers covered business and took over "The Magazine Reader," a roundup of the week's periodicals to which Powers added a critical edge. "It had been done as a kind of grab bag. He just rejuvenated the column," says Chip Crews, who was Powers's editor at the Post.

Powers also wrote media and social features, including a critical look at Harvard professor Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" thesis (Powers argued that the true American tradition is individualism, not the sense of community whose loss Putnam lamented) and, following Disney's purchase of ABC in 1995, a skeptical consideration of the Disneyfication of mass culture.

In 1995 Powers experienced a near-career-ending crisis at the Post -- precipitated, ironically, by The New Republic. That September TNR's Ruth Shalit wrote a lengthy indictment of affirmative action at the Post. It was powerful but flawed, filled with factual errors and apparent misquotations. The Post's executive editor, Leonard Downie Jr., prepared a memo (later submitted as a letter to TNR) in which he charged, among other things, that Shalit was wrong in reporting that a writing slot in the Style section had been held open for a black reporter.

Powers says he'd previously been told he couldn't have the Style position because he was white. Personally opposed to racial quotas (as is, famously, Marty Peretz), Powers says he was angered by Downie's memo; he ended up in a confrontation in which Downie told him the real reason he hadn't been given the Style job was because he wasn't good enough. Powers, believing his future at the Post was at stake, asked friends to intervene. Powers won't say who spoke up for him, but Woodward told the Phoenix that he wrote a memo to Downie "explaining how good I thought Bill was." (Downie could not be reached for comment.)

"This was very shocking to me, and troubling," says Powers of the incident. "He [Downie] didn't say, `You're fired,' but he did raise this concern about my performance." The crisis, he adds, blew over, and he got the Style job. And by the time TNR came calling, he says, "I was very happy at the Post."

Which leads to another irony involving Powers and TNR. It turns out that Powers's first contact with Michael Kelly was in 1994, when Kelly had just moved from the New York Times Magazine to the New Yorker -- and Powers greeted the news with a not-entirely-flattering item in "The Magazine Reader." Powers wrote that Kelly "is a leading practitioner of journalistic psychoanalysis, a murky art. . . . So seductive is Kelly that it's easy to forget he traffics heavily in conjectural mind-reading." (Quips Kelly: "That's when I realized he was pretty good.")

The piece led to an exchange of notes -- friendly, both men say. And last year, after Marty Peretz lured Kelly away from the New Yorker, Kelly says one of his first goals was to hire Powers as his media critic.

It's no exaggeration to say that Kelly loathes Clinton. His 1994 New York Times Magazine profile of Clinton, in which he portrayed the president as a pathological liar blinded to his shortcomings by an overweening sense of entitlement, is a classic of the genre. Since becoming editor of TNR and taking over its venerable "TRB" column, Kelly has pounded away at Clinton's ethical flaws, bringing -- along with Powers -- a very different flavor to a magazine that had been essentially pro-Clinton.

You can't help but wonder what Peretz thinks of this new tone. As recently as last summer Peretz told the Phoenix that he was unimpressed by the Clinton scandals. Peretz now says the stench over fundraising has convinced him that he was wrong.

But there are signs that this stench could envelop his close friend Al Gore, too. "How do you say that Clinton is a devil and Gore is an angel when they're joined at the hip?" asked Jonathan Alter in a Phoenix interview. Kelly and Powers both say they have the green light to go after Gore, though they add they have no reason to believe that Gore was directly caught up in the fundraising mess. Peretz, for his part, notes that Michael Kinsley zinged Gore regularly in TNR during Gore's 1988 presidential campaign. If Gore does get sucked more deeply into the Clinton scandals, Peretz will be tested far more severely than he was by Kinsley's puckish observations.

People who know Powers describe him as friendly and easygoing. He reads poetry, listens to jazz, and plays squash -- or did until a few weeks ago, when he tore up his knee playing touch football. He's engaged to Martha Sherrill, a writer for the Post and for Esquire.

Powers freely admits to being a work in progress, and it's by no means clear to him or anyone else how his column will evolve. His interests, though, are large and wide-ranging. Subjects will include cyberculture and the entertainment industry. And his leftist critics might be surprised to learn that he intends to make the influence of media megacorporations a continuing theme. "I don't think there's enough critique of America's corporate culture and where it's taking us. Corporatism could be a very dangerous thing for the media and for this country," Powers says.

"I don't have some grand, Noam Chomsky take on the media," he adds. "Maybe if I do this for five or 10 years I will."


The Don't Quote Me archive


Dan Kennedy's work can also be accessed from his Web site: http://www1.shore.net/~dkennedy/


Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com


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