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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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."