Legendary editor Tina Brown’s mission is nothing short of transforming journalism as we know it
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
Tina Brown is the kind of celebrity who, when you mention her name in passing to generally knowledgable people, generates one of two reactions: 1. Glassy stares. 2. Pearl-clutching hyperventilation. The second reaction is from people who know who she is; the first is from people who don’t realize they know who she is.
Because if you’ve consumed media in the last 30 years in the English-speaking world, you have crossed paths with the legacy of Tina Brown. It hasn’t always been favorable … or at least, she’s had her share of pundit detractors (though few of those merit a blip on the cultural radar anymore). After becoming editor of the British society mag Tatler while only 25, she proved her cred as a publishing Cinderella; she took the flailing lifestyle magazine Vanity Fair and transformed it into the must-read celebrity publication of the 1980s (she sextupled its circulation in three years). Brown is the one who put a pregnant Demi Moore on the cover, an image so iconic it may well be Moore’s (and perhaps Brown’s) obituary photo.
She then moved onto the staid New Yorker, which, in its then-73 year history, had employed only three previous editors, all men. Brown gussied up the look, adding — for the first time — a staff photographer (legendary fashion lensman Richard Avedon). Critics said she would ruin the storied publication, but would NYer columnist Andy Borowitz be the social media icon he is today if Brown hadn’t loosened the starched collar on Eustace Tilley? The Weinstein-backed Talk magazine was her first real belly-flop, but she followed that stumble in 2008 launching a news website (perhaps you’ve heard of it: The Daily Beast).
Brown’s facility at revitalizing reportage has continued to evolve and expand. So, when Brown chose Dallas late last year as one of the cities for hosting one of her Women in the World salons, North Texans got a first-look at what she’s been up to.
“We do our big summit in April and then take it on the road,” Brown explained to me in a parlor at the Fairmount Hotel, hours before the event. “We are very excited to be here. We just felt we must come to Dallas.” (She must have liked it; her group just announced that Women in the World will be back at the Dallas Museum of Art Nov. 5 for a private event.)
Once you experienced it, you understood: You were getting a peak at the future of journalism. Print endures and the internet proliferates, but in-person salons? It’s simply the most exciting reinvention of news analysis since the World Wide Web.
“The live events — I see them as magazines,” Brown says. “It’s not really a TED Talk, which is a presentation. It’s more journalistic — we call it live journalism. It’s about the pacing, the storytelling, the combination of the individuals with marquee personalities and people we discover and tell the stories of. And frankly, it’s usually the people you haven’t heard of before you leave the theater talking about.”
Without bells and whistles, you could see the Dallas salon play out like flipping through the pages of a glossy newstand copy of an eyecatching magazine: The multiple-source lead feature (headlined “Persisters,” featuring three women of remarkable but diverse achievements: Dallas Police Chief Renee Hall, Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath and former NFL coach Jen Welter). Then there was the political profile from a human interest angle: Hannah Song, who runs a modern-day Underground Railroad to rescue victims of the North Korean regime. There was a poem read by a remarkable talent, Iasia Sweeting and even some quasi advertorial: A grant from Dallas-based Toyota for the salon’s Mother of Invention award to Maxeme Tuchman, founder of the educational platform Caribou. It ended with a one-on-one with Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood.
If you were paying attention, you no doubt noticed that all the speakers (and indeed, all the interviewers) were women. And that’s a driving force behind Brown’s mission.
“We curate the experience. You get to learn about a world you didn’t know,” she says. “It’s just about women who turn us on with their life’s work. We bring these amazing women together. It’s about the excitement of people discovering people who have passion. And people find that passion very appealing.”
At the height of the MeToo movement, Brown was already well-ensconsed in issues of women in the workplace and the struggles they experience, always with a unique, even withering perspective.
“We did a huge sexual harrassment dicussion [before it was in the news so much]. “HR is there to protect the company; there’s hardly a woman you can think of who raised sexual harraassment whose career improved. [We also reported early on] the rise of white supremacists. And we are really bringing to the world the voices of women, which we have been doing since 2009 — how ahead of the curve we were!” Brown says in her measured, erudite accent. “I felt women who were extraordinary and had amazing stories to tell did not have enough of a platform. Many were from overseas — Africa or the Middle East — fighting jihad, fighting [limited] access to education, oppression, child mariage. We really went deeply into the question of what was hapening in the world. By the time we put them onstage, people really want to hear from them. It’s a very cutting edge, newsy platform.”
In doing so, Brown hopes she has brought a new energy and visibilty to women’s issues — their struggles, yes, but also their victories.
“[MeToo] is not just about victimhood but the women who have beaten down the doors. We don’t do programs about victims; it’s about people who triumphed. We’ve heard a lot about resistance this past year; but resistance without persistence doesn’t get you anywhere… it’s about the ones who keep going!”
Take, for instance, Cecile Richards. “I don’t know how she kept going,” Brown admits. “ was a year from hell, and she’d been pushed back at every turn. She ended 2017 opening two clinics in Texas and blazing ahead. She’s a remarkable figure. And her mom was amazing, too.”
The key, Brown realized long ago, is that facts and knowledge are all but meaningless if you don’t grab your audience. Which is what she has spend 40 years doing.
“Storytelling brings the world alive to you in ways you didn’t expect to care about,” Brown says. “It’s very hard to make people care, and we think its our job to make people care.”
The next Women in the World salon takes place in Toronto on Sept. 10. An event is also planned at the Dallas Museum of Art on Nov. 5. For more information and updates, visit WomenInTheWorld.com.