Monday, October 29, 2007

Interviewing `Time' Magazine's Managing Editor In The 1990s

Downtown spoke with Time magazine’s then-managing editor, Henry Muller, in 1990 about Newsweek’s criticism of his magazine’s June 11, 1990 Scott Turow cover story. Muller adamantly denied that Time magazine would ever use its cover to promote products being marketed by other Time Warner media institutions it owns.

Newsweek only criticized us for not mentioning that Scott Turow’s first book was published by Warner—which we mentioned the next week,” Muller said. “It didn’t accuse us of using the cover story to promote the book and movie.”

Muller also declared that “One of the salient points of the Times’ article was that Newsweek was clearly engaged in intra-mural fighting. And that Newsweek’s motives for criticizing Time were dubious and self-serving.” (Of course, since the New York Times was a business partner with Time Warner in its Time Distributors operation in 1990, some cynics might also go so far as to argue that the Times article itself was self-serving).

Downtown asked Muller why Time magazine didn’t initially mention that the author it put on its cover was first published by another division of Time Warner. “Our policy is that we only mention Time Warner corporate connections in all business and press action stories. But not in our review or movie sections or in news stories. We have never mentioned corporate connections in our review columns,” answered Muller. “Before Time merged with Warner, this was our policy. Our long-standing policy was not to mention the corporate ownership of movies and books we review.”

Would Time magazine mention that Madonna records were produced and distributed by another division of Time Warner in 1990 if it decided to put Madonna on its cover? “If we do a `people’ item on Madonna—it depends. You have to see the actual story. It depends on the nature of the story. Is it a review? Or is it in-between?” Muller replied.

Downtown asked Muller what effect the Time Warner merger had on Time magazine’s editorial independence [during the early 1990s]. According to Muller, Time magazine’s editorial independence was “not in any way…affected by the merger. We’ve probably done 20 or 30 stories that have a corporate connection. And they all demonstrated our total independence in writing. We’ve written about Paretti [a 1990 business controversy involving Time Warner] and cable deals. We’ve got a 100 percent record of independence.”

In his 1988 Beyond Malice book, however, the former Time-Life broadcast chairman, Richard Clurman, wrote:

“Very few people or organizations are capable of ongoing public confessional or disclosures about themselves. When I covered the press for Time, my editors wanted intensive reporting and criticism of others. But it was taken for granted that when I had to write about some development at Time Inc., itself, I would shift to the spare repose of a corporate press release.”

Asked by Downtown whether it should be mentioned in Time magazine that the chairman of the Executive Committee of Time Warner’s corporate board in the early 1990s, J. Richard Munro, was also a member of the Mobil Corporation oil company’s board of directors, Muller answered:

“Why should it be? Let me give a more direct example. General Motors is a heavy advertiser in Time. Should we write that General Motors is an advertiser in Time every time we mention General Motors in a news story?”

When Downtown noted that there’s a difference between a company advertising in Time magazine and a company like Mobil having its director heading Time Warner, in terms of possible conflict of interest, Muller denied the possibility of any conflict of interest. “We’ve made our reputation on being independent. The only question that matters is `Does your product have integrity or doesn’t it? Nobody’s going to compromise with Time’s independence,” said Muller.

Downtown asked Muller whether there was any internal debate at Time magazine before it was decided to put the author of a Time Warner-published book on its front cover. “There was no internal debate. The judgment was made by our book reviewer that this merited a cover story. Everybody has standing instructions around here to pursue journalistic responsibilities without regard to corporate ownership,” Muller replied. “And today it is a point of view backed up by a `helluva’ track record. Except for that initial mistake [i.e. not publishing an article on the Time Warner merger the week it was announced], we haven’t done anything journalistically wrong in our coverage of Time Warner.”

The Time magazine Managing Editor vigorously denied that Time magazine would ever be influenced by Time Warner business considerations. “I don’t think Time people would put up with any kind of corporate interference. Nobody’s dumb enough to compromise on that. This is basic. My responsibility is to preserve the integrity of Time. It’s nutty to think that anyone at Time would start to try to interfere with Time’s editorial integrity for business reasons,” Muller insisted.

Muller claimed that the separation of the business side of Time from its editorial side “had probably strengthened since the merger. We’re more independent. I am passionate about this,” said Muller.

Asked whether he thought it was archaic to worry about one company owning both a newspaper and a television station in one city or both magazines and cable TV stations, Muller replied: “Whether the San Francisco Chronicle should be allowed to own a TV station, I’m not prepared to answer. My one job is to make sure the independence of our magazine is preserved. The only thing I can say with total confidence is that Time magazine is more independent than ever. We would never act as a catalog to market Time Warner products.”

Would Muller resist corporate pressure to make Time magazine a catalog? “I would—though there’s never been any pressure.”

When Downtown mentioned to Muller that perhaps omitting coverage of Time Warner business activities or omitting coverage of people who raised media monopolization issues was a more likely journalistic sin than publishing articles in response to Time Warner business needs, Muller said: “There’s no omission. We’ve printed articles on cable regulation and on the Time Warner-Paretti deal. You wouldn’t find a better story in Newsweek on Time Warner. We wrote about problems with Entertainment Today. We’re in nobody’s pocket.”

(Downtown 10/24/90)

But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting in the 21st-century for Time magazine to do more frequent cover-story articles about U.S. political prisoners, the number of Iraqi civilians actually killed as a result of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East since 2003 or the anti-war folks in the U.S. who have questioned the U.S. government’s official story of what actually happened on September 11, 2001 in Downtown Manhattan.

Next: 1968 Columbia Student Strike Leader Gilbert’s November 25, 2004 Statement

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