ADAM’S APPLE

Tina Brown, the trailblazing editor of Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, and Talk, certainly has her own well-chronicled faults as a magazine editor, but she famously remarked—correctly—that “an act of bad taste in every magazine is very important on a regular basis,” an axiom that also explains the difference between Robert Plant and Don Henley. One thing that Moss’s New York cannot be accused of is bad taste. It is never exercised, never angry, rarely funny, and never, ever profane. According to New York lore, founding editor Clay Felker’s vision for the magazine amounted to something along the lines of a more lively, energetic, crass—in a word, Jewish—version of the New Yorker, which at the time was a paragon of WASPy propriety. In 1965, when New York was still a Sunday supplement to the New York Herald Tribune, Felker assigned Tom Wolfe a hit piece on New Yorker editor William Shawn that attacked the magazine as “the land of the walking dead” and tossed in several transparent and mocking falsehoods, including an assertion that Shawn was one of the intended victims of Leopold and Loeb, for good measure. That biting, obnoxious ethic is long gone, and Moss’s New York is much closer in spirit to Shawn’s New Yorker: Timid, bloodless, and respectable.

New York‘s most egregious sin is that it’s aimed at such a narrow sliver of the city. It’s become the bible of the ultra-entitled New Yorker, the kind of person who would actually spend $200 on a doorknob described in the magazine as a bargain. The Plate-U coffee table featured in the Strategist a few weeks ago, described with words “thriftiness can be elegant,” can be had for $1,800, or the balance of a month’s salary after taxes for a family that earns New York’s median household income of $43,393. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with pitching a magazine at ludicrously wealthy people desperately trying to fill the holes in their lives with grapefruit-and-vodka-pedicures. But New York is, after all, a city and not a colony of hedge-fund managers. A magazine that purports to capture the life of a teeming and mixed-up metropolis ought to at least occasionally acknowledge the fact that very few people who live there are served by a chart detailing the caloric content of a $250 nine-course tasting menu at Per Se.

Felker’s New York was in many ways just as unapologetically elitist as Moss’s, but, in addition to throwing in the occasional ghetto story as a sop to liberal guilt, its coverage of New York’s social, political, and economic elites was muscular and often daring. “Clay’s chronicles of life in the city were not about the remoteness of power and status and prestige but about the immediacy of those things, even the intimacy, and the excitement, the buzz, of power gained and power lost,” wrote Michael Wolff in New York on the occasion of the magazine’s 35th birthday. “By bringing the large and powerful down to size, you could, of course, begin to see yourself in those roles—and shortly we were all role-playing.” Where Felker saw a barfight, Moss sees a playground.

I noticed a curious thing about the “Sex and Love” issue that helps explain much of what ails New York: The central characters—not just the writers, but the people being written about—were all people likely to run into one another at a book party. The sex diaries featured both a publishing assistant and a magazine editor. Katie Roiphe, a New York City writer, wrote about her own life. Ariel Levy, a celebrated New York writer—and occasional Radar contributor—wrote about her wedding. Caroline Leavitt, a New Jersey (close enough) writer, wrote about the break-up of her marriage. These are people who are ostensibly supposed to take journalism’s reflective surfaces and turn them outward to the world. But Moss asked his writers to turn them inward.

None of which is to say that New York never lobs up a good story—Robert Kolker’s excellent account of the subway hero Wesley Autrey’s fraught entanglement with celebrity, for instance, was exactly what a city magazine ought to be doing. (That said, to judge by “The Panhandler’s Payday,” which ran just two weeks later and featured a semi-homeless African American man dealing with the shock of a $100,000 windfall, it would appear that for a black man to get the magazine’s attention, he’s got to be extremely lucky.)

But New York‘s high-end navel-gazing is growing increasingly solipsistic. The magazine seems packaged for an audience of Kurt Andersens—middle-aged, white-bread New York mediaphiles who pride themselves on already knowing everything that a New York mediaphile ought to know. Which helps explain, of course, last week’s coronation of Moss by his media peers, though few of the stories about the event bothered to mention that New York‘s newsstand sales were down nearly 5 percent for the second half of 2006. At a time when most titles are resorting to increasingly outlandish ways to attract readers, he’s had the freedom to produce a magazine for and about people who create magazines. He has heard the cocktail chatter at exclusive parties and elected to echo it rather than drive it. He’s let the sound of his own wheels make him crazy.

 

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