Walter Isaacson

Time … And Again

VTR Date: October 8, 1997

Guest: Isaacson, Walter


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Walter Isaacson
Title: “Time … and Again”
VTR: 10/8/97

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And today I’d like to share with you my recent, quite intriguing experience in turning time back a half-century, quite literally doing so by reading through, decade by decade, the end of September issues of Time, earlier on so prominently touted as “Time, the Weekly News Magazine,” for 1947, ’57, ’67, ’77 and ’87, and then comparing their content to the parallel 1997 issue presided over by my guest today, Walter Isaacson, now Time’s brilliant young managing editor.

T.S. Matthews was in Walter Isaacson’s position at Time in 1947, Roy Alexander in 1957, Otto Fuerbinger in 1967, Henry Anatole Grunwald in 1977, and indeed, not so long ago, Mr. Grunwald was here on The Open Mind talking about many of these same press issues my guest and I hopefully will discuss today.

But first I want to ask Mr. Isaacson believes has happened to Time, in time, over time, since this late September 1947 issue that preceded his by 50 years. On September 29th that year, Time’s austere cover man was Soviet Foreign Minister Andre Vishinsky. This year its September 29th cover man is an obviously disturbed young American male, with the caption, “Redux, Fen/Phen, Prozac. How mood drugs work, and fail.”

Anyway, Walter, I don’t mean to be pejorative in comparing the two by any means. But I do wonder what’s, in your estimation, happened to Time, to this country, in these 50 years that might lead to a different issue from the ones that I have in front of me.

ISAACSON: Well, first of all, the way we’ve defined news has changed quite a bit over the years. But there’s certain fundamental things about Time magazine that haven’t changed. First of all, we synthesize a lot of news. People are bombarded with headlines all week. They’re bombarded with information. When Henry Luce invented the magazine, he said, “People are hit with so much information, they need the chance to have it synthesized and made into a narrative form so that they can digest it at the end of a week.” So that’s still our fundamental mission. And we do it by telling good narrative tales and stories, usually through people, people who have been on the cover of Time, generally, over the years.

One of the things that’s changed, I think, is that health news is much more important. The issue you referred to was the week they pulled Fen-Phen and Redux off the shelves because they found that it caused heart-valve problems. I think Time over the 75 years it’s been in existence has always covered health news. And that was one of the geniuses of the magazine, was news was not just foreign policy or what happened in Washington, but what happened in education or religion or health or medicine or science. And so we’ve always covered health news. But I’ve noticed that health news is much more prominent in our lives today.

HEFFNER: You know, I was going to ask you about entertainment and entertainment news, prominent in our lives today. And then, when I went back these 50 years, I found that indeed here in 1957, Ed Murrow on the cover; 1967, Mr. and Mrs. Guy Smith, who but Dean Russ’s daughter and new son-in-law, a black man; in ’77 Diane Keaton; in ’87, Cosby, Bill Cosby.

ISAACSON: Thank goodness you saw that, because every now and then we get criticized, saying we’re going soft. We’re certainly not going soft s a magazine now. I’m very much a news person. I believe that the basis of a good news magazine is putting news in it, and every now and then people say, “How could you have put,” say, “Bill Cosby on the cover?” as we did earlier this year. And I say, “Yeah, but, you know, Bill Cosby was on the cover in 1987.” And if they ask us about Diana, the Princess of Wales, you know, the Duchess of Windsor was on the cover.

News comes in all of its forms. But we are not going in the direction of being softer or dealing with entertainment news more, simply because, as an editor, you know, I get driven by my own passions, and science is a passion of mine, business, the digital revolution, the way our lives are changing, and, to some extent, big stories of entertainment. But if you look back over the history of Time magazine, you look at what Henry Luce did, you look at the Rita Hayworth covers, that’s always been a part of our mix. I think it remains a part of our mix. But it’s not becoming any more a part of our mix than it ever was.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s take that last point. Is that the case, that it’s not more, that entertainment doesn’t play a larger role? It plays a larger role in our lives nationally. Why shouldn’t it in Time?

ISAACSON: I think we cover events that happen on television and in the movies as news stories. And yes, we often use movies and TV shows, music, entertainment, to look at larger issues. And, you know, I think that’s great, and it does play an important role in our lives. I wouldn’t say that, if you look at the recent evolution of Time, though, especially in the past couple of years since I’ve been there, I don’t think entertainment has come more to the fore. I think it’s pretty much the same part of the mix as it’s been for years.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you then about journalism in America generally, and news magazines, and magazines themselves. Has the entertainment quotient risen?

ISAACSON: Now, I really don’t think so. I think we’ve become newsier, news magazines in general. I think that they’re there to be interesting. They’re there to be provocative. We’re there to excite you and stimulate your mind each week. And at times it may be a story on Ellen DeGeneres, because she makes news. It may be a story on Steven Spielberg, because he’s an important character. Or Bill Cosby. But I don’t think we’ve become flabbier or softer. Because I think that people are very interested in the things in the world that affect them, and there’s no need for us to just become entertainment vehicles.

HEFFNER: But, Walter, you say “flabby, entertainment vehicles.” We reflect, I gather you’re saying, what people are interested in. What about the responsibility, if that’s not too long or harsh a word, to make certain, the best you can, that people are more interested in the things that will be more important for this nation in terms of survival?

ISAACSON: Well, I think we have some very intelligent readers. And I think they are interested in those things. I have no problems with what our readers are interested in, because they’re interested in news. That’s why they come to Time magazine. They’re interested in important world events that affect them, but they’re also interested in health news or technology news. You know, we can put this year, you know, Bill Gates, or Steve Case, or other great technological, Steve Jobs, when he transformed Apple with some of his deals. That, to people, is news these days. And I think our readers are interested in that. So I don’t see a big distinction between giving our readers what they’re interested in, and giving them what they want, or giving them what you say they need or should have. I think they’re smart enough to know they come to Time magazine for things that they should have and things they want to have.

HEFFNER: What should Time magazine be offering them? Luce thought of his publications, at least at the beginning, to some extent, as teachers, as teachers and leaders. Now, what role does Time today play as a teacher, as a leader, as a formulator of American thinking?

ISAACSON: Oh, I think that’s one of our big roles. Henry Luce invented a magazine that was in the public interest. He felt we should bring the magic and the interesting things of the world into everybody’s home. And, to us, it’s why we went into journalism. It’s why you and I are in this business. Because we find certain things in this world fascinating. We feel that people can be made interested in them, that we can present them in smart, colorful, interesting ways. So whether it’s the fundraising scandals, or whether it’s the emergence of a new China, or whether it’s, you know, the changes in Europe, or whether it’s what’s happening in health or medicine or technology, I believe our role is to teach, but to teach in sort of an interesting, provocative way to people who want that, to people who want to learn. They come to Time magazine because they want to learn about the world, they want to learn about what’s happening around them. So it’s not a struggle to teach, because that’s why they’re picking up the magazine to begin with. Because we all are curious. We’re curious about the great events happening around us, and our readership is particularly a curious readership. They’re curious about the world around them.

HEFFNER: What’s the role of the magazine?

ISAACSON: The role of the magazine is, when you’re bombarded, week after week, with headlines, with data, this big smog of data that happens now with all-news radio and cable and television headlines and tabloid stuff like that, to say, at the end of a period, “Let’s step back and reflect, let’s make it into a tale, and interesting stories that I can read that will synthesize and make sense of all of this.” And we’re not there to cater to just one of your particular interests. We’re not a niche magazine. We’re there because you may be interested in world affairs, but we’re going to provoke you with an interesting story about science or about technology. And maybe you’re a reader who comes to us because you’re interested in politics, but we’re going to provoke you with an interesting story about entertainment, or television, or the movies.

So we’re there to bring you the magic in all sorts of fields. Not only the fields that you think you’re particularly interested in. But also to say, “Hey, this is something you should know as well.” And I think people like the diversity of what’s in each issue of Time magazine every week.

HEFFNER: What’s the downside of Time 1997, as perhaps contrasted with Time 1937, ’47, ’57?

ISAACSON: One of the worries we have is that people get more and more information, they get, they’re on the Internet, they’re listening to the car radio, whatever, and that we can be drowned out. But I’ve found that the more people are bombarded with information, and the more that information feels kind of unreliable at times, it comes from sources you don’t quite know, you know, be it the Internet or some talk radio or talk TV show, and your people that no longer the old-fashioned sort of three or four ways to get news, your local paper, the local evening newscast, Time magazine. But in that diversity of news, people are looking for something that they find reliable, that they find authoritative. So I think what the thing we worry about most, which is that we’ll be overtaken by too many other sources of information, is, in a way, our greatest strength. Because when people are bombarded with sources of information they don’t know whether they can trust or not, they don’t know how to make sense of it, they seem to turn to Time more and more.

HEFFNER: Do they trust you more than they trust television?

ISAACSON: I think television is such a broad spectrum of things. I’m sure this show has a loyal audience that, you know, knows how to trust it and find it an authoritative show. Does Hard Copy have the same kind of audience? I think people who watch Hard Copy are smart enough that they know they’re getting more of an entertainment show. I do think that there’s something magical about the printed word and its ability to convey information. Because sometimes I’ll watch TV and I’ll see a lot of images, I’ll pick up a few snippets of data, but until I read a story, until I see it in printed form, it doesn’t really sink in, I can’t really sort of wrap my arms around it.

HEFFNER: But, Walter, are you talking about Walter Isaacson, or are you talking about most Americans?

ISAACSON: I think most Americans. Because Americans can pick up data and pieces of information very easily from TV, but it’s not a great medium for telling the tale or creating a narrative, or synthesizing a lot of information. For that you need to be relaxed, you need to have the joy of good pictures, wonderful writing, good reporting brought together in a story. And I think there’s some joy in reading. And, you know, everybody talks about, “People aren’t reading as much anymore.” But that’s crazy. I mean, people are reading Time, they’re reading magazines more than ever. Time is a, you know, its circulation is strong. But all magazines and, for that matter, bookstores, everything. So I’m not at all worried about the printed word. And I do think, in this day and age, people are gaining more and more respect for its ability to convey information.

HEFFNER: What’ the evidence that those who say the printed word is losing out to the electronic signal, what’s the evidence that they marshal? Well, you
remember …

ISAACSON: Oh, they used to talk about you know, magazines may be dinosaurs. This 10, 15 years ago. Because people would all be getting their news from TV or stuff like that. But we go through cycles. For a while news magazines were dinosaurs. That was about 20 years ago. Then about, you know, 10 years ago, people were saying, “Well, maybe network television is in danger because of cable.” And then it was all TV, because, if you notice TV ratings, TV viewership has started to decline, the role of the networks has started to decline. So now they’re talking abut them being dinosaurs. And then daily newspapers. People say, “Well, they may be dinosaurs in some places.” Because people can get the information ore quickly on the Internet and stuff like that.

I think all of that’s sort of bunk, hokum. You know, dinosaurs … turned out we weren’t dinosaurs, and I don’t think television’ll be a dinosaur.

But I do think that magazine readership is going up. Magazines connect with people. There’s a loyalty to magazines. And, at the moment, television viewership is going down, especially on the networks.

HEFFNER: What’s the, percentagewise, to use that horrid expression, what’s happened to Time, the weekly news magazine?

ISAACSON: Oh, our, well, our circulation is very strong. I think it’s at 4.1 million domestically, with about 29 million readers.

HEFFNER: What was it 30 years ago?

ISAACSON: I don’t know. It’s fluctuated. It was higher about 15, 20 years ago. We have a rate base, it’s called (it’s a bit arcane, but), you know, we try to keep it at a certain level as opposed to letting it rise or fall, because half the money from Time comes from advertising, and half comes from circulation. And you try to find the right point, so that, if a magazine gets too big, it can be, the circulation gets too big, it can be as unprofitable as if it got too small. So, at the moment, the circulation of Time is very, very strong, and very healthy. And the magazine’s loyalty, the renewals we have are very healthy.

HEFFNER: Walter, when your predecessor, Henry Grunwald was here last (and he’s been here many times) …

ISAACSON: Great man.

HEFFNER: I think so too. And a great book that he has most recently written. I asked him the question that you can ask my contemporaries, but I can’t ask you: What’s your great regret as you look back? And Henry said something about not early enough bringing more women into important positions at Time, though he did. And his position on the Vietnam War.


HEFFNER: It took a while to come to what he can proudly point back to. So I can’t ask you that question. And with your ebullience …

ISAACSON: You can. It’s okay.

HEFFNER: I was just going to say, “But if I last long enough, maybe I can ask that.” What about the point Henry said, “I just want to make it clear that I think Time magazine is in very good hands. But, in general, the press, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the press in this country has become, to some extent, trivialized.” And I wondered, you’ve said a lot before about not focusing on entertainment, not more than the public needs. What do you think about that criticism?

ISAACSON: I do think that there’s a sense – and we’ve got to resist it in the press – that we’ve become a little bit tabloidy, or a little bit trivial, or that we’re covering things that are not quiet as important. And I do worry about that. And I think that in order for Time to remain strong it’s got to resist that tendency that happens in the press sometimes, especially now, to be a little bit more tabloidy or a little bit more trivial. And one reason that’s happening is, as Henry Grunwald said, there aren’t the big events. When I started writing at Time, we were locked in a very serious Cold War with the Soviet Union, and anything that happened, from Vietnam to China to whatever, could’ve resulted in, you know, in nuclear Armageddon. Those type of grand, international struggles aren’t present at the moment. In fact, there are no major wars, you know, going on at the moment. Likewise the movements of the ’60’s and ’70’s, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, those were titanic struggles. So, to some extent, the news now itself pales in comparison to the fears of nuclear war and the great movement of Civil Rights and Women’s Movement that happened, you know, in Henry Grunwald’s time.

On the other hand, there’s a major revolution going on in terms of information, which comes from the new digital age, the way our new economy is working, the way that we’re moving from an economy that’s more based on information and electronic commerce than it is on building products. And I think that’s a big story, so we have to grapple with it. That’s why Time’s coverage of technology and business has become much more predominant these days.

So I think there are big things going on that affect people and they’re interested in.

And another one is the health thing. You raised our cover on health that we did Redux and Fen-Phen. But what’s happening with biotechnology, what’s happening with new drugs, that is newsworthy in its own way as well. So I don’t know that that’s exactly trivial news or tabloidy news. But it’s not the same as putting Vishinsky, the Soviet foreign minister, on the cover.

HEFFNER: You say that you feel that this end of September 1997 issue, the cover, had nothing to do with trivia. Or you would reject the notion it’s trivia. But the presentation, mightn’t one say that the presentation was or is hyped, and that you wouldn’t find that kind of presentation 30 years ago?

ISAACSON: Oh, gee. I don’t think so.

HEFFNER: Really?

ISAACSON: I mean, that’s a very science cover. It’s a story about serotonin which is a brain chemical that scientists have been able to isolate recently. Serotonin is a chemical that affects our moods, it affects drinking, it affects weight and appetite and everything else. It is a chemical that can be manipulated with new drugs, including Fen-Phen and Redux and Prozac. But also new drugs that are created, you know, you know, bioengineered drugs. And the fact that scientists have been working on that over the past two years, this was written by, you know, our science writers, and it’s a very sophisticated, I think, scientific cover. And it involves, you know, understanding how brain chemistry works. You know, you go back over the years of the ones you have, you know, you can look at Diane Keaton, Bill Cosby there, and, for that matter, Edward R. Murrow. I think that’s as serious and as hard and as provocative and interesting as any covers we’ve done. And it’s also newsy. I mean, this is big, breaking news when people are using new chemicals to change the way our moods and our appetites work, and they’re starting to fail, they’re starting to cause health problems, and scientists are looking at it, I find that’s news that affects people. But it’s also news that’s right up there with other scientific news.

You know, you look back at Time magazine, you look at some of the things it’s missed. You know, I go back and say, “When was, you know, Fleming, one of the most important events of this century, you know, the invention of penicillin.” You know, he wasn’t Man of the Year. Or I’ll look at Salk and Sabin. And, you know, sometimes we miss the great scientific discoveries.

As the century ends, we’re looking back at who were the great people of this century. What were the events that really mattered? If you look back at the events that really mattered in this century, you’ve got to put Jonas Salk and Sabin and Fleming, and the people invented drugs like penicillin, and the newspapers of the time, and even Time magazine, I think, didn’t cover them well enough. This past year when we picked a man of the year, I said, “Who will go down in history this year, after all is said and done, for really have had an impact in this world?” We picked Dr. David Ho, who understood how viruses work, how the AIDS virus worked, and how you can create new combinations of chemicals to attack viral infections. And yes, that’s not big headline news in the traditional sense. It’s not like Vishinsky, the prime minister of Russia, making a pronouncement. But historians, when they look back at our era, they will look back at the biotechnology and the way we invented drugs this year to change our moods and to change, you know, the way our mind works. Or they’ll look back at the way Fleming and Salk and Sabin did things. I believe it’s important to cover that.

HEFFNER: If you were to look, not at Time now, but to look around you, would you be as sanguine about American publications?

ISAACSON: I do think – and you know, I’ll throw us into the mix – that there’s this temptation to be tabloidy at times. There’s a temptation, you know, to cover everything from OJ to Jon Benet with, you know, breathlessly. And I do think we have to resist that. If I look around, though, I can look at, you know, great newspapers in this country, including The New York Times, and I can look at, you know, the evening newscast in general, and I can look at Time and the other news magazines, and say, “Yes, every now and then we put OJ on the cover.” But I think we’re all realizing that you’ve got to resist this tide of being too populist or too tabloidy. And the tabloid papers and stuff, I think there’s a backlash against them. I think the death of Princess Diana was part, you know, helped create more of a backlash against the press. So that’s something I’m pretty sensitive to, and I think we all should be sensitive to.

HEFFNER: Walter, we just have a couple of minutes left. But to what degree is the bottom line the bottom line in your determinations?

ISAACSON: At the moment we’re in very good shape. You know, the whole economy is, advertising in Time is at great, record levels, and, as I say, our circulation, our renewals are good. So I don’t feel any pressure at all right now. In fact, our newsstand sales are up so much this year, not only because, you know, the Diana issue sold well, but even before then we were up 15-20 percent. I was joking with some of my staff that we have to put on some obscure international issue on the cover because we’ve got to get newsstand sales down a bit because, you know, a few years from now people will say, “Oh, they’ve been going downhill since 1997.” So we can’t let it get too high this year. So I don’t feel the economic pressures. I don’t know what it would be like in a year or two if the economy turned sour and that sort of thing, and all the magazines and the newspapers might feel a little bit more pressure. But we’re not going through cutbacks now. And I think we’re allowed to pursue the type of journalism that we feel is in the public interest.

HEFFNER: And competitiveness? Again, the bottom line question, what role does that play in your determinations?

ISAACSON: Oh, I think we compete against a lot more than we used to. We’re competing against newspapers, TV shows, whatever, to be the first, to be the most interesting, as well as the other news magazines and the other magazines people can buy. I think we’ve got to compete for people’s attention. We have to say, “Okay, you’ve come home. You have a few hours. You’re either going to watch TV, or you’re going to read Time magazine, or you’re going to go on the Internet, or you’re going to do many things.” We’ve got to be interesting enough to say, “I think I’ll curl up with Time magazine. That would, you know, make me interesting tonight.” So that’s where our real competition is, with all the different things people could be doing.

HEFFNER: And you feel that this will work into the future too, as long as we stay on top economically?

ISAACSON: I think as long as we can interest people, as long as they’re interested and curious about the world, and we can bring it to life, and we can write about it well and report on it well, and, as you said, bring them stuff of value, not just tempt them with a lot of candy that after a while they say, “Well, that wasn’t really value; it just felt good.” I think, as long as they say, “Yes, I got something of value out of that,” there’s a real magic in doing that.

HEFFNER: Walter Isaacson, manager of Time, the weekly news magazine, thanks for being here.

ISAACSON: Thank you. Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”