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Morons at the Gate:
The Fall of the New Republic

With The West Wing and The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin presents two idealized versions of the influence machinery that produces modern American life. The first traffics in power, the second traffics in information. Neither takes on the subject of money in any meaningful way; it is merely grease for the political and media mechanisms he studies.

The pecuniary focus was saved for The Social Network, which Sorkin brought to movie screens to tell the story of the rise of a new type of connected influence. A billion dollars is what’s cool, remember? The film was about the funding of a new machine, and what the money did to a group of friends and co-workers, not the machine itself.

Sorkin’s subjects all intersected last week at the New Republic, the most celebrated of American political news establishments. It is owned by Facebook co-founder and almost cool near-billionaire, Chris Hughes. It has been gutted by Mark Zuckerberg’s luckiest roommate, now known simply as “a dilettante and a fraud.”

With 50-some-odd editors and writers leaving the venerable Washington publication in protest, it has lost all political influence – confirmed also by a move to New York City.

With many of the most seasoned and careful long-form journalists in the nation off its masthead, it has lost the ability to produce meaningful information – or even deliver and dispose of a stillborn December 2014 issue.

With executives from Facebook, Yahoo and Gawker taking control from genuine intellectual giants with actual names, it has lost the ability and patience to ponder bigger, human questions.

It has money but no influence. Content but no knowledge. Engineers but no skeptics. It is more than a metaphor of our times; it now embodies them, literally.

Like American Psycho, the New Republic is now our national debate with all meaning skinned off of it. All surface, all clicks, all jargon. Guy Vidra, the publication’s chief executive, blustered that he wants to “break shit” in the name of innovation, so that the New Republic might become a “vertically integrated digital media company” (sic). This could be directly from the mouth of sociopathic babe, Patrick Bateman.

Like Bateman, Hughes and Vidra talk of brand with the sense of fetish. To them, the New Republic was simply a label, like that on an Armani suit, to buy. A business card to signal gravitas acquired before age 30. A moniker to put on a chain of cafes one day. Let’s say they are right. That the New Republic is now “just a brand” – the label to be worn by the thinking person’s click finger. That is where the final trouble begins.

Brands are not just names; they are promises of the work behind the mark. Great brands are actually about operations – the bothersome, inner-workings of Sorkin’s worlds that keep promises and deliver the goods.

Brands in the modern sense began with craftspeople that stamped their goods for both accountability and pride. Later, those would become short cuts for the customer – signals of trust and quality under names like Wedgewood or Esteé Lauder or Porsche.

With all the craftspeople gone – with minds like Franklin Foer, Leon Wieseltier, Helen Vendler and dozens of others turning attention elsewhere – there is nothing left behind the mark. There is no work to stamp as worthy of their names. There is no brand. Just a memory. Just an idea. Just a story without a writer. This is one of the great misinterpretations of brand among modern marketers: that it needs no substance to be real.

Like Jack McCoy on Sorkin’s The Newsroom, the crusty, difficult, outdated defender of rigor, the New Republic, has fallen dead at the feet of salvation money from a Web guru. The show’s Lucas Pruit is Chris Hughes and Guy Vidra wrapped into one slick, silly package. He has the machine. He has the cash. But he, like so many other algorithmic wizards, has no idea that it takes the human passion to understand things bigger than our machines to make it all really add up.

Sorkin’s next story is already writing itself. Let’s call it Morons at the Gate.



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