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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   November 1999  issue

Young Gun   

Senior writer Peter Beinart rises to the editorís chair at The New Republic.

By Carol Guensburg
Carol Guensburg (carol.guensburg@verizon.net) is senior editor for the Journalism Center on Children & Families, a University of Maryland professional program - and a nonprofit. It receives primary support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Guensburg spent 14 years as an editor and reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after working for three other papers.     

Senior writer Peter Beinart rises to the editor's chair at The New Republic--a precarious perch, given the short reigns of his immediate predecessors. He succeeds Charles Lane, who lasted two years after replacing Michael Kelly, who was fired after just 10 months.

The 28-year-old Beinart has made his career at the left-leaning weekly on politics, arts and culture, joining it as an intern fresh out of Yale in '93 and returning in '95 after a two-year Rhodes scholarship. He served as an editor from 1995 to '97 before moving to writing full time.

Topics for Beinart, whose parents emigrated from South Africa to Boston while he was in utero, have ranged from post-apartheid politics there to campaign finance reform here. He expects to curtail his writing, Beinart says, while adjusting to editing. "It's going to take me a while to figure it out, and quite a while before I'm any good at it," he says modestly.

But Editor in Chief and owner Martin Peretz pours on the praise. In a memo to staff, he calls Beinart "a journalist's journalist and an intellectual's intellectual, at home with grand ideas and stubborn little facts." The memo also notes that Lane remains at the magazine as editor-at-large. "I'll be writing..the sort of stuff I used to write about: big, ponderous foreign policy things that no one cared about," Lane teases AJR. He describes his post-demotion relationship with Peretz as "amicable."

Beinart becomes the sixth editor in a decade, heading a magazine whose total paid circulation has sagged to 91,010 from 101,747 over that time, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. A New Republic insider suggests Lane was replaced because of the continuing slide. In contrast, Kelly reportedly was fired over his repeated criticisms of Vice President Al Gore, a former student of Peretz at Harvard. Regardless, does the shuffling affect readership?

"I don't follow all the goings and comings there," says Ed Kilgore, policy director of the Democratic Leadership Council, a think tank for New Democrats. However, he says: "In the past year or two, the magazine's gotten a lot more coherent, even though there's not total agreement internally on a lot of issues. It recently seems to have reoccupied its niche as an important voice of political journalism."

"The day that a magazine is linked to its editor is long gone," says Samir Husni, the University of Mississippi journalism professor known as "Mr. Magazine." "Every time I go outside our media circles and ask, 'Which magazine do you get, who's the editor?' they say, 'How should I know?' "

For stability, New Republic readers turn to the back of the book. Stanley Kauffmann has been the magazine's film critic since 1958, Leon Wieseltier its literary editor for at least 15 years, and American Repertory Theater artistic director Robert Brustein its drama critic on and off since 1959--and Beinart's stepfather since 1996. At least the new editor has an informed sounding board in the family.