It has not been an especially easy summer for Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic (TNR), a magazine that once so thoroughly enjoyed the readership of powerful people that folks took to calling the high-minded publication "the official in-flight magazine of Air Force One."
Sadly, those days might be gone.
Some might remember the fiasco of Stephen Glass, a talented fabulist who in the late 1990s managed to pass as a respectable journalist at TNR for far too long. It was not the magazine's finest hour. Bringing up Glass is not meant to torment the liberal magazine for its most maddening and damaging error, but to properly document the extent of the damage done to the publication in the wake of this summer's bad news.
The latest trouble came in the form of Scott Thomas Beauchamp, a US Army private serving in Iraq, whose blog on TNR's Web site documented startling and repulsive behavior reportedly from US troops in post-invasion Iraq. That's when The Weekly Standard, the pro-war, neocon home of William Kristol, began to question the veracity of Beauchamp's claims (much as it often questions anti-war commentary).
Unlike the rather clear-cut case of Glass, the back-and-forth between the publications after TNR's own internal investigation did little to clear up the mess for concerned readers. TNR mostly stood by Beauchamp, admitting to only one mistake (a conversation about a disfigured woman had occurred in Kuwait, not Iraq, as he had written), while corroborating the rest of his writing.
The right-wing blogosphere has continued to heap criticism on the magazine, and the matter remains somewhat unresolved. An Army investigation concluded that the allegations on the blog were false. Meanwhile, the Standard reported that Beauchamp recanted under oath to Army investigators - something that TNR disputed. No matter, damage has been done.
"It's not like it's their first scandal," says Melissa Chessher, a professor at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. "It's hard to take the high road about everything and then have events like this happen - it's a huge blow to your credibility."
The temptation to keep coming back to Glass, as Chessher demonstrates, is a strong one. But circumstances are certainly different this time around. There are, it can safely be assumed, business implications to consider. Longtime owner Marty Peretz sold the publication earlier this year to CanWest, a large Canadian media company. What exactly the new owners are looking for out of this iconic intellectual book is hard to say. TNR did not return requests for comment. But it is safe to say that TNR has never made much money.
"These are magazines that are tough propositions in the best of times, and these aren't the best of times," says Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for The Poynter Institute, noting the demise of the American Journalism Review, another specialist magazine that succumbed to a long battle with the balance sheet last month.
Much time in media circles these days is spent debating the demise of newspapers. And yet surprisingly little has been said about how the changing media landscape will affect small, somewhat specialist magazines that have never enjoyed anything close to the profit margins of newspapers.
After being sold, the magazine promptly announced it would cut back from 44 issues per year to 22 - though it promised each issue would be double the length. Gawker, the New York-centric media site, has taken to attacking the magazine for failing to deliver on that promise. Its most recent post on the topic, however, concerns the magazine's worryingly low ad count in a recent issue. "The heft of a publication is certainly a measure of its pulse," Chessher says.
Given its historic stature, the magazine will continue to attract scrutiny. "Any time an iconic magazine is on a respirator or is officially DOA," she adds, "it's a big story."