Last December the January-February issue of The Atlantic Monthly went to press. It was the last one to be published in Boston of the 1,771 issues of The Atlantic published since the magazine was founded 149 years ago over a dinner of Brahmin intellectuals at Boston’s Parker House hotel. The magazine has been transported to Washington, D.C., by its new owner, David Bradley, publisher of the National Journal Group of small-circulation but profitable Washington-insider publications.
For all those years The Atlantic focused on literature, art, science and politics from its vantage point among some of the world’s leading intellectuals, educational, scientific and medical institutions as well as a vibrant community of writers and poets. Now it has moved to a city that may be the seat of global power but is not by any measure the seat of wisdom. I think the move is a bad one for one of America’s most distinguished journals.
I know from my own experience as both a Washington correspondent and government official how living and working in the nation’s capital blurs one’s vision and makes one sometimes oblivious to reality. The reporting from Washington by The New York Times on the supposed presence of WMD’s in Iraq is only one recent example of how the incestuous Beltway climate can induce severe misjudgment. It is interesting to note that some of the very best reporting and analysis of Washington affairs during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s came from the late Richard Rovere in The New Yorker. He lived and wrote in a small town on the Hudson and made only occasional visits to D.C.
Under Bradley’s ownership, The Atlantic has taken on new vitality, publishing many blockbuster articles, such as William Langewiesche’s play-by-play series on the 9-11 disaster. Circulation has zoomed from the magazine’s historically small numbers to more than 450,000, meaning perhaps 1.5 million readers. So it was doing very well. So why move it into the Beltway bunker of spin and spam? The Atlantic has always been privileged to look at the world from its different perch. Why put it in with all those other birds and risk the onrush of Potomac flu?
The answer seems to be the crass one, financial. In the only interview to which I am privy, Bradley suggests that it makes financial sense to bring all his publications under one roof in the Watergate complex. Only a handful of the staff is going to D.C. Bradley needs to build an entire staff almost from scratch, including a new editor to replace the estimable Cullen Murphy, who is not leaving Boston. The magazine has already relegated literature, one of its four pillars, to a once-a-year ghetto issue devoted to short stories. As one who devoted 16 years of his life to The Atlantic, I can only wish it well and pray for its success. It may well survive, even prosper. I hope so. But it won’t be the same magazine that has served Americans with intelligence, prescience and honor for 149 years.
Robert Manning, a 1946 Nieman, is a Boston-based editor and writer who was editor in chief of The Atlantic from 1966 to 1980.