William Whitworth and the Lost Spirit of Journalism

William Whitworth and the Lost Spirit of Journalism

Under William Whitworth and his open-minded ethos, The Atlantic published some of the defining public policy essays of the late twentieth century. 

William Whitworth, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic from 1981 to 2000, died at the age of eighty-seven last week. If his name escapes you, that was part of his design. After Mortimer Zuckerman hired Whitworth away from The New Yorker to run the Boston magazine that Zuckerman had just bought, Whitworth, despite having been a prominent writer and editor at The New Yorker, sublimated his ego for the next two decades at The Atlantic. He didn’t write anymore, not even an editor’s note. He didn’t network nearly as much as he could have in New York or Washington and rarely appeared on television. He was no operator. Terrifically low-key—in the spirit of his New Yorker mentor William Shawn—he submerged his whole being in the world of text and was often skeptical of the fads of the moment. You could do that then!

“Bill,” as he was known, rarely had soundbites to offer. He was not particularly quick on his feet. He was penetrating, soft-spoken, and replete with polite common sense expressed in a mild southern drawl. A native of Arkansas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma, after he left The Atlantic, despite pleas to remain part of the East Coast media world, he quietly returned to Little Rock, where he edited books for top Manhattan publishers, making authors as varied as Conrad Black and Anjelica Huston appear at their best in print.

Bill, a liberal editing a liberal magazine, was also quietly and regularly brave. In the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic, Bill published a cover story by criminologist George L. Kelling and political scientist James Q. Wilson, “Broken Windows,” about how tolerating low-level disorder such as breaking windows and jumping subway turnstiles leads to an atmosphere of more serious crime. It was a plea based on social science for law and order. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani adopted it, and New York City became safer as a result. In the September 1990 issue, Bill published the Princeton historian Bernard Lewis’s cover story, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” which told difficult truths about the Islamic world and helped spark Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” theory. The April 1993 cover declared “Dan Quayle Was Right,” in which sociologist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead systematically mounted a defense of traditional, two-parent families, something that the former vice president had championed, much to the liberal media’s distaste.

All of those stories and more pushed back at elite prejudices, not just of our time but of that time, too. Bill’s open mind and determination to avoid news cycles were part and parcel of his tolerance for new and different ideas. In the 1980s, when the elite media in the United States was fixated on the wars in Central America and Lebanon, Bill and managing editor Cullen Murphy immediately grasped why I wanted to turn my attention to the Balkans, resulting in a July 1989 piece that appeared months before the Berlin Wall collapsed and two years before the start of the war in Yugoslavia. As a liberal, Bill was not especially a fan of Henry Kissinger. Yet, he published my June 1999 essay, “Kissinger, Metternich, and Realism,” which defended the former secretary of state as the greatest statesman of the age. This was in spite of a suffocating media climate of moral triumphalism and aversion to the national interest that dominated the 1990s.

Bill’s attitude to pieces he disagreed with was simple: Is this piece well-argued or not? If it is well-argued, then publish it. Because he was not an ideologue, he did not consider your argument immoral simply because he didn’t share it. He was a classic liberal in the sense that he inhabited uncertainties and thus was indefatigably curious. Moral huffiness and superiority were foreign to Bill. In this aspect, the establishment media has undergone an unfortunate transformation.

Bill hoarded stories, holding a piece for many months before he used it, a method he probably inherited from Shawn. These were the days when magazines like The Atlantic had longer lead times than they do now. He used to tell me that if a piece couldn’t hold up for many months, it was possibly of limited value in the first place. When the magazine moved to Washington in the mid-2000s, its editorial pace quickened, and The Atlantic became more in tune with the conventional sensibilities of the nation’s capital.

Bill brought the “highly-engineered” article, as he put it, to the publication. That is, every piece was combed over by a number of editors and a rigorous fact-checker. Knowing what was in store for their pieces, writers were less inclined to wing it and inject their pieces with attitude. “A long piece is never 100 percent accurate,” Bill once told me. “What happens is that with a deadline looming, you simply run out of time.”

Bill never forgot that he edited a general interest magazine. Thus, he covered what people all across America in different professional situations were interested in, not just the fixations of the bicoastal media world. He published pieces arguing against bilingual education and physician-assisted suicide and essays years and decades ahead of their time about race, the environment, and the social effects of technology. Writers and thinkers such as management guru Peter Drucker, military historian John Keegan, and environmentalist Bill McKibben achieved enhanced national stature in Whitworth’s Atlantic. I recall a snooty young interviewer from an Ivy League journalism program who remarked that The Atlantic was just so boring back then. “Boring to whom?” I retorted.

Whitworth’s Atlantic worked to unite the country because it respected all elements within it. Bill advised me to pay close attention to the great middle of the continent, where he said so many fascinating people lived and worked. Taking his advice and traveling through the Midwest, I wrote that Nebraska lay on a slab tilting upwards to the High Plains. “No,” Bill wrote to me, somewhat angrily, “Nebraska did not lay on a slab, it lies on a slab.” A stickler for usage, he was continually saddened by what he said was a decline in grammatical standards at The New York Times.

Whitworth was a formalist in writing, speech, dress, and manners, emblematic of much that journalism as a profession and our society has lost. But you don’t have to remember his name. He wouldn’t have expected you to.

Robert D. Kaplan wrote on foreign affairs for The Atlantic for thirty years until 2016. He holds the Robert Strausz-Hupé Chair in Geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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