The Atlantic is one of the most prestigious magazines in the nation—and almost certainly its most lavishly funded. When Laurene Powell Jobs (whose net worth is approximately $22 billion) bought former owner David Bradley’s stake in the magazine in 2017, she ushered in an era of almost unimaginable expansion for a publication created before the Civil War. Under its editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic has added 100 new staff jobs. The once-staid monthly is now a round-the-clock Web content provider that releases dozens of new items a day.
The Atlantic’s prominence and seriousness—and the bottomless pockets of its multibillionaire owner—have made it a dream come true for literally hundreds of liberal American journalists who spent most of the past 20 years in a panic about the financial viability of their chosen profession. So why is the Atlantic an emotional train wreck of a publication? If the New Yorker’s annual cover model, the monocle-bearing dandy Eustace Tilley, is supposedly its personification, the Atlantic’s should be Munch’s Scream. Therein lies a tale.
“For over 160 years, the Atlantic has been known for fearlessly questioning the assumptions of the moment, sparking the big ideas that push the world forward, and spurring on the visionaries shaping our future. . . . We call this our Higher Perspective,” the magazine notes. The presidency of Donald Trump occupied the Higher Perspective from the moment Jobs and Goldberg took over. Saving America from Trump was not only the magazine’s calling. It became its business model. According to a 2021 report by Dylan Byers at NBC News, “from March 2020 to January , the magazine was adding about 30,000 subscribers a month, with more than 45,000 added in both June and July and a whopping 61,000 in September, when it published a bombshell story about Trump having called soldiers who were killed in action ‘losers’ and ‘suckers.’” (Trump denied the report, and it has never been verified by anyone else.)
As those numbers suggest, the pandemic’s outbreak in 2020 brought the Atlantic’s high-end Trump-resistance model to its coverage of COVID—in which the virus came to serve as the fulfillment of the worst fears of the Trump hater, as though nature itself were punishing America for the results of the 2016 election.
The Atlantic launched the COVID Tracking Project to count the number of cases and deaths when they were not readily available, and published innumerable stories, articles, items, and memoirs on the subject. Ed Yong won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting for his COVID stories.
But with Trump out of the White House and pandemic fatigue becoming more fully entrenched among the public, subscription growth has slowed significantly. According to Byers, “even with last year’s substantial surge, the magazine had lost more than $20 million and was on track to lose another $10 million [in 2021].” The magazine laid off 68 employees in the spring of 2020, though they were mostly in the public-events area—understandable, given that there were no public events to be staged in a country in lockdown.
Twenty million is a drop in the bucket for Laurene Jobs, but nobody likes to lose that kind of money. Chris Hughes, the Facebook billionaire whose purchase of the New Republic was the original model for the Laurene Jobs play, found that magazine’s annual losses a quarter of that size intolerable and sold it off after only a couple of years.
Those numbers might help explain why the overwhelming experience of reading the Atlantic in 2021 and the first weeks of 2022 is like being a therapist whose severely anxious patient flops on the couch and delivers a monologue about the tortures of his daily life.
Or perhaps we should view the Atlantic community of editors, writers, and readers as a kind of daily group-therapy session. Consider that the “Most Popular” articles on the magazine’s website on a late-December day featured one potentially heartening story about COVID—“Omicron is the beginning of the end”—followed by several more that promised only horror: “How Long Does Omicron Take to Make you Sick?” “Is Omicron Milder?” A week earlier the magazine had warned, ominously, “America Is Not Ready for Omicron.”
And lest one think this tone infects only reporting on COVID, another popular recent piece promised to explain how “We’re Heading Toward a Very American Climate Tragedy.” An earlier one highlighted the looming menace of . . . rocks: “The Terrifying Warning Lurking in the Earth’s Ancient Rock Record.” Even our cars are threatening: “Big Cars Are Killing Americans” was another headline of late. The print magazine strikes a similar tone: A 2021 cover story about foreign autocrats warned that “The Bad Guys Are Winning.”
Even positive reflections, like the lovely guest essay that basketball player and human-rights activist Enes Kanter wrote about becoming an American citizen (and changing his surname to Freedom) are usually overwhelmed by negativity. Kanter Freedom was abused on the Atlantic’s own website by its contributing editor Jemele Hill, who declared: “Enes Kanter Freedom is letting himself be used.” She was miffed that Kanter Freedom had the audacity to talk about his love of America on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and so naturally concluded that he is nothing but a right-wing pawn.
The Atlantic reader who visits the website rather than simply journeying there through social-media links is turned into a doom-scroller, confronted time and again as she journeys down the homepage with headlines like this one: “America Is Running Out of Time.” Note how the title lacks specificity; it doesn’t need specificity, because this is what nearly every article in the Atlantic is about. (A recent feature in the January/February print issue of the magazine was titled, simply, “Are We Doomed?”)
“Bring Back the Nervous Breakdown,” urged a 2021 article. And so Goldberg’s Atlantic has. An astonishingly large number of stories in both the print and online versions of the magazine now focus on the irrational feelings of a very particular and privileged class of people—elite, left-of-center, educated people who ironically believe themselves too sophisticated to be emotionally manipulated like the unwashed Fox-viewing masses they abhor.
Pieces like Ian Bogost’s essay “I’m Starting to Give Up on Post-Pandemic Life” typify the Atlantic’s panic porn—the titillating personal account of a distorted negative emotional experience described lubriciously with no observable larger social purpose. “Even if this strain is less bad than it might have been,” he writes of the Omicron variant, “only dumb luck will have made it so. That’s neither victory nor a sign that the emergency is over.” He then spirals into despair: “The coronavirus was once ‘novel’ because it was new. Now it feels both ancient and eternal. Having endured the emergence of two major strains even since the rollout of vaccines, a difficult thought is planted in my head: What if the pandemic never ends?”
This Eeyore-meets-Nietzsche tone now dominates much of the magazine’s coverage. Alexis Madrigal, the founder of its tracking project, offered a similar example of irrational meltdown in a piece about getting a breakthrough case of COVID at the end of 2021. After attending a wedding, Madrigal was consumed by the idea that he would get sick even though he initially tested negative. He described his response: “I did an intense Peloton workout and it felt fine, though maybe my legs were a little slow. I wasn’t eager to test again; a negative PCR test seemed good enough. But my wife heard me cough—one of only maybe 20 coughs throughout my whole sickness—and said, ‘Couldn’t you take another antigen test?’”
Reader, he got it. Whereupon he became a prisoner of his own irrationality, despite being vaccinated and experiencing only mild illness: “The life disruption—the logistical pain you cause those around you—is now a major part of any bad scenario. As I write this, I’m now 10 days past my first symptoms, but I continue to test positive on antigen tests, and so I have not returned home. I haven’t hugged my kids for 10 days.” (His kids never got sick.)
Madrigal’s conclusion isn’t that he might have overreacted in his risk assessment. He doesn’t even entertain that possibility. Rather, he doubles down on the idea of living in permanent emotional lockdown because of COVID: “Things aren’t likely to change that much for quite some time. Even after however many kids get vaccinated, there will still be breakthrough infections. Other variants could spread. Maybe we’re in this space for another year or two or three.”
In the Goldberg-Jobs Atlantic, even a straightforward business piece—in this case, about a wildly successful company that sells home exercise bikes— becomes an exercise in collective navel-gazing, as in the article titled “Peloton Is Stuck, Just Like the Rest of Us.” General-interest magazines like the Atlantic used to offer tips on how to improve one’s garden or publish colorful interviews or profiles with avid hobbyists. The Goldberg-Jobs version, by contrast, prefers to tell us “How Hobbies Have Infiltrated American Life,” as if the shoppers at Michael’s and Hobby Lobby were some kind of invading army wielding hot-glue guns. “Whether we realize it or not, even when we are alone, off the clock, doing whatever the hell we want, the Protestant work ethic and its pressure to be productive are still with us,” Julie Beck writes.
Pity the fools who actually enjoy pursuing hobbies during their free time; according to Beck, they have bought into a conspiracy about productive leisure. “The message that a hobby is the best way to spend one’s free time is also a message about what you should value most in life: hard work, achievement, productivity,” she writes. Beck stands firmly against such things because we ought to privilege “relationships, contemplation, and rest” as well as “enjoying creature comforts” and “replenishing your energy.” Unlike plebeian hobbies, you see, such things are “good for the soul.”
Herein lies another noticeable aspect of the magazine: its astounding and unaware snobbery. Whether it’s Zoom fatigue, the musings of upper-middle-class-women going through divorces, or the latest anti-racism approach, the Atlantic studiously avoids or downplays things that concern regular people. Take, for example, crime. A recent piece about “The Great Shoplifting Freakout” suggested that concerns over the brazen smash-and-grab crimes and flash-mob thefts around the country were merely a “moral panic.”
An article about “Rogue Prosecutors” was not, as one might assume in the wake of rising homicide rates, a tough-minded critique of the excesses of progressive prosecutors who undermine the rule of law by refusing to prosecute crime, but rather a complaint that prosecutors aren’t lenient enough and should be investigated by the federal government for failing to protect defendants’ rights.
But it is the Atlantic’s recent attempts to defend democracy that have produced some of the most alarmist headlines. Goldberg has explained it thus: “The Atlantic, across its long history, has held true to the belief that the American experiment is a worthy one, which is why we’re devoting so much of our journalism in the coming years to its possible demise.”
The democracy-is-doomed branding relies on a narrative that focuses on a president who is no longer in office (Trump) while studiously ignoring the one who, along with his party, now controls the federal government and runs the country. Christopher Scalia pointed out on Twitter that the print magazine has published only two articles about the Biden administration since his inauguration, one of which was an unconvincing bit of sycophancy and the other an argument for why Biden should investigate Trump.
Instead, the magazine remains focused on the menace of Trump rather than the conduct of the actual occupant of the Oval Office and the behavior of the thousands of officials he has installed in the executive branch. A recent cover story, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun,” began with the following worst-case-scenario:
Technically, the next attempt to overthrow a national election may not qualify as a coup. It will rely on subversion more than violence, although each will have its place. If the plot succeeds, the ballots cast by American voters will not decide the presidency in 2024. Thousands of votes will be thrown away, or millions, to produce the required effect. The winner will be declared the loser. The loser will be certified president-elect. The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already.
The article makes no attempt to leaven such fatalism with alternative views; instead, it relies on “experts” who traffic in hyperbole, like an academic who says, “We face a serious risk that American democracy as we know it will come to an end in 2024.”
Similarly, staff writer George Packer’s doom-mongering reflections a year after January 6 predict disaster ahead for democracy because everyone outside of the Atlantic’s readership has poor discernment skills: “Nothing has aided Donald Trump more than Americans’ failure of imagination. It’s essential to picture an unprecedented future so that what may seem impossible doesn’t become inevitable.”
In Packer’s writing, and in the world of post-Trump Atlantic readers more broadly, Democrats are always well-meaning citizens pursuing proper policy goals, while Republicans register as “decent” only if they agree with Democratic proposals. “Decent Republicans will have to work and vote for Democrats, and Democrats will have to work and vote for anti-Trump Republicans or independents in races where no Democrat has a chance to win,” Packer claims. And conveniently, norms can and should be trampled in the name of “defending” democracy, so long as the decent people are the ones doing the trampling: “Congressional Democrats and the Biden administration will have to make the Freedom to Vote Act their top priority, altering or ending the filibuster to give this democratic fire wall a chance to become law.”
Not all Atlantic writers are of this type. Caitlin Flanagan’s recent essays on living for decades with cancer are phenomenal, and Conor Friedersdorf’s conservativish-contrarian takes are always a welcome respite from the doomsaying. But the general tone of the Atlantic suggests something about the mindset of the segment of elite America it represents and caters to: The Atlantic reader is more driven by alarmism and panic than the Fox News–viewing folks on the other side of the partisan divide whom they criticize. The Higher Perspective of the Atlantic is an elite species of panic—it has no interest in the concerns of someone who is worried about how to put food on the table after getting laid off from her restaurant job. Rather, it feels deeply the emotional burden of those coming to the realization that “Office Holiday Parties Really Might Never Be the Same.” This is the class of people who, amid an ongoing pandemic, identified with an unmasked and glamorous Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a “Tax the Rich” gown at the Met gala, not with the masked minimum-wage underlings standing silently nearby who served her and her fellow partygoers.
Perhaps this combination of therapeutic elite self-indulgence and doomsaying will keep the magazine chugging along, providing sufficient status and emotional satisfaction to Laurene Jobs that she will continue to provide the market-defying subventions to keep Atlantic staffers comfortably housed in Brownstone Brooklyn forever. But it’s a long way from the moral leadership the magazine boasts is part of the institution’s DNA. Citing their commitment to ending slavery, the Atlantic notes on its website, “When the founders of the Atlantic gathered in Boston in the spring of 1857, they wanted to create a magazine that would be indispensable for the kind of reader who was deeply engaged with the most consequential issues of the day.” Judging by its output today, the most consequential thing for the Atlantic is something far less profound: validating the often astonishingly petty anxieties of the 2020s urban elite.
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