New Republic Critic Tumbles in Blog-land: My ‘Dumb Mistake’

“I made a dumb mistake, and I’m very sorry I did it. I took the blogosphere’s bait, and I stooped

“I made a dumb mistake, and I’m very sorry I did it. I took the blogosphere’s bait, and I stooped to the level of these people who were commenting on my pieces, and I shouldn’t have,” Lee Siegel said. “And I’m especially sorry that I embarrassed a magazine that was nourishing me as an intellectual, long before it began publishing me as a journalist.”

The New Republic’s cultural critic was on the phone on Sept. 4, explaining what was coursing through his mind when he fired off comments in the “Talkback” section of his own New Republic blog, “Lee Siegel on Culture.” In the missives, he heaped praise on himself and insulted his critics—all under the anonymous handle “sprezzatura.”

Mr. Siegel’s barely camouflaged Internet self had offered him swift entry into the race to the bottom known as online reader commentary. In a sample posting, from Aug. 27, “sprezzatura” wrote to another poster, a nemesis named “jhschwartz”: “You’re a fraud, and a liar. And a wincingly pretentious writer. You couldn’t tie Siegel’s shoelaces.”

“It never occurred to me” that it was wrong, the 48-year-old Mr. Siegel said of his frame of mind at the time. “This is really cowboy territory, with very few boundaries. I think now that it was wrong. I assumed an alias, I guess, because I didn’t want to stoop to their level, not realizing that I was stooping to their level.”

On Sept. 1, The New Republic concluded that it wasn’t such a gray area after all and terminated the “Lee Siegel on Culture” blog; in its place, an editor’s note apologized for Mr. Siegel’s deception and informed readers that Mr. Siegel had been suspended from writing for the magazine.

“The transcendent rules of journalism apply, even in the ‘Talkback’ section of the magazine,” Franklin Foer, The New Republic’s editor, said. “We don’t let our writers misrepresent themselves to readers.”

Mr. Foer said that Mr. Siegel’s suspension is “indefinite.”

Mr. Siegel is known as an increasingly rare breed—a combative intellectual generalist, whose omnipresence in print sometimes made it seem as if he was monopolizing the review columns at every media outlet in town. In addition to writing for The New Republic, where he was hired by the magazine’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, and has been on the masthead since 1998 (as a contributing writer, a contributing editor, a television critic and, most recently, as a senior editor), he was the art critic for Slate and a book critic at The Nation for a year. His own book, Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination, comes out this month, from Basic Books. He’s notorious for engaging in heated, sometimes hysterical arguments with detractors or those whose work he’s already trashed.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that Mr. Siegel’s exposure as his own worst self-promoter set off ripples of horror and schadenfreude over Labor Day weekend. In some small corners of the literary-blog community, the reaction was practically giddy: “Well, I was pointing out to people that you obviously needed a long rest in some soothing and undemanding place, and now I am happy to see that you will have more free time, at least. For once you have got something that is well-earned,” Christopher Hitchens wrote to him in an e-mail, following up with a lengthy entry about Mr. Siegel and his comeuppance on Mr. Hitchens’ Web site.

Mr. Siegel was first drawn into Internet anonymity last February, after his condescending column offering advice to Jon Stewart before he hosted the Oscars inspired dozens of nasty comments in response. Under the heading “Siegel is my hero,” the first of 15 posts by “sprezzatura” read: “How angry people get when a powerful critic says he doesn’t like their favorite show! Like little babies. Such fragile egos …. Siegel is brave, brilliant, and wittier than Stewart will ever be. Take that, you bunch of immature, abusive sheep.” It followed later with: “Groupthink from a mob of bullies cowering behind their user-name aliases. Groupthink! Groupthink! Naaa naaa naaa-naaa naaa!”

Another “sprezzatura” post appeared in June. That comment, on Ruth Franklin essay about the Holocaust, was sweet and flattering, almost out of character in its gentility. Reading the final stream of exchanges leading up to Mr. Siegel’s suspension, however, was more akin to watching a locomotive speeding toward a dog paralyzed on the train tracks.

After several days of debate about Mr. Siegel’s critique of an academic whose essay had appeared on Slate (“Little Miss Sunshine: American’s Obsession with JonBenet Ramsay,” by James Kincaid, Aug. 21), “sprezzatura” got into a tangle with a poster identified as “jhschwartz.” “Jhschwartz” had stepped in to defend Mr. Kincaid at length (“Why is Siegel wrong about EVERYTHING?” he began). Screens and screens of text later, he invoked an essay about the sexualization of children published in the literary journal n+1 and written by one of its editors, Mark Greif.

Mr. Siegel responded with two blog posts under his own name. Just prior, in early August, Mr. Siegel’s wife had given birth to their first child; by this point, the baby was colicky and Mr. Siegel was operating, he said, on three hours of sleep a night. Finally, after a few more days of online back and forth, he obviously couldn’t take it any more, and “sprezzatura” came raging forth:

“You have quite an obsession with Siegel!” he thundered to “jhschwartz” on Aug. 27. “Sounds to me like you’re an envious young writer …. If I had to guess, you’re this person Mark Greif himself. Or someone in his circle. Every young writer in NYC has it in for poor Siegel it seems. They all write like middle-aged hacks. He has the fire and guts of a young man (I assume he’s middle-aged himself, or somewhere near there.) Who am I? Someone who knows who you are.”

After goading his adversary with several paragraphs of accusations, “jhschwartz” finally came back with: “I would say with 99% confidence that ‘sprezzatura’ is a Siegel alias.”

Mr. Foer said that one of the magazine’s writers had been reading the “Talkback” section and brought the recent “sprezzatura”/“jhschwartz” interaction to his attention, which prompted him to investigate the matter.

“I think that it was pretty clear from the ‘schwartz’-‘sprezzatura’ exchange that there was at least the possibility that ‘sprezzatura’ was Siegel,” Mr. Foer said. He determined that the two were one and the same, although he was still looking into the question of whether Mr. Siegel also had help producing the posts. On Sept. 5, he published an open letter to New Republic readers soliciting feedback on where anonymity in the “Talkback” section should be allowed.

Mr. Siegel, in the meantime, seemed convinced that Mr. Greif or someone affiliated with n+1 was out to get him and might have been behind “jhschwartz” and his downfall. The two camps have a history of petty infighting. In its inaugural issue, n+1 printed a manifesto, on behalf of all four of its editors, lamenting the state of criticism in America and naming The New Republic and Mr. Siegel specifically as problem centers. Mr. Siegel later made a bitchy comment in response in The Observer. Despite their rich history, however, Mr. Greif and other n+1 editors denied having anything to do with Mr. Siegel or his blog, although Keith Gessen, one of the editors, acknowledged: “It’s not a bizarre accident that our name got mentioned in this.”

But the mysterious “jhschwartz” turns out to be an associate at the New York law firm Kramer Levin named … Joseph H. Schwartz.

Mr. Schwartz went to Columbia (class of 1998) and N.Y.U. Law School, practices white-collar defense work, is married to a writer, and described himself as “a reluctant lawyer” and a “frustrated” fiction writer. He is friendly with the n+1 crowd (he went to high school with one of the founding editors, Marco Roth, and is a regular at social events with the group), although he said that he wasn’t acting in conjunction with them when he posted on Mr. Siegel’s blog.

Mr. Schwartz said that he regretted his goading of Mr. Siegel online and was horrified when he saw that the blog had been dismantled, an action that he said struck him as “draconian.” When he saw the editor’s note last Friday, he immediately called Mr. Foer, leaving a voice mail and following up with an e-mail, imploring him to show leniency for Mr. Siegel.

“I felt like I had some special responsibility in the whole thing,” Mr. Schwartz said. “I thought it was needlessly cruel.” He said that Mr. Foer responded respectfully that he had to have a “zero-tolerance policy” on such matters.

The young lawyer described himself as “sort of a New Republic fan.” So how much time does the busy attorney spend poking around the magazine’s Web site? “I don’t know,” Mr. Schwartz said. “Don’t damage my law career, but probably too much time.”

Mr. Wieseltier was sanguine about the situation. He described Mr. Siegel as a “fiendishly gifted critic and an unusually cultivated individual,” and saw the issue more as one having to do with the nature of the Internet itself.

“The larger problem, of course, is that we planted our flag over a piece of the Wild West known as the blogosphere. This left us divided against ourselves,” Mr. Wieseltier said. “Since we do make ourselves factually and morally responsible for what appears under our flag, we have to apply the same stringencies to our blogs, too. I don’t like the blogosphere for many reasons; one of them is its assumption that a person’s first thoughts are his best thoughts, which is quite obviously false.”

Jon Meacham Wants Newsweek to Be More Like Hayes’ Esquire

“I think it’s a good time to be doing this,” Jon Meacham said.

It was the afternoon of Sept. 5, the day Newsweek announced that Mr. Meacham would be its next editor. An incoming editor is required to be excited about new times and new technologies, even if the ad economy is collapsing and the readership is all on or whatever it is this year.

But Mr. Meacham’s excitement had some specifics theories behind it: For instance, at least he doesn’t have to run a newspaper. A newspaper, he noted, has to put a daily report up on the Web, then figure out some other kind of daily report to put out on paper. A newsweekly, on the other hand, has the luxury of working in two different time frames, leaving Newsweek “institutionally better prepared” for a blended Web-and-print future.

“We now have the means to be a daily part of people’s lives,” Mr. Meacham said.

Newsweeklies? Part of what? The mind drifts through imaginary headlines in an imaginary dentist’s office: TEARS OF A CONTINENT … ARE YOU EATING ENOUGH CORN? … HOW TALL IS TOO TALL?

But the famed ever-accelerating news cycle could speed up the weeklies to the point of relevance again. Follow the moving parts: The Web supplies the breaking news the dailies used to provide. The daily paper, filling in the stories behind headlines readers have already seen, “becomes … what Time and Newsweek were a generation ago,” Mr. Meacham said. And Newsweek brings out a print edition that has, Mr. Meacham said, “production values that we used to associate with the monthlies.”

(And the monthlies would read like quarterlies …. Point to Mr. Meacham!)

But what monthlies of old would Newsweek care to emulate? “Harold Hayes’ Esquire was a little like this back in the day,” Mr. Meacham said. “Was Harper’s like this under Willie Morris? …. I think when Esquire was at its best, when it was doing those iconic covers.”

Newsweek’s eternal rival, Time, contemplated the current pace of things and decided last month that it would switch its release date from Mondays to Fridays. Mr. Meacham said that Newsweek has no immediate plans to follow it. “We’re not dogmatic either way,” he said. “We’ve looked at it in the past …. I can see a case for both.”

With the cycles out of sync, Mr. Meacham said, he expects the news to break in Time’s favor half the time, and in Newsweek’s favor the other half. “On that, it’s probably a wash,” he said.

Time’s new managing editor, Richard Stengel, told The New York Times that he wants to be more like The Economist. Atlantic owner David Bradley has also said he wants his magazine more like The Economist. Is Mr. Meacham joining the Economist parade?

Mr. Meacham laughed.

“I read The Economist,” he said. “I am a longtime reader. I think The Economist does what The Economist does very well, but newsmagazines, it seems to me, are not a zero-sum game.” A newsmagazine, he said, should combine analysis with reporting. “I think you have to do both,” Mr. Meacham said, “and The Economist doesn’t even attempt to do original reporting, particularly.”

What about the division-of-labor theory, in which the Web is for breaking news and print editions are for thinking about it? Doesn’t the Web break all news nowadays? “I don’t really accept that,” Mr. Meacham said, “except in the strictest sense, that as the magazine is being printed, we go up online …. I don’t think that every piece of reporting you have has to immediately go up online.”

“I don’t think you only stroke your chin, nor do you only meet people in dark garages,” Mr. Meacham said. “It’s both, because both are important.”

Thus the daily and weekly versions of Newsweek, Mr. Meacham said, will be coming out of the same news operation. Mr. Meacham said that “one of the next dramas” will be the full integration of online writing and reporting with the print operations, getting rid of “any lingering stones in the wall between the two that sort of sprang up in the late ‘90s.”

Mr. Meacham was scrupulously polite to Time magazine. “I’m honored to be in the arena with them,” he said, after allowing that he believes “we bring more original reporting to our pages.”

Unlike Yalies who buck convention by saying “Yale and Harvard,” Mr. Meacham consistently spoke of the tandem as “Time and Newsweek,” the way everyone else in the world does. “What Time and Newsweek have always brought to the game [is] important,” he said.

The institutional power of a newsweekly can still make itself felt, Mr. Meacham said. “There’s a kind of attention that, if we rise to the occasion, will be there for us,” he said.

And the occasion, Mr. Meacham said, is ripe for serious news coverage. There is the ongoing multi-front war—“a generation-long struggle that’s not unlike the Cold War in many ways.” Two years from now, there will be a Presidential election with neither an incumbent President nor Vice President in it—the first, Mr. Meacham said, since 1952.

“We will be doing everything we can to try to own that story,” he said. “It’s about what we are.”

—Tom Scocca New Republic Critic Tumbles in Blog-land: My ‘Dumb Mistake’