April 2, 2012

Is The Atlantic a CIA front?


The re-launched Baffler — back from the dead under editor John Summers — carries a 10-page takedown of The Atlantic by Maureen Tkacik. The piece (“Omniscient Gentleman of The Atlantic,” not available online) focuses on changes at the venerable magazine under owner David G. Bradley, who bought The Atlantic in 1999 and combined it with other enterprises, notably The National Journal, AtlanticLIVE (an event and conference business), and a shadowy series of off-the-record dinner parties.

The changes, Tkacik mocks, “have eradicated thought itself.”

For all the ostensible objective and scientific rigor of the magazine’s questing spirit, The Atlantic‘s definition of talent seems to correlate to: a current fellowship at the New American Foundation or any of the indistinguishably center think tanks, though preferably one with a brand (i.e., “Daniel Indiviglio is the 2011 Robert Novak Fellow at the Philips Foundation“); an ability to channel one’s talent into the mastery of meritless and preposterous (“counterintuitive”) augments, deliberately obtuse rebuttals , and miscellaneous pseudointellectual equivocation/noise on topical issues; and proven senior level mastery of aforementioned mastery as demonstrated either by radical shamelessness or the pious and deeply felt earnestness of a motivational speaker.

More controversially, evoking CIA-front Encounter and the strange — though not surprising — connections held by David G. Bradley and his father, Gene Bradley, Tkacik wonders if the new Atlantic isn’t more than just a mouthpiece for the powerful, but in some “formal” way, a front for the CIA:

Of course The Atlantic is a turgid mouthpiece for the plutocracy, a repository of shallow, lazy spin, and regular host of discussion forums during which nothing is discussed. It is, in every formal trait, a CIA front.

But after saying as much, and after many pages charting the Bradleys connections to the intelligence world, GE, and BBDO, Tkacik walks away from the claim: perhaps it’s a spook shop, she writes, “or not.”

The caveats haven’t stopped Baffler editor Summers from touting the CIA question in interviews, and, according to this interview, the Baffler has “heard from the magazine’s general counsel.”

The question of CIA connections, however, seems a distraction from what Tkacik gets right: that The Atlantic has become something much worse than a CIA front like Encounter: it’s become predictable.

In moving to Washington in 2004, it also starting losing big talent, or forcing it out. Editors Cullen Murphy and William Whitworth left. Gone, for the most part, are bylines from Mark Bowden, William Langewiesche, and Robert D. Kaplan, the magazine’s most notable contributors from before the Washington move. (The magazine’s “Books” section, edited by Benjamin Schwarz, is the one holdover from the old Atlantic, but Tkacik doesn’t say what she thinks of it.)

Instead of proving a CIA connection, Tkacik takes us into the tedium of Atlantic events and conjures how silly a magazine written by policy fellows can be. It’s a worthy project. After recounting a few lines from a recent Atlantic issue, Tkacik writes:

Comrades: I hope that you want to throw up now, because I have run clean out of bile to waste on the mental morlocks who think up this sort of shit.


Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.