Public Intellectuals on Time's Covers

By Bates, Stephen | Journalism History, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Public Intellectuals on Time's Covers


Bates, Stephen, Journalism History


Richard A. Posner, Russell Jacoby, and many other authors have charted what they view as the decline of the public intellectual, and this article assesses whether such a decline is reflected on the cover of Time magazine. Examining the covers between the magazine's launch in 1923 and 2010, this study finds that public intellectuals have indeed appeared with less frequency, especially since the 1960s, and as of the end of 2010, no living public intellectual had appeared on the cover for more than a decade. The paucity of public intellectuah in recent years may reflect their loss of prominence and influence in American society, as Posner and others have posited. But alternative explanations also are plausible, including changes in the magazine's editorial leadership, the rise of covers featuring celebrities and other soft news, and the increase in covers that focus on an issue or topic rather than an individual.

Contemporary pronouncements on public intellectuals commonly fall into what Stefan Collini called in 2002 '"the 3-D version' - the decline, disappearance, or death of the intellectual."1 Especially over the past two decades, many writers have predicted the demise of public intellectuals in the United States. Some contend they no longer exist, and in the view of others, public intellectuals continue to exist but their audience and influence have diminished. This article seeks to determine whether the widely discussed decline of public intellectuals has been reflected on the covers of Time.

Time is a natural choice. In 2010, media historians Norberto Angeletti and Alberto Oliva deemed it "the world's most influential magazine."2 Moreover, it focused on intellectual topics from the outset. The prospectus for the magazine in 1923, written by cofounders Henry Luce and Briton Hadden, pledged that Time would take an "interest in the new, particularly in ideas."3 In 1991, John Tebbel and Mary Ellen Zuckerman wrote about Luce's "massmagazine intellectualism."4 Time's cover decisions, furthermore, have not been haphazard. Herbert Gans observed in 1979, "Covers award power and prestige to the cover subject, at least momentarily; they also legitimate the chosen person or topic, and indicate to observers of the American scene what is currendy important in the country."5 Appearing on Time's cover, noted Mark Tungate in 2004, "is a mark of prestige, a sign that you've made it."6 One can argue, then, that a decline in Time covers featuring public intellectuals would indicate a decline in the importance of public intellectuals in the United States.

Although the term "public intellectual" appeared in the work of C. Wright Mills, Russell Jacoby popularized it in his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals.7 He argued that intellectuals had fallen victim to academia and its increasingly narrow fields of specialization: "[P]olitical-minded sociologists or political scientists . . . contributed to professional magazines and addressed colleagues, but . . . failed - and frequently did not want - to address a wider public. We now have 'famous' Marxist literary critics, for instance, but they are famous only among professors and graduate students" (Louis B. Wright had advanced much the same argument in 1947).s Todd Gitlin in 2000 blamed the rise of television pundits for the decline of public intellectuals: "Punditry is to intellectual life as fast food is to fine cuisine."9 In 2004, Frank Furedi blamed, among other factors, "the growing impact of the market upon intellectual life" and "the erosion of public space."10 In the view of Michael Ignatieff in 1997, anti-intellectualism was at fault: "Postwar universal education destroyed intellectual deference, but what has replaced it is a sullen populism which holds most forms of genuine intellectual expertise and authority in contempt."1 ' The classic work is Bichard Hofstadter's Anti-lntellectualism in American Life, which in 1963 discussed public hostility toward intellectuals in general. …

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