A dual duty (redline/bottom-line) editor like every publisher today needs, The Atlantic’s James Bennet attracts the kind of big digital audience numbers that his bewildered competitors receive the way AT&T used to swallow the fabricated quarterlies from Bernie Ebbers’ WorldCom. How’d they do that? The ethical Bennet is no Ebbers, of course, but the two do evidently share a love of fiction: Bennet has restored that much-maligned genre to pride of place in his magazine’s print version, after controversial exile. He must believe that, given the heavy conjecture and Gladwell-y logic that commonly underpins the journalism of his elite squad of carnival barkers, he may as well include what is admittedly invented.
Mr. Bennet has the secret sauce everybody wants: he actually knows his audience. At the website, Bennet sets the scene brilliantly. As guests slide from the lively comment curation of Ta-Nehisi Coates to Benjamin Schwarz’s always lucid but increasingly earnest and almost nostalgic book banter, they get to try on a variety of loose-fitting humanism. It’s sort of the intellectual equivalent of Anthropolgie: inclusive, aspirational and as comfortable with contradiction as Walt Whitman. One 2012 issue contained both a measured, deflationary essay by B.R. Myers on the undue praise accorded a rather ordinary debut novel (with Myers suggesting that hyperbole has a habit of reproducing itself like a virus) AND on the cover, American Mozart: The Genius of Kanye West. Are these two pieces difficult to reconcile? Myers says the neophyte is no Tolstoy, stop exaggerating, but the cover says check it, Mozart in the house. Kanye West is probably less a shaper of culture than something that happened to grow in ours, like one more data point in a petri dish. But the rapper sure does blow, and Bennet is smart enough to raise the Atlantic’s sails when he does. It’s treacherous seas out there, sucking down old media armadas like a digital Bermuda Triangle. And yet Bennet’s vessel looks as sturdy as can be. It’s got a neat, Nate-Silver-meets-Sarah-Silverman ergonomic cool, and it’s not afraid to run hot either (What Does the Sun Sound Like?). Whatever the weather, Captain Bennet is a sure hand.