06/13/2013 07:43 EDT | Updated 08/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Time Magazine's Slow and Painful Death

There was a time, and this is a sobering thought, when Time Magazine was considered, if not a serious magazine, at least a serious influence in the United States. To be on the cover of Time Magazine was a distinction, and to be the Time Man of the Year was taken seriously by recipients who were usually the most important people in the world. Most American presidents since the magazine's founding in the time of Coolidge (1927) have been so honoured, as were foreign leaders including Pierre Laval (the French premier who was eventually executed as a traitor), Hitler, Stalin, Charles de Gaulle, and the Man of the Half Century, Winston Churchill. I toiled with the late senator Edward Kennedy as co-nominators of Franklin D. Roosevelt as Time's Man of the Century. (Albert Einstein won, championed by the magazine's editor and Einstein's future biographer, Walter Isaacson; it was probably a fix -- FDR came second.)

Many of the early editorial figures of Time were substantial people, led by the founder, Henry R. Luce, and including Henry Grunwald, Theodore White, and many others; and were competent journalists and commentators. The magazine was always afflicted by Luce's love of ghastly platitudes, such as, in its weekly obituary section, "As it must to all men, death came last week to.." and other such piercing glimpses into the portentous and obvious. There were repeated stylistic flourishes that became clichéd and ponderous, including running sentences from back to front in a way that was syntactically correct but rather affected. These and other foibles were often spoofed, as in a famous critique of the magazine in the New Yorker in the mid-fifties. But because it had a large readership and seemed to be riveted on the mind of Middle America, it seemed to be influential, and seeming so, was so treated.

The role of the newsmagazine was one of the first to be severely undermined by the proliferation of new media. The newspapers bulked up weekend editions that reviewed the week, and television and radio redoubled news coverage that included weekly reviews of events and personalities. Specialty magazines arose and abounded, but a summary of the week's news wouldn't cut it anymore. Time's rival, Newsweek, was reduced to ignoring the news and simply running a group of opinion pieces of no coherence or particular pith or merit, from writers of no great distinction, apart from George Will, until finally, as it must to all redundant enterprises, release came upon it, surcease and anodyne, in the deepening night of its fleeting life and put a pillow over its feebly straining respiratory process. Thus does life complete its great hemicycle. (No, Time did not see Newsweek off in those terms -- it's my simulation -- but it might have.)

Time plodded on, becoming thinner but no less pompous or slapdash. In a cover piece 18 months ago about the principal prosecutor in New York, prompted by some of the Wall Street cases, there were five or more howling bloomers that elemental research would have eliminated. Time has become not so much nasty, though there has always been that aspect to it, but simply unprofessional and lazy; to call it superficial would impute to it an obesity of content and substance vastly in excess of the diaphanous current product. Time never grasped the ability, that Maclean's magazine in Canada, so long a pious and parochial lap-dog of national media group-think, as soporific as dried parsley, demonstrated under Ken Whyte, of plucking interesting things and people to focus on each week. The best Time could do was to sidle up to its more successful and younger and even trashier stablemate, People, and splash in categories of personalities, as in the most familiar techniques of tabloid newspapers proclaiming "lists" of the greatest or best people in different fields.

I had thought the ne plus ultra of this, and an admirable send-up of all of it, was the New York Observer, when it was the mascot of the U.S. media, presenting its list of the 500 Most Important New Yorkers, which included, among the top five, not only the U.S. president of the day, who was not a New Yorker, but Pope John Paul II and Queen Elizabeth II, who, between them, have spent perhaps two weeks in New York in their entire long lives. This brings me, inexorably, to the April 29-May 6 issue of Time which bannered and fronted "The 100 Most Influential People in the World." I accept that the leaders of the United States, Germany, Mexico, China, the Philippines, and even North Korea, as well as the pope, qualify ex officio, though how much influence some of them really have is open to question. I suppose Steven Spielberg and the leader of the Kurds and a few others might make it, but about 85 per cent of the collective influence represented is the vapid and mindless flow of the evanescent faddishness of popular cultural tastes. Bone-headed entertainers and parvenus abound. Time lives up to its name by becoming ever more shallow; the written soundbite of fleeting, gushing, gossip. The end of Newsweek was more prompt, dignified, and merciful, especially for the reader.

Mr. TIME: Portraits by Boris Chaliapin