For someone who’s been called ‘Stalin in high heels’, and the ‘best magazine editor alive’ by the same team of journalists, Tina Brown has been through all that a high profiled newspaper editor could. From heading Tatler Magazine when she was barely 25, and resurrecting Vanity Fair six years later, to becoming the first female editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, Brown has been one of the most powerful names in global media. Having predicted the digital revolution in media way earlier than most did, she went on to set up the news portal The Daily Beast, that later merged with The Newsweek with Brown at the helm. Now for the past couple of years after quitting the position, the 61-year-old British American has found her calling, among other things, in organising the Women in the World global summit to address gender issues.
The Summit makes its debut in India this week, with a stellar list of power women, including the likes of Cate Blanchett and Nita Ambani co-hosting. Brown, looking all business-like in a crisp white jacket and black trousers, spoke to Hindustan Times about what’s in store.
Q: India is getting a lot of attention in the international media these days. The coverage being given to Indian Prime Minister’s visits abroad is also rather unprecedented. How significant is it then that you chose to host the Women in the World Summit in New Delhi?
Tina Brown: Oh, your Prime Minister is quite a rock star, isn’t he? But, the reason I decided to bring the Summit to India is that I’ve always felt the women of this country have a certain vibrancy and complexity to them. At least the Indian women that I’ve met do. In recent times, we’ve seen these burning issues related to gender violence getting discussed more here. It’s almost like a kind of ‘gender Arab Spring’ movement happening where women from every aspect of the society are coming out and questioning how long should they stay silent in the face of domestic violence. We are talking about whether women, especially those in the rural communities, can overcome the idea of shame that’s supposed to be associated with speaking out if they’ve been violated.
But I want to make it clear that violence against women is not an Indian phenomenon. The truth of the matter is that America has a terrible record when it comes to violence against women, especially domestic violence. Two women a day are murdered in the US by their husbands or partners. In fact as Gloria Steinem famously said, ‘the most dangerous place for a woman in this country is her own home’. So it’s not as if America can wear any kind of a badge here and say that we know how to do things. Because we don’t. When you see someone like a famous footballer (in reference to National Football League player Ray Rice) beat up his wife on camera, you know how prevalent these issues are. What’s perhaps different about India is the shame associated with reporting it, and pressure from within the family to not talk about it, because they know if they report it, they would get scant attention from the police. I do know that things are changing now, and crimes are getting reported more. It needed a sort of an upsurge for things to change. Speaking out about such issues is incredibly important. Also, women all over the world are facing a terrible time right now because of religious extremism. It is very critical to talk about it.
Q: It’s a rather volatile atmosphere in the world at present, when it comes to conflicts arising from religious extremism. For your Summit, you’ve managed to get an Israeli and a Palestinian woman to come together for a session. What’s the message?
Tina Brown: One of the big themes of the Women in the World summit is the importance of women in peacemaking. There is a session called ‘my son, my vow’ which features two women--Robi Damelin who is Israeli, and Bushra Awad who is Palestinian--both of whom have lost their sons to sniper bullets in the conflict, rise above personal tragedy and come together to share their story. The message clearly is that the grief one feels on losing a loved one remains the same, no matter which side you look at bereavement from. I also feel that women are very often left out of the peace making process, when they are the very people who can bring about a change. Most of these peace discussions, especially true in case of Islamic extremism, are just men in the room taking decisions. Women are just not allowed in. We, through our sessions, have been pointing out that when it comes to the problem of young men getting radicalized and pushed towards extremism, it is their mothers and the women in their family who can actually influence them against that change.
One of the panelists in our summit is Dr Obiageli Ezekwesili from Nigeria who has been a strong voice in support of the missing Nigerian girls who have been taken away by Boko Haram. I want to point out that it is tragic here that Africa never gets discussed. Africa always gets forgotten by the media and people but they have been enduring this absolutely horrific terrorism for the last many years. What Islamic extremists are doing against Yazidi girls in Iraq is terrifying. But we don’t talk about it enough. It’s just a tiny, tiny tribe that nobody wants to care about.
Q: This leads us to the criticism that the Western media is selective in its coverage of terror attacks. The Paris attacks got all the attention but the deadly bomb attack in Beirut got more or less ignored. Would you, as one of the foremost news editors in the world, have covered them differently?
Tina Brown: Absolutely. It’s so true that media is being selective in the coverage. When the Charlie Hebdo attacks happened in Paris, three hundred people got killed in Nigeria on the same day. No one reported that. No coverage at all. It is so tragic. I would have certainly covered it differently. When I was the editor of the Newsweek three years ago, we did an entire cover on the murders of Christians in Africa by extremists. We did several stories about the horrendous stories about what Boko Haram was doing in Africa. Even at the Summit, we are doing an entire session on the plight of the Muslim Rohingya community who have been suffering genocide at the hands of Buddhist extremists in Burma. The world talks about Islamic extremists but here is a case where the Muslims are being terrorized and made to leave their homes. So it’s important for us to know that religious extremism is not just about Islamic fundamentalism.
Q: Talking of religious fundamentalism, there is a debate about the growing intolerance among the majority Hindu community in India. Does that get discussed in the American media?
Tina Brown: Not really. There is coverage, but frankly, not the way international affairs get discussed. One of my peeves, being British and living in America is how insular their society is. There is just so little interest in international news. I’m a foreign affairs junkie, and I find news about other countries so fascinating and enlightening. There is so much America can learn by simply reading up on what’s happening in other countries. In one of our sessions during the Summit in London, a panelist who was a German minister and a mother of seven spoke about the wonderful maternity leave laws in their country. They get so much support when it comes to a woman taking care of her family. Here in America, we talk about breaking the glass ceiling and women reaching up the corporate ladder, but there are organizations where they get three weeks of paid leave and three weeks of ‘unpaid’ leave when they have a child. It is insane. The US is right down there with Pappua New Guinea when it comes to such benefits to women. The discussion over there is no longer about women reaching the positions of power. That’s old. The new discussion is how to avoid the burn-out and flame up! Because the strain of work-life balance is so much. And the women in power are leaving their jobs, because they can’t deal with it. So basically, there is so much America can learn only if there is a cultural exchange with the rest of the world.
Q: Moving on, what are your views as a media professional about the future of print publications, as digital media seems to be taking over the newsrooms in the world. Indian media houses continue to get revenue out of print advertisements, do you see that trend sustaining itself in the years to come?
Tina Brown: I’m very happy to know that Indian media is still making money from print. Two years back when I went for a lecture to the Columbia School of Journalism, the students asked me - Where do young journalists go? I said ‘go to India’. They said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘India is one of the last few places left.’
India anyway is so vibrant. You have great magazines, great newspapers, just as UK is a feast of newspapers. In America, print is in huge trouble. In New York, it’s primarily NY Times, and some local papers. Rest all have gone digital. There is no news stand culture anymore. I’m a big fan of print media. I must, however, say that I found the transition to digital pretty interesting. I discovered I loved it. Because the format matched my impatience. I found the speed at which we could go live with a story in digital so cool. While at the Daily Beast, I could just look at a breaking story, and immediately commission a writer in any part of the world to quickly file a piece on it. And boom, it’s live on the net! Also, it’s so easy to grow in digital. The Daily Beast was launched in a matter of two weeks, and within six weeks, we had a million readers from up and beyond. And my God, it took me five years to get Vanity Fair to that level.
Q: After the Diana Chronicles, are you planning to pen another biography? There is speculation that Hillary Clinton could be your next subject…
Ans: No, not really. I’m working on a book on myself. It’s called Media Beast. I want to write my own story now.
Q: Finally, your one advice to a young journalist, from anywhere in the world…
Ans: Stay Curious. And please for God’s sake, do not find yourself stuck behind a screen. Get out and get the story!