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In the 1980s and 90s, Tina Brown sat atop New York’s publishing world, back when magazines still held sway over the breakfast tables of the chattering classes. Her tenures as editor of both Vanity Fair and the New Yorker were marked by a boisterous interest in celebrity and a razor-sharp instinct for creating buzz. Brown’s 1985 Vanity Fair story, “The Mouse That Roared,” first lifted the veil off the troubles plaguing the marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles, a subject she expanded upon in her 2007 book, “ The Diana Chronicles.” Brown’s current focus is global women’s issues, epitomized by her annual Women in the World Summit. The eighth edition took place in New York this past April and featured Hillary Clinton, Scarlett Johansson and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Here, Brown reflects on giving women around the globe a seat at the table.
What have you learned since debuting your Women in the World Summit in 2010?
I’ve really been impressed by the immense courage and resourcefulness of women. We’ve had incredible women leaders from Liberia like Leymah Gbowee, who led the uprising of women which brought down the dictator Charles Taylor; women fighting terrorism or facing down ISIS; and women who are totally changing the norm in terms of issues like sex trafficking in India. They don’t ask for anything, they don’t expect any help, they just do things without any kind of pomp or ceremony. They also have an enormous amount of peacemaking skills. And when you listen to them you just think, “Well, I wish that more women like them were at the table,” because women will reach across the aisle. They want to be practical, they want to solve situations; they’re not interested in keeping animosity alive.
You’ve written a lot about Princess Diana, who died 20 years ago. It’s interesting that she’s come to be seen as a woman who used her position to bring empathy to issues like AIDS and land mines.
Diana was a real trailblazer in terms of how she managed to take a situation of personal pain and then used her celebrity to sublimate it by bringing a spotlight to people who were suffering even more than she was. I think today she would have been the rallying cry on something like the refugee crisis, and I think we miss her tremendously because she really did show how to leverage fame and celebrity to capture the spotlight for things that are more worthy.
How crucial do you think pay equality is in terms of resetting the way we perceive women in our society?
It’s essential. There are so many women who toil in the shadows and who are really doing the job, while somebody over them — usually a man — is getting the credit, getting the pay raises, speaking the loudest at the meetings. Women tend to not ask as aggressively or as confidently for raises as men do, and it frequently means that they get stuck because they always are telling themselves, “Oh well, I don’t quite have the qualifications to get that.” Whereas half the dudes who go in there have no second thoughts about it. They’re kind of the Scaramuccis of the boardroom.
What gave you the motivation to punch through the glass ceiling?
I just had a wild creative energy, wanting to tell stories and write great headlines and wanting to get that new story. I was just very, very competitive, I think, and I’m not sure where I got that from. Most of my role models were men because they had the lives I wanted.
What’s your view on the state of journalism today?
I think the digital disruption has proved enormously harmful and hurtful to our profession, really, while at the same time liberating it in other ways. There are not many venues for great reporters to be paid. That I find very sad, because there are a lot of talents right now that have gone to waste just when we need them more than ever.
Meanwhile, Facebook has narrowed the news we’re receiving in our feed. How do we ensure that we’re not being manipulated by social-media algorithms?
I find it absolutely terrifying. I think one of the most distressing things right now, in terms of media consumption, is that everyone is living in their own little North Korea. It’s interesting to me that in this era when people go on and on about the need for diversity, nobody wants to hear diversity of opinion in media, on both sides, whether it’s the tyranny of liberals or the tyranny of the right. I personally have always felt that real journalism has to be an unsafe space and that’s the kind of journalism that I like to do. I like to ruffle. One of the mottos we used to have at [my first magazine] Tatler, in 1981, was, “The magazine that bites the hand that reads it.” And I firmly believe in that. I don’t want just to be given content that reassures me.
Photography: Brigitte Lacombe