Reader's Digest lurches right!

LIFEembedDrawImage2('53268320','0'); Reader's Digest announced in November 2008 that it will work with evangelical pastor Rick Warren to produce a new magazine and a "Facebook for Christians" platform. In a report heavy with ideology, Stephanie Clifford of The New York Times treats the Warren deal, and a staff meeting at the corporate headquarters, as evidence that the company is turning more conservative:

After years of trying to broaden the appeal of Reader's Digest, the publishers are pushing it in a decidedly conservative direction. It is cutting down on celebrity profiles and ramping up on inspiring spiritual stories. Out are generic how-to magazine features; in are articles about military life.

"It's traditional, conservative values: I love my family, I love my community, I love my church," said Mary Berner, the president and chief executive of Reader's Digest Association.

It's clear that Berner is speaking generally, offering a brief description of what she means by traditional and conservative values. Still, it would be helpful to know what church Berner attends and loves. Is she (gasp!) a flag-waving evangelical Protestant? It appears not: As part of an interview with Berner, Media Bistro mentioned that she's an alumna of College of the Holy Cross. St. Pius V High School in the Bronx credits Berner as leading fundraising efforts on its behalf. Even a background document [PDF] from evangelical super agent A. Larry Ross Communications makes that much clear.

Clifford depicts Berner as a hypocrite:

"They are brands that may not be considered cool by the often elitist and self-absorbed standards of New York media," she said. She had taken a car from Manhattan that morning, and wore a pink wool shirt-dress, patent leather Manolo Blahnik heels, and diamond hoop earrings.

... In an interview in her office, Ms. Berner addressed the change in direction. "It's not as cynical as you think," she said, adding that she does not usually dress in $600 shoes but in jeans and sweaters, a fact she had her assistant confirm.

Veterans of New York's magazine industry, take note: If you want to criticize the industry, be sure to choose your mode of transportation and your clothing carefully, lest your shoes disqualify you. And, for God's sake, if you're such an elitist that you have an assistant, keep that person out if it.

I'm also struck by Berner's "It's not as cynical as you think" remark, and by Clifford's use of it. Berner returns to that theme later in the story with this remark: "We don't choose our partners to change the world, we choose them because we're running a business. I guess it sounds cynical if you believe that to run a business to make money is cynical."

Clifford never makes clear what is cynical about Reader's Digest -- with its history of cultural conservatism and bland, feel-good patriotism -- renewing those themes or entering a partnership with Warren.

Early in her story, Clifford refers to the publisher's "years of trying to broaden the appeal of Reader's Digest." John J. Miller of National Review critiqued the repackaging effort in this essay in Feburary 2002.

This period in the company's history is marked not only by celebrity profiles but also by such absurdities as a 1,000th-issue party at which Christian Slater -- yes, Christian Slater -- and Maggie Gyllenhaal served as guest DJs. The New York Observer mocked the party in this article.

Clifford treats this period as the magazine's high point, the time when the company tried to broaden its appeal, as compared to its now-cynical return to a more conservative editorial mix. What a world.

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