Tina Brown says everyone should keep a diary. "Just don't put it online," she said in a Q&A session with Refinery29 CEO Philippe von Borries on Friday. Unlike most people, Brown published hers: The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983 - 1992 is a dishy account of her years at the helm of Vanity Fair magazine, filled with drama, glamour, and intrigue. (Sample story: Donald Trump poured wine down a reporter's back because she wrote that according to his then-wife Ivana, he kept a book of Hitler's speeches by his bed.)
Brown arrived in New York from England at age 29 to run Vanity Fair, and has since edited The New Yorker, launched the since-defunct glossy Talk magazine, and started The Daily Beast. In short, she has had the type of career many girls write about wanting in their diaries. Through it all, she's made sharp observations on women's often rough experiences in the media industry, at one point getting candid about what a "monster" Harvey Weinstein had been to work with. We sat down with her to discuss #MeToo, Trump, and more.
Before you ever became an editor-in-chief, it sounds like you were quite the troublemaker at school, getting kicked out of boarding school. At what point did you "find yourself," so to speak, and realize you wanted to be a journalist?
"I was a very insubordinate kind of young person. Not rebelling against my parents, because my parents were my friends and allies, co-conspirators. But I was kicked out of three boarding schools, actually, only for what I call 'crimes of attitude.' I had a tremendous skepticism of authority... I got a passion for writing plays and wanted to see them done, so I started producing plays both at school and at Oxford [University]. That turned me more and more into being a leader, because it came out of a passion for wanting to see my stuff done.
"At that point I didn't know I wanted to go into journalism. I wanted to be a playwright and theater producer. It was because I love writing and because my best friend was the editor of the university magazine that I began to write for her. I'm a passionately curious person and I love to get to know people in a very intense way, and I thought, my god, journalism is a license to ask people anything you want! I was very interested in that, and discovered I was good at it, as a writer, not as an editor. It was only later that I crossed over into editing, where I combined that wrangling skill with writing."
Your book is arriving at a time when there's so much debate not only about sexual harassment and assault, but about sexual politics and behavior. Do you think there are generational differences in terms of how we talk about these subjects?
"What I'm hoping for is gradations of response. Sexual harassment is deeply unpleasant and has to be stamped out in the workplace; there's just no place for it. Sexual assault is absolutely unconscionable; it's a crime, and there should be zero tolerance. And rape, you should be behind bars for it. In the case of Harvey Weinstein, he wasn't just harassing women, he was raping and assaulting them, so that's a different kettle of fish from a guy who's gross, inappropriate, annoying, a sexual pest. I think it's very important to make sure we do keep our gradations clear. If you lump it all in together, then you demean the women who are being raped and assaulted."
Do you think there's room for a conversation about sexual politics in terms of how men behave in the bedroom that may not be illegal, but are still problematic?
"We consider it bullying and humiliation for a man to post on a website a very uncomplimentary and offensive piece on someone he slept with who didn't perform in the way that he wanted. I don't think women should do that to men either; I don't think a night of bad sex means you should humiliate somebody and get them fired or ruin their lives. Let's be clear about what that means. Is it a night of bad sex where you were harassed and assaulted, or is it a night of bad sex where you had a disappointing and distasteful time?"
In your mind, into which category would the Aziz Ansari allegations fall in?
"Oh, I don't really want to get into the Babe piece..."
You've surely heard about the spreadsheet, a list of shitty media men that women started in order to hold perpetrators accountable. Were there such whisper networks during the time your book took place?
"I wrote a column under the pseudonym Rosie Boot, which was called 'Rosie Boot's Guide to Bachelors,' and it was a kind of portrait of the shitty media men list. I did little snapshots of these guys who did not have any clue I was going to do it, which was an extremely, in a way, racy thing for me to do... I don't think we should be casting aspersions without any due process, to the point that it can really hurt and damage people. I think the shitty media men list was not the right way to go about it."
Since a lot of the men who have been fired for harassing their colleagues were in positions of power, do you think this makes way for more women in media to take on executive positions in the coming year?
"Of course. Look, this whole explosion has been a long time coming, and if this is what it takes to get traction, then that's what needs to happen. We've got three women running major news outlets, and that's just not enough."
Do you think you've been a mentor to other women throughout your career, and how?
"I've certainly hired an enormous amount of women. A big part of mentoring them is to put them in the jobs in the first place, and the flexibility and work-life balance, which as a woman I feel very attuned to... My daughter's 27, she's a young journalist, and I love to hear about some of the challenges that she faces because they remind me of so much that I went through... I find that young women are still less confident asking for what they deserve, which surprises me in a way because they've been raised to think that it's their due... It's kind of perplexing, really. I do think that this cultural training goes deep...it's the way the culture is constructed, and that's what we need to change."
Who are your female mentors?
"I've learned so much from the writers that I've worked with. In the end, they became my friends, people like Marie Brenner and Gail Sheehy. Many of them were technically working for me, but they became mentors. I've actually found that women have become my mentors more as I got older... When I was young, it was in short supply; women didn't have the jobs or the power yet."
What do you think of the women around Donald Trump? Women don't seem to play as large a role in this White House as in previous modern administrations, and accounts like Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury describe his female staff as coddling him and not standing up to him.
"Tell me a man who stands up to him. I think he's surrounded by enablers."
Have you read Fire and Fury? Do you believe all of it? Is there anything in it that surprised you?
"I have read it. I don't believe all of it at all, but he has some interesting insights; it's more about insights than it is about facts. I think one of his most interesting insights is just how stuck in his world Trump has been, and for how long... His circle hasn't changed at all."
After Donald Trump's election, an unprecedented number of women decided to run for office, up 2,100% from 2016 to 2017 according to Emily's List. How do you assess this current moment, including the Women's March, and do you think the momentum will continue?
"Yes. What I love about the Women's March, which I was on, in D.C., is that the march has gone on all year — that's what's exciting. After that huge protest, some people thought this is just a big thing and it's going to dissipate. Actually, it hasn't. We have this enormous surge of women running for office. We have #MeToo happening. I don't think that #MeToo would've happened without the Women's March. The sense of what activism can be was ignited, I think, and that's why it marches on."