Midcentury Modern Media Nepotism
The rise of America into the great aberration of the 20th century transformed the media landscape. In this installment, we look at the families spawned by Time Inc. (Luces, Whites, Agees, and Fadimans), those who were part of the Bay Area counter-culture (Maria Streshinsky), the children of the Watergate generation (Tali Woodward, Jacob Bernstein, Ben Bradlee Jr.), a media power couple (Susan Glasser, Peter Baker, Theo Baker), and veterans of the new left (Marc Cooper, Natasha Vargas-Cooper)
The early years of the Cold War saw a vast expansion of the readership for national magazines. The G.I. Bill created a new educated public eager to keep informed and entertained, while the intensifying struggle against Communism made the ideological content of mass magazines and newspapers ever more significant. New publishing empires rose along the political contours of the conflict, and as the geopolitical tensions stretched across the decades, new generations of the same families stepped in to fill the neo-imperial posts at the magazine juggernauts. Where empires rise, oaklings follow.
THE CHILDREN OF TIME INC.
No Cold War publisher pushed harder for American hegemony than Time Inc.’s Henry Luce. In the wake of Luce and Briton Hadden’s founding Time in 1923, Time Inc. spawned some of the most iconic titles of the century, including Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated. Born in 1898 to American missionaries in China, Luce carried his family’s tradition of self-righteousness to an extreme, even before the reignition of competition with the Soviet Union after World War II (a moniker Time helped affix to the conflict). In an oft-recalled 1941 Life essay titled “The American Century,” he outlined a neo-imperial role for his country which he believed it was obliged to adopt. “The world of the 20th century, if it is to come to life in any nobility of health and vigor, must be to a significant degree an American Century,” he wrote. His countrymen, he argued, had to “accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” His publishing empire followed a similarly hegemonic logic.
Empires require administrators. Luce and Haddon were 24 when they co-founded Time and had little trouble recruiting their old Yale cronies. As he prepared to launch a second magazine in 1929, Luce faced the prospect of staffing up anew. His thoughts ran in a particular direction: one of the first story ideas he sketched for the nascent Fortune was “Inheritance — the Family Business.” That idea would sprout roots that went deeper than a mere article. Like other mid-century publishing behemoths, Time Inc. offered its children a foothold in the industry. Some — like John T. Elson, who as religion editor at Time wrote the famous “Is God Dead?” cover story in 1966 — followed their parents directly to the company. His father, Robert T. Elson, had been a high-ranking editor at Time, Life, and Fortune and wrote two volumes of the official company history. Luce’s own son Henry Luce III joined Time as a Washington correspondent in 1951 and eventually rose to become the magazine’s publisher, but he never succeeded his father as head of the parent company — it was an ideological empire, not a dynastic one, and in that respect very American.
Others made the jump to competing institutions. David Fairbank White, son of reporter Theodore H. White, went to work for The New York Times, before turning to writing history books about the Second World War, which his father covered for Time. Wired founding executive editor Kevin Kelly is the son of a Time executive. Joel Agee grew up with his mother in Mexico and East Germany after she separated from his father, James Agee, a Time film critic and author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. “I only met him once when I was four years old,” Agee told The Fine Print. Despite this lack of contact, or perhaps because of it, he built a career as a writer — working as a fiction editor at Harper’s in the ’80s, translating books, and freelancing for The New Yorker and The New York Times.
Anne Fadiman grew up hearing her mother’s war stories. Annalee Fadiman, née Whitmore, had abandoned her burgeoning career as a screenwriter to cover the war for Luce’s empire in China. She lost her first husband, fellow Time–Life correspondent Mel Jacoby, in the war. After a ship that ran the Japanese blockade rescued them from the island of Cebu in the Philippines, he was killed in an airfield accident in Australia. She married Clifton Fadiman, who in his overstuffed career would serve as an editor at Simon & Schuster, literary critic at The New Yorker, a popular radio host, and a curator of the Book of the Month Club (a venture Time Inc. acquired in 1977). The couple met when she appeared on his radio show Information Please to promote Thunder Out of China, the book she and White had written to counter Luce’s Chiang Kai-Shek besotted vision of the country. Luce seethed over the book, and the break it represented with his prized correspondent White, for years. According to David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be, the publisher barked that General George Marshall stepped off a plane to China, on a mission to encourage the formation of a coalition government between the Communists and the nationalist Kuomintang, “carrying that book by that ugly little Jewish son of a bitch.”
With the marriage to Fadiman in 1950 — the year following his divorce from Pauline Elizabeth Rush, a high school classmate of Diana Trilling who along with Clifton had introduced her to her future husband Lionel in a speakeasy during Prohibition — the great adventure of Annalee’s youth ended. “It was her choice to stay home. She was an all-or-nothing person and I think she felt that it was difficult to be a good mother and also have a full career,” her daughter Anne said. “Despite the fact that she was the first woman managing editor of The Stanford Daily and the first woman to do all kinds of things, breaking all kinds of barriers in her career as a journalist, she also bought in, I think, to some prevailing mores. She wanted to be a good mom, but mainly, I think she would have been very frustrated to have a part-time, lesser job. The journalism she’d done had been so incredibly exciting.”
When Anne Fadiman went off to Harvard and started thinking about embarking on her own reporting career, she worried more about how she was following too closely in her brother’s footsteps than her parents’. “My brother Kim was an incredibly brilliant writer. It’s not that I was viewed as chopped liver. I was always viewed as smart and a good writer, it’s just that Kim was even smarter and even better as a writer,” she said. “Because he was the firstborn son in this family — though, my father had a much older son by his first wife, Jono, who was not a writer — all the expectations were put on Kim, and I think that made things a little bit easier for me.” Kim Fadiman became a wilderness guide and futures trader in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Her parents’ different tracks made reporting, rather than the criticism and essay writing that was her father’s territory, seem less daunting. “Between my two parents, my mother would have been the less intimidating role model, because her career was so long ago. It was exciting and thrilling, but I’d never seen her do it,” she said. “Whereas I’d seen my father continue to do his work throughout my whole life.” (Her father’s place in the zeitgeist has faded, but she hasn’t outrun his shadow quite yet. In the March issue of Harper’s, which features an essay about a pet frog from Fadiman, Clifton Fadiman is cited in the cover story, in an unacknowledged echo of early Fortune writer Dwight Macdonald, as a participant in the 20th century’s “middle-brow revolution.” As it happens, her piece also immediately follows one by fellow oakling Andrew Cockburn, whose family we’ll get to in the next installment of this series.)
Life died its first death, ceasing publication of its weekly edition, in 1972. Fadiman graduated college and moved to New York during this interregnum in the late autumn of 1975. She started out freelancing, notably writing an article about Harvard bathroom graffiti for Esquire with John Sedgwick, whose forebears include Atlantic owner and editor Ellery Sedgwick. “During the 1970s, you could live in New York for nothing,” she said. “At the beginning, I was also working as a freelance proofreader and, nepotistically, was given a very part-time job as a reader of manuscripts for the Book of the Month Club. Then I also was writing occasional book reviews for the Saturday Review. I don’t think that I got that job through anybody that I knew or was related to, but I really don’t remember.”
In 1978, Time Inc. relaunched Life as a monthly. Fadiman wasn’t only attracted to it because of the role it had played in her mother’s life. Her uncle James Whitmore was a longtime Life photographer and had lived with their family in Los Angeles before he died when she was 13. “I was very familiar with his stories of being the Moscow bureau chief and the Rome bureau chief and I read Life magazine every week. So when Lifecame back to life, in the late ’70s, it was a natural place for me to think of working,” she said. “You never know whether you got where you got because of merit or because of your name. Fadiman is such an unusual name. Everybody knew I was my father’s daughter, but the Time Inc. connections, I think, had nothing to do with my being hired,” she explained. “I was hired by Byron Dobell, who had just come to work as an editor at Life, and for whom I had written when he was at Esquire. He’d never met either of my parents. I knew him because somebody who was soon to become my roommate, Lou Ann Walker, had been his assistant at Esquire, so it had absolutely nothing to do with the family connections. But within Time Inc., might people have thought that it did? Who knows? It’s certainly possible.”
Fadiman started off as a temporary researcher and was hired for a full-time job six months later, eventually being promoted to staff writer. This was still the golden age of magazine-making, when Time clung to the vestiges of what Halberstam called “a damn-the-expense-charter-the-plane-or-yacht attitude.” “We were sent all over the world. It’s not as if we would fly first class, but the Time Inc. travel department would make all the arrangements and put us up at a really nice hotel. And if we’d forgotten to get our passport, they’d pay for expediting, and they paid for a courier to go pick it up. We never thought twice about it. There was just so much money in journalism,” she recalled. “Not that we were rich as young journalists, but if we worked past 10 p.m., we would get a town car waiting. There was an old number that we would call and you would come out at 10:01. You’d try to work till 10:01, so you could go home in a town car — of course, nobody lived as far as Brooklyn, everybody could afford to live in Manhattan; I lived in SoHo — and there’d be this line of town cars. There’d be all these ratty-looking kids in their mid-20s going out to these fancy cars and being driven home. It was a very different world and young journalists cannot imagine what it was like to work for magazines when magazines made a lot of money. It makes me so sad even to think about it.”
In the course of her near-decade at Life, Fadiman felt the pull of The New Yorker, where her father had been the house literary critic under founding editor Harold Ross. At one point, Ross’s successor William Shawn offered her a job as a fiction editor. “With William Shawn, you saw he was a genius, and so you thought, ‘Gee, this guy must see something in me that I don’t see since I don’t write fiction and I’m not an editor, why would you think of this?’ I really wanted to be a staff writer at The New Yorker, and was worried that if I became a fiction editor, I’d never become a staff writer of nonfiction,” she said. After S.I. Newhouse bought the magazine and forced Shawn out in favor of Robert Gottlieb in 1987, Fadiman left Life to work on an assignment for it. “That assignment wasn’t published in The New Yorker, but became my first book,” she said. “[Gottlieb] was fired right at the time that I was finishing up The New Yorker version, which was long — in those days there were three-part series, it was about 100 pages — but he very kindly accepted it, even though it wasn’t quite finished, and paid me and paid for all my expenses. But of course, Tina Brown was not interested in 35,000 words on an epileptic Hmong toddler.”
That book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, would establish Fadiman as an oak in her own right. She still gets significant royalties from it, but also a lot of questions. “Those books are a little like oak parents: You’re glad to have them, but it’s sort of frustrating because everybody always asks you about your first book and not your most recent one,” she said. “You don’t really want to peak at an early age.” Her daughter Susannah Fadiman Colt, who helped research and fact-check her most recent book, The Wine Lover’s Daughter, a memoir of Clifton Fadiman, is in medical school now; she didn’t read that first book, which was about medicine across a cultural divide, until she started studying medicine. Her son Henry Coltwas once a reporter at The Sitka Sentinel, but now he’s a bluegrass musician in Juneau, Alaska. (The paths her kids followed are strikingly similar to former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson’s two kids. Though the two are friends, Fadiman says they’ve never compared notes on that.) Is Fadiman surprised that neither of them ended up a full-time writer? “I think that my daughter is probably going to be a doctor who writes, and my son is going to be a musician who writes, so I don’t consider that either of them has given up writing for good,” she said. “It’s just that it’s not going to be the central part of their life — I was about to say, the central way they make money, although being a musician is really not the central way to make money either, but my daughter will have her hands full being a doctor.”
Her children haven’t been the only oaklings in Fadiman’s life. She’s mentored many over her years teaching at Yale, including Nadja Spiegelman, former editor of Astra and daughter of Maus cartoonist Art Spiegelman and New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly. In the acknowledgments to Spiegelman’s family memoir I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This, she wrote, “Thank you to Anne Fadiman, who knew what it meant to be a daughter and saw me as myself.” Some of the ways Fadiman has helped her students echo her father’s approach to oakdom. “At least a couple of times, he wanted me to meet friends of his, maybe they would help me in my career, maybe it was just they were people important to him,” she recalled. “I think he did feel ‘any way that you can get ahead is good,’ but, of course, he had a different sense of ethics in all kinds of ways from my mom.” Fadiman keeps a list of where her students land, so she can recommend people for her current students to reach out to. “Twelve of my former students are at The New York Times, and seven are at The New Yorker. There are five at The Atlantic, two at Harper’s,” she said.
“If they’d started off working for Goldman Sachs or McKinsey, they would have made more money in the first year than they’ve made after being at The New Yorker for five years, but they wouldn’t have wanted to work for McKinsey or Goldman Sachs. The Golden Age is over, for the most part, but there are still some really good newspapers and magazines. There are still people who read books. And I can see from my students’ lives that if you’re good and you work hard, it absolutely is still possible to make a career that doesn’t exactly resemble my career and, even more, doesn’t resemble the careers of my parents, but can still put ramen on the table.”
The end of the Time Inc. publishing empire was presaged by an event that coincided with the end of the Cold War. In 1990, between the falls of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, Luce’s old company merged with Warner Communications, then principally a producer of film, TV, and music entertainment, to form Time Warner. The corporate marriage was the marquee event in a decades-long diminution of publishing enterprises within the sprawling media conglomerate and, eventually, the scattering of the Time Inc. titles to new owners.
The last children of Time Inc. turned elsewhere to keep themselves in ramen. Betsy Isaacson, daughter of Walter Isaacson, who served as Time’s top editor from 1996 to 2001 and is now primarily known as a biographer, launched her career with staff reporting jobs at The Huffington Post and Time’s historical rival Newsweek. In more recent years, she’s written immersive theater, or live-action role plays. “I tried writing books and stage shows and found them suffocating: I don’t like shoving my perspective on a passive audience,” she wrote in a Medium post in 2021. “I create escapism because people want to escape. Because pleasure should be strange and varied, and I want to expand into the infinite space of things that pull people into better worlds. Or worlds where they are better, where they are the hero.”
Photographer Ted Streshinsky fell victim to Cold War paranoia before he caught the mid-century publishing wave that rose with it. Like Luce, he grew up in China, though it wasn’t missionary zeal that carried his family there. His parents were Ukrainian Jews who fled Odessa in 1921, escaping the post-revolutionary turmoil and the threat of pogroms. They ended up in Harbin in northeastern China, where their son was born in 1923. He came to the U.S. in 1947 to study at the University of California at Berkeley. Having traveled on a soon-to-expire Soviet passport, one of his early stops was at the Soviet consulate. This, as his widow Shirley Streshinsky discovered by sending a FOIA request after his death, triggered an FBI investigation, personally involving director J. Edgar Hoover, which resulted in a deportation order that hung over Streshinsky until he attained U.S. citizenship in 1959.
His daughter, Wired executive editor Maria Streshinsky, didn’t hear about all that while growing up in California. “My dad was really interested in and excited about the future,” she told The Fine Print. “Getting him to tell stories about his past was not his thing.” By the time she was born in 1969, he’d established himself as the preeminent photographer of Bay Area youth culture at its least restrained — photographing Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters for the New York Herald Tribune Sunday magazine feature by Tom Wolfe that would turn into The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, as well as Haight-Ashbury kids for Joan Didion’s Saturday Evening Post story “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” — the flip side to Hoover’s and Luce’s American exceptionalism. Her mother was writing for magazines like Glamour and Redbook, hunting down hard-hitting stories about abortion access before Roe v. Wade and nurses court-martialed for protesting the Vietnam War.
Streshinsky’s parents’ work was inescapable in their East Bay home. “My dad worked for a while upstairs and my mom downstairs, and then every once in a while they’d switch. We were on the main floor, in between,” she recalled. “My mom would be cooking dinner and just say, ‘Nobody talk.’ She would have thought of a lede to a story, would go write it down, and she’s like, ‘Okay, you can talk.’ So it was hard to avoid that this is what they were doing. They loved it. It was them. It wasn’t just a job you went to.” They were freelancers, so the family’s financial situation could be unsteady, but there were also perks. When Maria was a teenager, her parents started doing travel stories. “Dad had a rule that he didn’t take the kids on assignment. There’s a funny picture of me hanging onto the back of his legs while he’s got a camera in his hands and my brother sitting at his feet. It was always like, ‘This is why I don’t take the kids on assignment,’” she said. “Later, when we were older, my dad would take me. Some magazine had paid him to go photograph beaches in Hawaii and I’d go.”
In different ways, each of the Streshinsky kids followed in their parents’ footsteps. Maria’s brothers trained in architecture and opera, but for a long time, they were both ostensibly freelance or self-employed. Maria entered her parents’ industry, but for most of her career she has evaded their freelancer insecurity. She got her first job out of college after her mom sat on a panel with the editor of a AAA travel magazine, now known as Via, who happened to be looking for someone to fill a part-time, three-month position. “Within two weeks, I had finished what the editor thought was gonna take three months and I was like, ‘Okay, I need the next job,’” Streshinsky recalled. “She told me later that she was like, ‘Okay, well, now I have to hire her because she just did what I thought would take her three months in two weeks.’”
Streshinsky spent almost nine years at the travel magazine, in the same Bay Area travel media pond as her parents. “I stayed at this magazine, honestly, partly because my dad was older,” she said. “I was fearful that I’d lose my dad.” But after 9/11, she knew it was time to push on. “I interviewed for a job on September 10, 2001 at Islands magazine in Santa Barbara,” she said. “That felt so far from the center of the world, and I didn’t want to be doing travel work anymore, and the next day was 9/11. Somewhere in there, I decided I had to go to New York, which is what most people weren’t doing.” Media, along with the rest of the economy, was in a slump then, so she freelanced and temped for the next year and a half on the opposite coast from her father. “The irony is when I actually did leave for New York,” she said, “my dad died and I came home.”
Following his death, Streshinsky left journalism for two years to work as an Indian Affairs analyst at the Department of the Interior. “I really missed magazine work, because in the government, you learn a lot and then you keep doing the same thing over and over and over,” she said. She started looking around for a new job in Washington, thousands of miles from her parents’ professional network in California. She found the listing for a job as managing editor at The Atlantic online — she thinks it was probably on JournalismJobs.com — and with that, started a succession of executive jobs. “There’s one side of me that’s so sad because my dad never got to see what I think he would be super proud of,” she said. “Everything I did since, that I still kind of can’t believe — that job and then getting the job to relaunch that magazine called Miller-McCune which became Pacific Standard, and then a moment at Mother Jones, and then Wired — he didn’t see any of that.”
Now Streshinsky is working on a project with her mother to untangle her father’s story, which doubles as an attempt to understand their own. “I started it before Pete died,” she said. “I was looking at my husband, who had advanced-stage cancer, and my mother, who’s now 88. We didn’t have children and the two of them are the two closest family I have. I’m not going to have this for very much longer. I might have to rebuild a life, a very different kind of life.” That circumstance got her thinking about the total reorientation her father needed to effect upon his lonely arrival in America. “Then when the FBI finally left him alone and he met my mom, he had to restart in a different way,” she said.
Streshinsky and her mother started their project early in the pandemic, with the hope of producing a podcast. When she was in her twenties, Streshinsky sat her father down for interviews. The audio isn’t the best quality, but it’s there. Her mother believes that he inflated some of his stories for his daughter, unable to resist improving on a good yarn. They’re thinking of weaving that audio with her mother’s more recent reminiscences, some of which she’s been writing down. Streshinsky had to step back when her husband died last year. “When Pete died, it threw a big wrench into the project. I just needed to stop. I couldn’t touch this really emotional stuff for a while, and we’re just starting to get back to it now,” she said. But her mother’s been hard at work throughout. “She just kind of kept poking away at it,” Streshinsky said. “She had a whole community and other stuff she was doing that went away in the pandemic, and it felt like a good time to set her on this project because I wanted her to have something to focus on because she’s always been a writer, editor, and researcher.”
This isn’t the first time the two have worked together. When Maria was in her late twenties, they co-authored a cookbook, Oats!: A Book of Whimsy. But the dynamic has changed. When she was starting out in her career, she’d turn to her mother for writing advice. “I knew my mother was a better writer, and so I put aside the mother-daughter relationship as best I could and trusted her guidance on writing,” she said. “I was super lucky that I wasn’t defensive about it.” Now she’s editing her mother’s work, both on her most recent books and what she’s producing for this project. “In a fun way,” she said, “she seems to trust me.”
THE WATERGATE GENERATION
It’s said that The Washington Post’s Watergate reporting inspired a generation of journalists to enter the profession. It’s less often, though not infrequently, observed that the three main figures associated with All The President’s Men, reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and executive editor Ben Bradlee, each had children who became journalists. Woodward’s daughter Tali Woodward is the editor in chief of The Trace, Bernstein’s son Jacob Bernstein is a Styles reporter at The New York Times, and Bradlee’s son Ben Bradlee Jr. was a deputy managing editor at The Boston Globe, where he supervised the investigations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests that were portrayed in the movie Spotlight.
“I think you would have to have your head in the sand to grow up around my dad or Carl or Ben — my goodness, he was the most exciting person I’ve ever met in my life. Why wouldn’t you want to do what he did? So I think, of course, that’s going to have an effect on where people end up,” Tali Woodward told The Fine Print.
Woodward got her start at The San Francisco Bay Guardian in the ’90s, when the alt-weekly only had one office computer with an internet connection. Back then, people couldn’t immediately Google her after hearing her last name, and many assumed it was just a coincidence. “I was a reporter for years, and I would call people and say my name, and they would say, ‘Oh, that’s a funny last name for a journalist to have.’ And I would laugh, and that was the end of the conversation,” she said. “Occasionally someone would ask me directly, and I would of course answer, but more often people made jokes about it. They thought it was funny. I wasn’t gonna say like, ‘Oh, well, actually…’ I just let them have that impression.” That didn’t change as much as one might imagine when she headed to teach at Columbia Journalism School, eventually becoming director of the master’s program. “There were funny experiences where multiple people I worked with for years and years didn’t realize,” she said. “I’m sure most people did, but some people didn’t.”
Jacob Bernstein jumped directly into the New York media ecosystem where his father’s nocturnal peregrinations had once attracted the obsessive focus of Spy. According to an Editor & Publisher article he and his father participated in nearly two decades ago, he got a clerk job at The New York Times Magazineright out of college, but not because of his father. He credited his mother, the film director and former New York Post reporter Nora Ephron, for getting him through the door. “I sort of fell into it,” Bernstein, who at the time was a media reporter for Women’s Wear Daily, said in the article. “But it is always on you to succeed or fail on your own.” In that same story, Ben Bradlee Jr. said that sharing a name with his father had helped him get jobs, but it also carried the weight of expectation. The elder Bradlee told Editor & Publisher, “He used to tell me, ‘I wish you’d named me Herman!’”
However, it was not Jacob’s first brush with the media spotlight. In 1999, a 19-year-old named Chase Culeman-Beckman told a reporter with the Hartford Courant that while away during the summer of 1988, a nine-year-old Jacob and fellow member of the Herons group, had told him, “Deep Throat was Mark Felt, he’s someone in the FBI. I’m 100 percent sure.” The report kicked up a boomlet of coverage, which both Carl Bernstein and Ephron pushed back on, though Ephron later told NPR that she’d been leaking Felt’s identity for years. “I told everyone,” She said. Six years later, Felt came forward in a Vanity Fair exclusive to confirm the decades of speculation that he was, in fact, journalism’s most famous anonymous source.
THE MEDIA POWER COUPLE
Around 1980, 10-year-old Susan Glasser, today a New Yorker columnist, could be found handing out copies of her parents’ tabloid Legal Times at the American Bar Association convention in Washington, D.C. After a 1977 Supreme Court ruling allowing lawyers to advertise kicked off a gold rush for new periodicals aimed at legal obsessives, Glasser’s parents, Stephen and Lynn Glasser, were among the first prospectors, launching their paper under the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich banner. Though the paper’s offices were in D.C., the family lived in Montclair, New Jersey, and commuted down. In 1986, they sold the title to Steven Brill, who had founded their competitor American Lawyer, for more than $2 million. Each of the Glasser kids ended up choosing one of the two directions their work focused on: “It says something about my dad’s influence on all of us that of his four children, two are writers and two are lawyers,” Glasser said in her father’s 2022 Washington Post obituary.
While a high schooler at Andover in the ’80s, Glasser tried to tap into the main currents of her time by studying Russian. In 1987, when she was a freshman at Harvard, her father saw a story in The Washington Post about Roll Call, a newly reinvigorated Capitol Hill newspaper. The following summer, she interned with them and came back for a full-time job after graduating, and became editor of the paper in 1992. Her first years in journalism came at a particularly pivotal time, in which the impacts of events in Eastern Europe ricocheted around the world. “I first came to work in Washington at the back end of the 1980s, during the second-term funk of the Reagan Revolution, as the city obsessed over the Iran-Contra scandal,” Glasser wrote in a 2016 Politico reflection. “It was the twilight of the Cold War, even if we didn’t realize it at the time.”
In 1998, Glasser joined The Washington Post as a deputy national editor for investigations and immediately fell into the Monica Lewinsky story, which led her to work closely with a young White House correspondent at the paper named Peter Baker, the son of a partner in a Washington law firm. The two took more than a professional interest in each other. “She was my boss at the time,” Baker reminisced in a 2016 C-SPAN interview. “For about 13 months, this story was pretty all-consuming and, one day, we discovered, completely by accident, thanks to our friend Al Kamen who was a columnist there at the time, that we lived on the same block of the same street and we didn’t even know it. We were spending all of this time together. We’d never seen each other on that block because we spent all our time at the office and I think that was one more of a variety of things that kind of told us that there was something real here. Monica Lewinsky brought us together.” In 2000, they married while on leave from The Post to brush up on their Russian. Soon after, they set off to Moscow and spent the next four years as The Post’s co-bureau chiefs.
Last December, a Book TV interviewer asked whether Glasser and Baker were still fluent in Russian. “Less fluent, I would say, than when we lived there, but we’ve tried to keep it up,” she said. “It’s remarkable how in this period of the post-Cold War, the time that Peter and I have been reporting, largely in Washington, Russia was the story that never fully went away, as much as people wanted to believe that we’d moved on to a different era in politics.” Russian echoes have become intertwined with their personal lives, as well. Ten minutes after Baker sent off the last two chapters of 2005’s Kremlin Rising — his and Glasser’s first of three books together — to their editor, Glasser told him she was experiencing contractions. Their son Theo Baker was born soon thereafter.
After their return from Moscow to D.C., Baker hopped over to The New York Times, where he’s now chief White House correspondent, and where he came to another sort of prominence by refusing to take part in a union walkout last December. Glasser guided The Post’s dynastic publisher Donald Graham, Philip and Katharine’s son, who sold the paper to Jeff Bezos in 2013, through buying Foreign Policy magazine. She ended up its editor-in-chief, but left for Politico, where she started the web publication’s magazine.
In 2016, the couple moved to Jerusalem when Baker was appointed bureau chief for The New York Times, though after only a few months they returned to D.C. when the Times recalled Baker to cover the Trump White House. Theo started at Stanford last year, after graduating from his mother’s alma mater Andover. At the urging of his maternal grandfather, who died just before he started, he almost immediately got involved with The Stanford Daily. “I have never heard anyone in my entire life talk about student journalism as much as he did,” Theo told BuzzFeed News in March after winning a Polk Award, the first ever for a college journalist, for a series of investigations into claims that Stanford’s President Marc Tessier-Lavigne had co-authored scientific papers that contained manipulated imagery. Tessier-Lavigne announced that he was stepping down from the university’s presidency in July. “You know,” Baker said in that interview, “neither of my parents have won a Polk.”
FROM LEFT-WING TO CANCELLED
Swept up in his generation’s rebellious currents when Chile elected Salvador Allende, the first popularly elected Marxist president in Latin America, in 1970, a 20-year-old Marc Cooper headed to the country to serve as a translator for the new government. When Allende was pushed out of power and died in an apparent suicide in a CIA-backed military coup in 1973, Cooper scrambled back to the U.S., a twenty-something cut loose. He headed to New York and stuck around just long enough to line up a gig in Egypt reporting on the Yom Kippur War for Pacifica, the independent leftist radio network, which launched a career that would lead to a contributing editor title at The Nation and, for a time, a journalism professorship at USC Annenberg.
Nearly three decades after his return, Cooper had rejoined Pacifica and was preparing to publish a memoir about his time in Chile. By the end of 2001, he knew that something in his generation had soured. “I was 50 years old and thought I knew everything and thought I’d done everything, but I had not,” he told The Fine Print. “I had not fully assessed to what degree the leftovers from the 1960s, which I participated in, had begun to rot.”
“A friend of mine took over the radio station as general manager and he asked me to come do a show,” he recalled. “The general manager at the time, myself, and a couple of others, humbly, revolutionized the station by modernizing it, making it raise infinitely more money than it ever raised before, cutting the fund drives down from a million days a year to 10 or 15, really rationalizing things.” But some station longtimers weren’t happy with the changes. “They were people who are best described as mollusks stuck to the microphone for the last 27 years, completely ossified, impossible to listen to, just believing they own these little chunks of airtime,” he said. “We threatened the longevity of some of the dinosaurs who rebelled and invented out of whole cloth a narrative that we were right-wing, pro-corporate. According to my critics, I was part of a faction that wanted to sell Pacifica out to corporate interests. I laugh now. What was painful for me was that that year was the year that my memoir on Chile came out and these fuckers took it upon themselves to actually disrupt some of my readings and started an email campaign suggesting that I had a hand in the murder of Salvador Allende.” As his daughter put it, “You gotta inter-left fight, or you’re not on the left.”
Natasha Vargas-Cooper grew up listening to her father read his writing aloud. “I tend to write very fast and I’m a first-draft writer, so it’s like, sit me down and in a couple hours I won’t want to look at it again,” Cooper told The Fine Print. “I get so impatient looking at my own work that I read it out loud to somebody, and that’s my way of reviewing it.” “That started for me age six,” Vargas-Cooper said. “I went on reporting trips with my dad to places like Las Vegas and Nogales. So it was just part of the culture. But for me, it was never like, ‘I want to be a journalist.’ It was like I was always writing, I loved writing.”
Like many oaklings, Vargas-Cooper originally wanted to be an actress. “When she was graduating high school, I think in a less than fully serious way, she was intending to go to Cal Arts and study acting,” said Cooper. “I supported her decision to try to go to Cal Arts. Fortunately, she didn’t get in. That’s good because it would not have worked out. In fact, the only concrete — I wouldn’t even call it career advice, the only concrete advice that fell in that general category, was that the year she was graduating high school, out of the blue, I had run by her the idea of doing Union Summer. It was invented in the late ’90s — I reported on it — and it’s a month- or two-month-long internship program run by the AFL-CIO, to get young people involved in unions. I didn’t expect her to bite on that, but she did, she bit enthusiastically on it. There I did have influence to get her in and I used it. She might have gotten in in any case, but I made sure she did. And she loved it.”
So Vargas-Cooper started out not in acting or journalism, but union organizing. That is, until she dropped everything to try to make it as a writer. “I quit my union job for the first time and torched a relationship and got a minivan and put all my shit in it and left from Washington, D.C., and drove to Brooklyn in 2009,” she said. Cooper recalls how he found out about that decision. “I called her and she answered, and I could hear that she was in a car,” he said. “She said, ‘I rented a truck.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ She said, ‘I’m going to Brooklyn.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ She says, ‘Don’t worry, I have $6,000.’ I said, ‘Well, that should last quite a long time in New York.’ She said, ‘Well, I’m just going there to make contacts.’ And she did, the money did last — I think she was only there a month or two — and she lined up some work. She bought a dog on the way home, and the dog ran away, and she got depressed because the dog ran away. So she started blogging about Mad Men, and then a publisher called her and offered her a bunch of money and said, ‘You want to turn this into a book?’ She asked me my opinion. I said ‘Hey, you’d be crazy if you didn’t.’”
Over the next eight years, Vargas-Cooper published everywhere from The New York Times to New York, and held staff jobs at The Intercept, Jezebel, and Vice’s Broadly. She said that her father, a longtime California resident, didn’t have the sort of connections that would have helped. “The generation gap is pretty significant between him and I, and by the time I was writing, my dad had really wound down his journalism career and was primarily teaching at Annenberg. So no, my dad didn’t know who fucking Choire Sicha was or fucking Ken Kurson, or any of the seven people who decide whether you get to publish a piece. That is all self-made. The only person that my pedigree put me in touch with was Ben Schwarz at The Atlantic, but that was because I went to UCLA and he taught a literature of film criticism class and an Orwell seminar, and my dad suggested that I take that because he knew him,” she said. “I love that you think I’m a nepo baby. I wish. Also, how can you be a nepo baby, if the year that you’re publishing in fucking GQ, The New York Times, New York magazine, you make $37,000?” Throughout her time as a journalist, her father was ambivalent at best, and Vargas-Cooper shares that cynicism about journalism as a profession. “If you are a nepo baby, being a nepo baby in journalism is the stupidest way to be a nepo baby,” she said. “You fucked up, you got born to the wrong family. I’d much rather be Zoe Kazan or one of the Apatow hoes.”
In February 2017, Vargas-Cooper published a piece in The American Conservative with an essentially TERF perspective. “Young people who have insisted that we treat those who are different with more acceptance and tolerance have tended to be on the correct side of history. But trans acceptance is a twofold proposition: the realistic and the rhetorical,” she argued. “The trouble arises when we are asked to concede to the rhetorical demands: when we are told to concede that womanhood is a construction and not a matter of biology; that surgical mutilation is brave; that men who decide to become women are immune from criticism after they’ve taken a certain amount of estrogen; that expression of discomfort is bigotry; and that the cause of women’s political and economic liberation is somehow hindered if we alienate transgendered women.” The piece led reasonable people to express extreme revulsion. “When she uses language in this way, she disguises a very particular ideology — one that I believe leads to harm against trans people — beneath an exceptionally dishonest veneer of civility,” wrote Jo Livingstone, then of The New Republic. “There is no time for any of this, I would say to Vargas-Cooper. I do not agree with you, and you do not agree with me. Why waste your breath hurting people? There is no time, and there is so much work to be done.”
Vargas-Cooper wasn’t fully prepared for the response. “I got in a lot of trouble. My Twitter was nuked and everybody was very upset,” she said. “This was 2016, which doesn’t seem like that long ago, but there was no J.K. Rowling situation, there was no Dave Chappelle. I didn’t even know what the word TERF was until I started writing this piece.” Her father couldn’t have predicted the consequences, but he thought back to his Pacifica battles. “I knew that she was going to face a lot of pushback, but I also know that that’s one of the reasons she did it. She’s not naive,” he said. “She also used hot language on purpose, referring to some of the gender surgery as ‘genital mutilation.’ That pissed people off. But that’s okay, you should piss people off, you should make people think. I have a lot of respect for her for doing that.” (Frankly, we don’t.)
By then, Vargas-Cooper had already left her job at Broadly to try to fund writing a book through union organizing work. “My dad, since the beginning of me doing journalism, has never understood why I wanted to put myself through this sort of pain and torture,” she said. “When I was like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna go work for a place that values me, pays me a tremendous amount of money, does social good, and has a pension plan,’ he was like, ‘Fucking thank God.’” She gave up the book project and stopped writing in the wake of the response. She published one last story, commissioned by then-Baffler editor Chris Lehmann before the American Conservative piece came out, in June 2017. Over the next few years, anytime she considered returning to journalism, it became clear that that wasn’t an option. “I was asked by different outlets to write,” she said. “I was not pitching at all. I didn’t want to write articles. I wanted to write a big fancy nonfiction book. Each time, I would agree, somewhat hesitantly, they would Google me and would cancel the piece. Again, I was not pitching. I was asked, then somebody would raise a flag. This was stuff like a book review for a Toni Morrison book, a cover story of a celebrity, and that was extremely painful, and I didn’t know what that meant.”
She accepted her fate and stuck to organizing, though she said that the article also caused controversies with union colleagues. “I spent from 2016 to 2022 organizing. I organized two hospitals from being non-union to union, worked on political campaigns, worked in Georgia for the runoffs on Warnock and Ossoff, did a lot of really good, meaningful work. And then I got pregnant, intentionally, and had a baby and decided that that was the most important work and I quit a couple months ago. So now, I started a Substack about motherhood with another woman,” she said. “It’s the most fun I’ve had writing since I had a Tumblr in 2007. It’s called Radical Moms Union.”
Cooper sees a significant upside to how his daughter’s cancellation pushed her out of mainstream journalism. “They probably did her a favor, because who knows what God-awful machinations she might have to be going through if she hadn’t stopped? What machinations would she have to go through just to make a living doing this stuff? Before she got into trouble with that piece, she was on a hot streak. The hot streak was a nice hot streak, but the hot streak adds up to maybe $50,000 or $60,000 a year. It’s not actually raining money,” he said. “Mostly now she wants to be a mom, so I’m all for it.”
We’ll publish the next part in this series — featuring the children of media reporters (Carr, Auletta, Wolff), intellectual dynasties (Buckley, Podhoretz, Cockburn), and others — soon. (Curious about an oakling we haven’t covered yet? Let us know: email@example.com)