Atlantic's Whitworth passes up spicy news for meatier material

By , Staff writer of the Christian Science Monitor

``I really believe all the big, basic things are out there in plain view. They aren't hidden. They are just hard to understand. The truth is a mystery, not a secret. Therefore, you don't need a detective to report it, you need a thinker.'' So says William Whitworth, editor of The Atlantic magazine, quietly assailing the prevailing wisdom that the real business of journalism is to uncover ``the Big Lie.''

The soft-spoken gentleman, who still bears traces of a Southern accent from his Arkansas upbringing, says that the average citizen needs meat-and-potatoes information about public-policy issues more than the exotic, spicy fare dished up by those with an inside line to Washington sources.

The Atlantic created a sensation in December 1981 with an explosive interview with then-Budget Director David Stockman (he resigns Aug. 1). The similarly celebrated excerpt from Robert Caro's controversial book on Lyndon B. Johnson ran the same year. Milder news sensations have appeared from time to time.

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But in general, Mr. Whitworth has been a practitioner of the slow, steady, and quiet method of nourishing readers' minds. He leans toward the lengthy, thoughtful article that places comprehensiveness above flair and sensation.

There are some observers who are less than enthusiastic about the effect this philosophy has had on the magazine. ``The word I get is that it isn't what it used to be when he was first publishing the Caro and Stockman stuff,'' a journalism dean says. An editor from a noncompeting magazine complains that The Atlantic ``does not have much of a character or personality.'' But in general, the marks given Whitworth and his ``small cadre of solid writers,'' as one observer puts it, are fairly high.

After first complaining about ``the length and density'' of some articles in The Atlantic and wishing out loud that it had more of the element of ``surprise'' in it, Columbia Journalism Review editor Spencer Klaw adds, ``I've read some absolutely wonderful things they've had. . . . [Staff writer] Greg Easterbrook and [Washington editor] James Fallows are first-rate, so it's really pretty good. . . . It would, however, benefit by more irreverent, light, che ekier material, and more variety.''

A quiet, thoughtful fellow, Whitworth doesn't talk much about light, irreverent material in discussing the magazine's mission. He focuses more on the objective he received from publisher-owner Mortimer B. Zuckerman, who wooed him away from his perch as heir apparent to editor William Shawn at The New Yorker: ``to participate in the public dialogue.''

This mission leads Whitworth to offer readers such subject matter as ``A revisionist view of farm policy''; ``Translating the Bible, an endless task''; ``The changing economic landscape''; ``Business in space''; ``What's wrong with Congress''; and ``Satellite television, the growth of the backyard movement.''

According to someone who looks frequently at both the magazine and the public discourse, this kind of subject matter lives up to Mr. Zuckerman's objective. ``I think it has done well,'' comments Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who is working on a series of studies about how the communications media intermesh with the government. The Atlantic is ``not something I see people carrying under their arm around [Washington] or anything,'' he says. But writers like James Fallow s ``come up with things that people have to know about. . . . The Atlantic makes an important contribution.''

``I just think that there are a lot of [subjects] that newspapers and magazines and TV . . . will not analyze or explore,'' Whitworth says, explaining how he goes about making that contribution. He uses his own confusion and curiosity as a barometer of his readers' compulsion to know about these things. ``All `little' magazines have the luxury of thinking the reader is the same person as their editors. . . . That's a reasonable assumption to make.''

So when he reads his stack of New York Timeses, Wall Street Journals, Times, Newsweeks, and the like and still feels at sea about some question in the public eye, he starts looking around for the right writer-reporter-thinker to do a piece on it.

In the case of satellite television and the backyard earth station movement, that writer turned out to be David Owen, author of ``None of the Above: Behind the Myth of Scholastic Aptitude.'' In Owen's hands, this arcane technological subject became an amusing, sometimes hilarious, and often painlessly informative foray into American culture and its confrontation with the video future.

Not every cover has been so successful. The decision to send a movie critic around to plays and come back with a predictably negative view of legitimate theater evoked derisive barbs from readers, for instance. But generally the magazine has earned accolades for its seriousness of purpose.

It has also managed, under Whitworth, to boost circulation by 35 percent, to 440,000. While some of this circulation is reportedly mortgaged (meaning that it includes cut-rate and overdue subscriptions), The Atlantic's newsstand sales are especially healthy, a strong sign of timeliness and vitality.

Whitworth's recipe for keeping his customers happy is to cram into the magazine's average 70 pages of editorial space a month: the writings of mostly unknown short-story writers (``We get 14,000 stories submitted a year and publish 12, maybe 15''), as well as such ``brand names'' as John Updike and Saul Bellow; short pieces on everything from a misplaced chunk of earth in Washington State to Trivial Pursuit; poetry; lengthy takeouts on the great issues; humor by the likes of Roy Blount Jr.; arts pieces

(``The coverage is too spotty and arbitrary, now,'' Whitworth concedes); book reviews; and letters.

As he puts it all together, Whitworth says, he conceives of a reader who is ``centrist, skeptical . . . who wants to be spoken to in a civil tone, not hit over the head . . . someone who wants reason, instead of rhetoric.''

A thinker, in short; someone trying to understand the crucial issues, instead of uncovering the big, hidden lie.

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