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Atlantic's Whitworth passes up spicy news for meatier material

By Christopher SwanStaff writer of the Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 1985


``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.''

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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.

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.''