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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Tina Brown is back with us once again. The editor of the Daily Beast and Newsweek joins us periodically to tell us what she's been reading, make some reading recommendations. We call the feature Word of Mouth.

Tina, welcome back.

Ms. TINA BROWN (Editor, DailyBeast.com and Newsweek Magazine): Very good to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: And we're talking about a number of readings that have to do with style versus substance, beginning with what seems to be one of the most stylish programs on television, "Mad Men."

Ms. BROWN: Yes, indeed. There's a brilliant piece this week in The New York Review of Books written by Daniel Mendelsohn, which spends a lot of time dissecting the visual and content appeal of "Mad Men." And at first it reads like a real slam. I mean, this guy takes this show apart. He says the writing's extremely weak, the plotting's haphazard, often preposterous. The characterization is shallow and sometimes incoherent. So it feels like a great take-down of the show.

But actually, at the end of the piece, he comes round to saying, okay. Yes, it is all about the visual style. But then at the end, he makes a very, very interesting point, which comes around to a different kind of conclusion. He says that the key moment for him after watching all the shows is the scene where Don Draper - the sort of the heartless ad guy who is womanizing his way through the show and living with a wife who is a beautiful, but a burgeoning feminist, angry about her state in the world.

INSKEEP: Right.

Ms. BROWN: He shows pictures to clients, a Kodak carousel, where he shows all - uses his own family pictures to sort of pitch the client on the carousel. And what he - what Mendelsohn tells us is that the pictures that were used in that carousel were, in fact, the pictures of the author of the show, Matt Wiener, his family life.

INSKEEP: Wow.

Ms. BROWN: And he talks about how the moving nature of that scene, where Draper shows these pictures of his family - where they're a happy family - which is all a great lie, because it's not a happy marriage at all. It resonates because Wiener himself is looking at his own childhood and his own parents. And he suddenly realizes, says Mendelsohn, the writer of this piece, that the view of the people, the grown-ups in "Mad Men," is that of a child.

The most telling lines sometimes in the show are uttered by a kid who is the son of one of Don Draper's neighbors. And the kid is called Glen -which, says Mendelsohn, is really the young Matthew Wiener, the author of this show who is looking at his parents' world with that slightly stereotypical way that children see their parents. And that, he says, is really where the emotional content in the show comes.

INSKEEP: So you have this program that, in the end, he comes around to admitting that he greatly likes. And yet, what was in many ways most refreshing for me about this article was that he took this critically-acclaimed show, and he takes it apart. He points out that, for example, they're always mentioning race and always referring to people who are racist, but you never actually have a plot that deals with race.

Ms. BROWN: Right.

INSKEEP: It's always on the surface. It's all style, no substance.

Ms. BROWN: It's always on the surface. But then he says at the end, you know, it occurs to you that this is, after all, how the adult often looks to children. Whatever its blackness, that world that's recreated in the show, feels somehow real to those of us who were kids back then.

As for their appeal, who, after all, can resist the fantasy of seeing what your parents were like before you were born, or when you were still little? Too little to understand what the deal was with them, something we can only do now in hindsight.

INSKEEP: So the style is the substance in this show about the early '60s.

Ms. BROWN: The style is the substance. And also, the style is what - is the only thing the child could comprehend - a kind of brilliant way of looking at it, actually.

INSKEEP: Now let's look at a book that you have referred to our attention. It's called "Everyday Icon." The subtitle will tell you what it's about: "Michelle Obama and the Power of Style," by Kate Betts.

Ms. BROWN: Yeah, this is a very good piece by Kate Betts, who was the former editor of Bazaar. And she talks about how first ladies have always used their clothes, really, to communicate to the nation in, you know, in shorthand.

And she says: Michelle Obama is the first lady who is at home in both camps. She's taking Hillary's intellect and dressing it in Jackie's pearls, because she's both a woman of substance, but she's also a woman of style. And she really is unapologetic about being both. So she really has forged a kind of a new way of being a contemporary, modern woman of power.

INSKEEP: And now it's interesting. This book by Kate Betts makes a statement that some people will challenge, I'm sure: Style is who we are - it says on page six. It registers both the persona and the person to the extent that you can know: What do you really learn from the way Michelle Obama dresses?

Ms. BROWN: Well, I think, you know, it is the right statement in the sense at how you choose to present yourself to the world is your choice. And in that sense, it does say something about who you want to be seen as.

I think that when Michelle came out in the inauguration in that kind of pale, kind of asparagus gold Isabel Toledo jacket and dress, it was so entirely different from the sort of the bully red and blue Washington power palette that most women in Washington wear.

So she was already saying, I'm from a new generation. I'm from a different way of looking at the world. I am a global woman. And I think she wants to be seen as a global first lady, which is really a new thing for America.

INSKEEP: Well, let's go global with our discussion of style and substance here, because you've also sent us something from the London Review of Books. It's a diary entry - that's the type of article that it is here. And it's a gentleman who went to Russia and tried to deal with questions of style on television. What did he learn?

Ms. BROWN: This was a very amusing piece by this guy who went to Moscow to be the development producer, assigned to get Russian TV channels to take reality shows and documentaries.

INSKEEP: Peter Pomerantsev is perhaps how it's pronounced?

Ms. BROWN: Yes.

INSKEEP: What happens to him?

Ms. BROWN: Well, what happens is he discovers that, for a start, you know, aspirational ideas just don't work in Russia. For a start, you know, when they try to do this kind of Russian "Apprentice," the Russians don't actually admire that kind of brash, you know, you're fired tycoon. They actually admire people who kind of operate in the shadows. And their heroes actually are not businessmen at all. They're gangsters.

And, in fact, you know, Putin actually dresses like a gangster, he says, sort of on purpose, because that's kind of what the Russians really relate to. I guess they know so many of them in business life.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BROWN: He says that the idea of kind of a meritocratic way of getting a job is just not used. He says the usual way to get a job in Russia is not by impressing in an interviewer, no, but what is known as blat, which is connections. He said Russian society isn't much interested in the hardworking, brilliant, young business mind. Everyone knows where that type ends up: in jail.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BROWN: So it's really very funny, indeed. I laughed so much, because, you know, in America, we tend to sort of see everything through the prism of us. And that's one of the mistakes that's being made both in diplomacy and in media, is that, you know, you have to go there and realize these are very different places.

INSKEEP: Let me raise another thing that is in this article. There's an attempt to put reality TV on. And, of course, reality TV is fake in the United States, but there's a degree to which people are at least unscripted with many of their remarks. People can't get over that idea of actually being even that real in Russian television. It's impossible.

Ms. BROWN: Absolutely. You know, well, this is an - obviously a, you know, a society that has had fake TV put to them for so many years, with all the propaganda that goes out. They don't believe that there's any such thing as reality-based programming. They just think it's all completely fake, like everything else they've been ever shown.

So it totally bombs. I mean, they just say this is just some nonsense, and they all shrug.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Tina Brown, always a pleasure to talk with you.

Ms. BROWN: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: The feature is called Word of Mouth. We talk regularly with Tina Brown, editor of the Daily Beast and of Newsweek.

We've got more excerpts from Tina's recommendations at npr.org.

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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