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So What Do You Do, Victor Navasky?

The venerable Nation publisher and editorial director on liberal bias in the press, the role of opinion journals in politics, and whether what's bad for the country is good for The Nation.

By Rebecca Ruiz - December 2, 2003

As publisher and editorial director of The Nation, America's oldest weekly magazine, Victor Navasky has had the peculiar challenge of turning a liberal journal of political opinion into a profitable enterprise, and now he's doing it at a time when dissent is a dirty word. Of course, this isn't the first time Navasky has guided The Nation through an uncomfortable political era; he started as editor of the magazine in 1978. But this has been an interesting time: In September of last year, Navasky watched Christopher Hitchens, one of The Nation's longtime columnists, depart the magazine amid very public allegations that its stance on Iraq was morally reprehensible. Navasky, for his part, places less importance on star power and more emphasis on the power of ideas. The former New York Times editor sat down with mediabistro.com to discuss liberal bias in the media, the role of opinion journals in politics, and why he prefers not to counsel the Democratic party on the personality it should seek in a candidate.

Birthdate: July 5, 1932
Hometown: New York City
First section of Sunday Times: The front section

You started out a long time ago working in magazines and then at the Times. Would you talk a little bit about how you went from there to The Nation?
Well, I founded my own magazine when I was at the Yale Law School, called Monocle. Its motto was, "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." When we graduated, we took the magazine with us, and we tried to make a go of it as a business. While we were putting it out, we all started freelancing for other places. I ended up freelancing mostly for The New York Times Book Review and the Sunday magazine. Eventually, they asked me to work there as an editor, which I didn't do at first. I left the Times to write what became Naming Names, which is a book about the blacklist during the McCarthy years. In order to write that, I had to read through all the magazines that were being published in this country during the '40s and '50s. I concluded that The Nation got it in a way that no other magazine did, in the sense that it understood what was going on in this country during what we call the domestic cold war.

And then I took a vacation from journalism and my book, and for a year I was Ramsey Clark's campaign mismanager when he ran for the Senate from New York. During that period I got to know Ham Fish. Two things happened. One was that The Nation, it was reported in the papers, was for sale. I thought it was a great thing, and I spoke to a number of people about acquiring it. Part of me thought it would be great at some point down the road, but I really was dedicated to finishing this book that I quit the Times for, and I had a long way to go. Ham came back and said, "I'm interested in helping to do this on one condition." I said, "What's that?" And he said, "That you would be the editor." I agreed to do it provided Ham still had an option to go forward and be the person who bought it when the time came. That's essentially how I got there. I also got a call from The New Republic asking whether I was interested in resuming what I used to do at the Times, but by this time I was involved in the conversations with Ham and The Nation, so I told them it probably wasn't a good idea.

You brought up The New Republic, and I wanted to ask you about the recent L.A. Times article, in which the publisher of TNR said that The Nation is a magazine that carries a banner for a certain set of people with political beliefs. I was curious to know what your response to that is, because that's been a criticism that people have against The Nation.
I'm not going to respond to that, because I haven't read the article, but I will respond to the general criticism. If you said to me, "What do you say if people say The Nation carries a banner for X or Y?" I say, "Yeah, at different points in time the magazine takes positions that are generally in opposition to the prevailing political culture from a set of values which go back a long time, certainly for the last 50 or 75 years." It changed a lot over the years, but nevertheless, it's been pretty steady in its court of civil rights and civil liberties and in its preference for non-military solutions to political problems. We are a dissenting publication, which doesn't mean we do it because it's the thing to do.

Having said all of that, there is a great deal of dispute within our pages and among our people, especially our regular contributors. Hitchens quit, which I thought was too bad, but nevertheless, for the last 10 years of his affiliation with the magazine, he'd been carrying on interesting arguments with our regulars. I don't accept this idea that there's a party line or that it's dogmatic. On the other hand, it certainly is true that—we had a bad joke for many years, "If it's bad for the country, it's good for The Nation." And people ask me how we're doing now, and I say, "Better than ever." However, it would be a big mistake to attribute all of the good things that have happened to this magazine in terms of circulation exclusively to the war. The war is certainly a significant part of it, but you have to give some credit to the editors of this place and the writers of this place. If it weren't doing its job, it could be anti-war and people wouldn't look forward to reading the magazine. That, to me, is a critical part of it.

You mentioned the editors and writers. About the time Hitchens left, Naomi Klein was added as a columnist, Adam Shatz joined as the literary editor, and Katrina started writing on the web a lot more frequently. Do you think those additions in the past year have—
I think Adam is going to be a great force in the magazine. The Naomi thing had been in the works before we knew that Hitch wanted to move on. The web is interesting. I'm not a web person. I was sort of astonished to discover that about four years ago we got 2,500 new subscribers over the web for the hard copy magazine. That could dramatically alter the way magazines like this work. Or maybe it's like Howard Dean, it works for some and not for other magazines; you need a passionate issue that people are going to rally around to come to it. And certainly Katrina's contribution to that can't be underestimated. So that's an element. Even if there were no war, that's an element. She is a voice of sanity from a political perspective that was so marginalized earlier in the life of political culture that they wouldn't let it get on television.

There's a lot of talk about how there aren't enough outlets for liberal media. What do you think of those criticisms?
I think Eric Alterman is right in his basic thesis in his book What Liberal Media? It's a myth that the left dominated the media all these years. It didn't and it doesn't. The places that Katrina and David Corn get invited on, the places that are hospitable to them, for the most part tend to be cable networks. You have these shows like Hardball, which are shouting matches. They have very low audience rating compared to the non-cable networks, compared to the Sunday morning shows. How does that translate into magazine circulation or visibility, it's hard to say. Bill Kristol is on television virtually every week on behalf of The Weekly Standard. Circulation of the Standard, again I haven't read this, but my impression is that it would be under 50,000, or it's in that neighborhood—and they have Murdoch's distribution at their disposal. So television by itself doesn't translate into sales for a journal of opinion.

With the 2004 election approaching, is there any idea of whom The Nation might endorse for president? Do you think that candidates who are perceived as middle-of-the-road have a better shot?
First of all, I don't have a candidate. Number two, I don't particularly feel qualified or interested in advising the Democrats on what qualities a candidate should have. I do feel interested in talking about issues of policy and evaluating candidates by where they stand on issues of policy. Magazines like The Nation, The New Republic, National Review, it seems to me, their least important contribution is who they support for president of the United States. Their most important contribution is their ability to influence the intellectual culture and currents of the time through their analysis of issues and struggles that go on among classes and interests, and that's different from the horse race.

One last question about the role of The Nation and its influence on culture. Is that going to be a struggle to maintain in the future?
I think that it's a struggle to maintain. I think that E.L. Godkin, the founder of this magazine, came up with a formula that has endured since 1865, partly because it's a very low budget formula. We don't have slick paper; I hope we never do. We have color, which we didn't used to have. We don't want the magazine to ever be hostage to production costs, and yet you want to make it as accessible to as many people as possible, especially the next generation that isn't used to publications like this. It's going to have ups and downs, but if you take the position that the ultimate test of the success of a magazine is survival, and then you look around and see that publications like Life, Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Look, with circulations in the millions have gone under, and this little thing, and The New Republic, which is half our age, and National Review which is a third our age, are still around, that's the best answer to your question.

Rebecca Ruiz, a former mediabistro.com editorial intern and former Nation intern, is a freelance writer in New York. She currently works as an executive assistant at Demos, a think tank and advocacy group. Photo courtesy of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.



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