Unconventional wisdom

Nation magazine publisher Victor Navasky discusses his misadventures in publishing, squabbling with Christopher Hitchens, and what he learned at Harvard Business School.

Published June 9, 2005 2:44PM (EDT)

Over time, the tasks of making a living and raising a family tend to exert a steady rightward pull on the politics of most every angry young man and woman. This might be why today's left has so few old lions in comparison to the right, and why Victor Navasky, current publisher and longtime editor of the Nation, is so important.

Navasky is a kind of anti-O'Reilly. His anger burns cool and even; his dissent is so reasoned that it is irreducible to standard sound-bite form. He is civil enough to make polite conversation with his ideological opponents and charming enough to convince a few. These diplomatic qualities, combined with the fact that he's been a part of New York publishing circles since 1970, have made him an institution, a bridge back to a time when the country was listening to what the left had to say.

Navasky's new memoir, "A Matter of Opinion," is also a throwback. In it the author, now 72, declines to do any major dishing on former Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens, former nation owner Arthur C. Carter, actor/Nation supporter Paul Newman, or any of the other iconoclasts and millionaires who march across the pages of the book (and manage to survive with their reputations intact). Instead of a tell-all, the book is Navasky's attempt to situate his career, and the Nation's 140-year run, within a larger tradition of public debate at a time when the rest of the media is more interested in conglomeration and profit margins than serious journalism.

The book is a hybrid, part tale of Navasky's odyssey through the publishing world, part history of the magazine itself, and part treatise on how "journals of opinion," as Navasky calls them, have an influence far larger than their circulation would suggest. A narrower audience, he writes, permits a more intimate and straightforward editorial conversation, and because readers -- not advertisers -- provide most of the operating capital, content needn't be diluted with style sections and service packages. Where the mass-market magazine is a machine designed to funnel reader dollars into the pockets of advertisers, the journal of opinion is a utility, a site for conversation funded by its users.

Navasky also makes a strong case against the "objective" media whose claim to have no political leanings actually conceals a prejudice that favors those in power. He singles out the New York Times Magazine, where he worked as an editor in the early 1970s, for failing in this respect. The magazine was risk-averse, to say the least; according to Navasky, the few experiments that managed to slink their way onto the weekly budget wound up deformed by torturous edits, inflicted, it was said, to meet a standard of reasonable balance -- an ideological standard set by the paper's editorial hierarchy, and ultimately its publisher. In 1972, Navasky turned down an offer to edit the Times' Travel Section, leaving the paper to write "Naming Names," his landmark history of the McCarthy era. While writing the book, he helped progressive scion Hamilton Fish raise $650,000 to buy the Nation in 1977, and then took over as editor. On his first day at the magazine, as he sat at the desk of his predecessor Carey McWilliams, he realized the constraints of conventional objectivity would no longer bind him.

Yet, in one respect, a dissident magazine is like every other magazine -- it needs to take in money from advertisers, readers and donors, or it will die. Fish's consortium eventually turned to Arthur Carter, who bought the magazine in 1985 and absorbed losses of about half a million dollars a year until 1994, when he sold it to Navasky for $1 million -- money Navasky didn't have but managed to raise, with the help of a few martinis, from novelist E.L. Doctorow, Paul Newman, current Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and a consortium of smaller investors. Today, for the first time in more than a century, the Nation is turning a profit. This is due partly to Navasky's business acumen and partly to the demand on the left for fiery takedowns of the Bush administration. Subscriptions are at an all-time high, 184,000 and counting. Just as Navasky likes to say: "What's bad for the country is good for the Nation."

These days, the Nation is usually just what it bills itself to be -- an early warning system, a siren ready to scream about the government's latest imperialist plot. At its occasional worst, it can be as shrill and repetitive as a car alarm. But Navasky, both in his book and in person, is charmingly mellow, almost grandfatherly. In our discussion -- conducted in his Nation office in downtown Manhattan -- we discussed blogs, Bush and buzz, as well as the possibility of a Nation-Hitchens peace accord.

Before taking over the Nation, you'd done everything from writing television scripts to reporting for an Army newspaper to sweeping the floors for a weekly in Alaska. How did you bring all of these experiences to bear on the subject of media today?

This book began as a meditation on the role of these magazines [journals of opinon] in this age of conglomerated, electronic, tabloidized journalism. Then my Nation publisher sold me the magazine for money I didn't have, money that I had to go out and raise. At that point, I changed this from a third-person meditation to a first-person misadventure story. Instead of giving some big theory about the state of this or the state of that, I looked at the experiences that one has in independent journalism, in opinion journalism, and, in my own case, when I worked at the New York Times and elsewhere.

As a writer, your primary specialty has been the McCarthy era. Was the government more intrusive then, or now?

During the McCarthy time there was a de facto collaboration between private industry and government to disqualify people from employment because of past political activities. If you were named as being a member of the Communist Party, and if you did not confess your own past or present party membership to a congressional committee and name others, then you were disqualified for employment. That kind of thing doesn't exist now, and I don't think it could happen in that way again. On the other hand, 50 years ago it was unthinkable that we'd ever be without some of the rights that we've lost now. Back then, you had the right to counsel if you were indicted, and you had the right not to be preventively detained. Now they can pick you up, haul you off to Guantánamo, and if the president finds that you are a threat to national security, no one will even know you're there. Today's terrorists are yesterday's communists.

Your colleague Peter Beinart at the New Republic also makes the comparison between communists and terrorists, but he goes on to argue that just as the left was too soft on communists then, so they're ignoring the terrorist threat now, and losing the political center in the process.

I disagree with him about then, and it depends what he means about now. Right now, the history profession is engaged in an argument about the Venona Decrypts and other materials we've gotten from the Soviet archives about the nature of the so-called threat. My own belief is that there was no American communist threat of the dimension that required such a massive encroachment on civil liberties. Sure, there were American spies for the Russians, just as I assume we had spies over there. Although the Communist Party never had more than 75 or 80,000 members at one time, a million Americans passed through it, and I'd say 99 percent had nothing to do with that.

They joined the party because they thought it was the best way to fight racism, to fight the Depression, to fight on behalf of the poor in this country. Most became disillusioned, and they left. Of those that were prosecuted as spies, such as the Rosenbergs, the severity of the penalties visited upon them were disproportionate to the nature of their actual crimes. My view on terrorism is that, yes, it is a threat but it's not, as Bush put it, us vs. them. It's the world community, and you need a world organization -- the United Nations -- to deal with a problem of these dimensions. You pay your dues and help transform it into the kind of responsible organization that you want it to be, instead of mocking it, attacking it, and belittling its agencies as we did during the search for the weapons of mass destruction. That's the wrong way to fight terrorism.

You quote one of the Nation's past editors, Carey McWilliams, saying that "it is always a question of finding that reader for whom a publication like the Nation is a lantern in the dark," suggesting that publications with smaller circulations form a stronger connection with the people who do find them.

Right, once you find that reader, you'll have a lifetime subscriber.

Back in McWilliams' day, readers looking for a certain niche of opinion had to turn to small magazines. Now they have blogs. Do blogs threaten the continuing relevance of journals of opinion?

My children and younger people say I don't get blogs. Well, here's what I do get. I do get the point about interconnectivity and the possibility of an exchange that you could never have before. That's very important. Two, people say blogs are going to replace magazines. My view was, and still is, that the relationship of the Internet to print is not the relationship of silent movies to talking movies, which put the silent movies out of business, but more like the paperback to the hardcover book. It extends the audience for the product, rather than replacing it.

I really liked the section of the book where you attend the Owners, Presidents and Managers program at Harvard Business School. Your fellow managers approached the Nation as a case study and recommend that you "liquidate" the magazine's "goodwill," and essentially reap a financial harvest from the history of your brand. Do you think it would be possible to start a publication like the Nation today, from scratch, without that accumulated tradition?

Shortly after I became publisher, I gave an interview and announced that I wanted the magazine to become self-sustaining. The interviewer asked me how I was going to do that, as the Nation has lost money for 135 years. I answered that people have invested millions of dollars in the Nation over that time, and what I'm going to do is cash in on their investment.

I was joking at the time, but because of the Internet that's exactly what's happened. Last year, 28,000 people subscribed to the magazine who found us through the Web site. The year before, there were half as many, and the year before that it was a quarter. We have what Harvard Business School calls a brand name, a magazine that was founded by abolitionists 135 years ago and has since fought against colonialism, against imperialism and on behalf of civil rights and liberties for all of that time.

I think you could start a magazine of our sort today, but it would cost you a minimum of $25 million for a weekly. (Compare that to $125,000, which is what the proprietor charged for the magazine when I arrived.) Even if you spent the $25 million, it wouldn't have the same historic resonance that this magazine has.

The book makes many references to editorial cues that you picked up from your predecessors at the Nation. Are there any traditions that you're carrying forward on the business side?

Yes. The Nation has always flown in the face of conventional magazine wisdom. My favorite example is the first sentence that ran on the first page of the first issue of the Nation: "The week was singularly barren of exciting events." Could you imagine seeing a sentence like that in Tina Brown's Talk or Vanity Fair? It's inconceivable! The conventional wisdom is that you need buzz, buzz, buzz. The Nation thumbs its nose at buzz, and that's a tribute to something that E.L. Godkin, the original founder, understood. Carey McWilliams, the editor for 25 years before I got there, used to say that the main job of the magazine was to question the official line. That's not just about politics writ large but also about how you do the business itself.

Did spending time with your fellow managers at Harvard Business School change the way that you perceived the business world as a journalist and editor?

Well, I liked my classmates a lot. One of them was David Karam, whose family owns 75 Wendy's franchises in Ohio. On the one hand, he's a very conservative guy, an anti-union guy. On the other hand, when you ask him what's the job of the business, he gives you his list: quality product, a fair profit, and to improve the lives of employees. They have to share in the proceeds. He's not advocating worker ownership, but the general sophistication and caring nature of his approach ... it wasn't true of everybody up there but it wasn't that much of an exception either. David was just a little more articulate about it.

How do you imagine the Nation's public? Who are your readers?

To put it simply, I think we have two overlapping but very different constituencies and a lot of single-interest groups. The first constituency is the classic constituency for journals of opinion, who are people who are interested in ideas. They range from teachers to college professors to students, to people who write the nightly news and people who read it, to members of Congress. Generally, these are the people who have more influence in the culture than the person in the street. The other constituency tends to be younger. These are the movement activists who count on the magazine to rally the faithful whether it's gay rights or anti-nuclear arms or globalization.

I would say that there's more distinguishing the positions of our various contributors than there is separating the Democratic and Republican parties. For instance, the difference between our old-fashioned socialists who believe in top-down planning and the Greens, who believe in bottom-up politics, is greater than the difference between the two major parties. You don't find those debates in the mainstream media, but they surface in our magazine.

Christopher Hitchens left the magazine because, he said, it was no longer a productive forum for debating the war in Iraq. In the book you say that you wish he'd stuck around, and that the magazine could have accommodated his views.

I do wish he'd stuck around. For a while, there seemed to be bad blood. There were things written about what Katrina vanden Heuvel and I said about him that he didn't take well to, and the way we read what he was saying, he seemed to be lumping the Nation in with some mindless mythical left that thought Osama bin Laden was less of a threat than John Ashcroft. That's not Katrina's view. That's not my view. That's not the Nation's view. And yet Christopher said "my former comrades believe that." Then lo and behold, I open the May Vanity Fair and there's Christopher Hitchens nominating me for Vanity Fair's hall of fame. I guess you never know.

Doesn't the magazine have an urge to eventually form a collective opinion on questions like the war, to settle the larger issues into a unified platform?

I think it is appropriate for a magazine like this one to have an internal debate and eventually, where it can, to come out and take its own position. But that doesn't mean that you exclude views that disagree with you. You start from a set of shared values. The right starts from a very different value system. Whereas we have pacifists and non-pacifists, they have isolationists and unilateralist, jingoistic "patriots." We don't have to waste our space on that. And yet we can print articles for and against intervention.

Other magazines have found one big sustaining donor who intervenes on behalf of a pet candidate or issue but otherwise leaves the editorial side alone. You, on the other hand, have had to continually balance the competing interests of multiple shareholders and smaller donors. How do you keep all of these groups identifying with the Nation, even when they disagree?

I don't know if there's a simple answer to this one. I've tried to set up a system that would insulate the magazine from intervention by its investors. So the simple explanation is that we're organized as a partnership, the same way a Broadway show is organized. Everyone who invests in a Broadway show knows they have no say as to who gets the leading part or whether Arthur Miller has to change the last act of "Death of a Salesman." It's a given that the creative people put on the show.

Secondly, I didn't subscribe to or install a system of collective decision-making about what should be put in a publication or where the money should be spent. I just accepted what I thought of as the New Yorker model, where business had nothing to say to editorial and the editor was a dictator. Finally, it's not as if I started this magazine. I don't want to be the person who brought down this great cultural treasure which I've been given custodianship of during the period that I'm here. Much of the work is a matter of improvisation and discovery as you go along. I always thought the job of the principal is to keep everybody working together insofar as you can. The fact that there are differing points of view is a plus to the magazine, so long as you can keep things from getting physical.

By Mattathias Schwartz

Mattathias Schwartz is editor and publisher of The Philadelphia Independent.

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