GUEST: Katrina vanden Heuvel
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And my guest today is Katrina vanden Heuvel, now the Editor and the Publisher, too, of The Nation, America’s oldest journal of opinion.
Her predecessor as Editor and Publisher — Victor Navasky — first joined me decades ago here on The Open Mind and I want to ask my guest what changes, slight or cosmic, have been or are now likely to be observed in her journal’s opinions.
VANDEN HEUVEL: The Nation is a magazine of opinion, Richard, that is important particularly in these days when I believe that flawed media leads to a flawed democracy … changes. I think the important point at this stage is that The Nation remain what it has been for these last, last decades, a magazine of news and views, a magazine of opinion that fulfills the civic obligation of a media. That is to create informed, engaged readers, citizens and not fearful, passive ones which so much of our media today do.
Of course there are going to be changes. I want to engage a younger audience, a younger readership. We’re ramping up the website, we’re bringing in more political culture which I find so vibrant today. But the core animating issues of The Nation, a commitment to civil liberties, to the rule of law, to a free press. All of those issues are particularly important at a moment when we have an Administration in power which has such contempt for those core, very American principles.
HEFFNER: Why do you emphasize younger people? Because you’re so much younger than …
VANDEN HEUVEL: I’m not. I’m a bridge generation in essence. But I do believe in … I don’t want to make a fetish out of youth, but I do believe that the future of our country resides in ensuring that younger people, and there are many who come through The Nation, we have an extraordinary internship program.
I was an intern. I started as an intern. We have 21 young, engaged, journalists, activists who come and engage in our work. But I think it’s important if we’re going to have a country which has a full diversity of views.
What I don’t like is the sense … I think on the part of a mainstream media which says, “Oh, young people. They’re just interested in info-tainment. Or, they’re not going to be part our country’s politics and society”. Wrong. Our cover story, this coming week is about what’s going on on campuses. And there’s a resurgence of activism, of interest in the future of this country.
HEFFNER: You know, it’s strange … I …
VANDEN HEUVEL: And I don’t think, by way, that, that print is going to go out of business. I do think the website is where many young people come to us. But it may well be that the core magazine will be a hardcover. The website will be like a paperback, expanding the reach of our ideas, our writers, our voice.
HEFFNER: Suppose you find the contrary. Suppose you find that the website becomes increasingly important? What will you do?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Well already we’re receiving over 20,000 subscriptions a year over the website. We’re beginning to offer digital subscriptions, so that people can have both the print and the digital. But we are … part of my new role as publisher … and I’ve been doing this thinking over the last couple of years, is thinking strategically about how we integrate the magazine and the website. I do not believe the print magazine will ever go out of business.
I think as long … this may not be proper to say, but as long as there are bathrooms, there will be magazines. People sitting and reading. People want to take it with them on buses. People want to sit under trees. So how to combine the synergy of the website and the magazine is important to me.
One thing I love is because I think the mainstream media, and the Right Wing trend of our media does such a disservice to the great diversity of views in this country, there’s a kind of suffocating consensus in too much of our media … a politics of excluded alternatives.
One thing the web has done is allowed a magazine, which is now at its highest point in circulation, we’re going to be at 200,000 at the end of the year, we’re the highest circulation magazine of political opinion. At the same time we don’t have a lot of readers in Bloomington, Indiana, or Owensboro, Kentucky … my husband’s hometown. But we do get letters now from … E-mails from people who see The Nation on the Internet and realize in their communities they may have ideas which seem odd or wacky … they support a living wage, they suppose national health care. Mainstream issues. But when they see that there are people out there who share those views, that, to me is the community of the Internet.
HEFFNER: Do you have any concerns about the spreading influence of the web. Of blogging, and so on?
VANDEN HEUVEL: I respect the democratic impulse of blogging, while at the same time I worry a little bit about the vigilante quality of some of the blogging. We saw that in certain cases, for example, I believe with Dan Rather and CBS, where you had a campaign, a vilification, rather than a monitoring.
But I do think there’s a transparency, an accountability and a democratization of our media which comes with blogging and with the Internet, which I respect. And an authenticity which young people respect.
At the same time, at the end of the day, deep reporting, investigative reporting … well sourced reporting … the reporting that goes on in places, I have to say like in some of the great investigative stories in The New York Times or the Washington Post. Those are required for bloggers to have the meat they need to actually blog. So, you’re going to have both co-existing.
HEFFNER: You use the word “authenticity” in talking about the blogging. Why?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Well I think … you have … you have … people speaking their minds. And speaking what is in their heart and soul and there’s a conversation going on in the Internet.
I have to say … to me the Internet is most important at this moment as a way to break through the fact that so many views are excluded, as I said earlier, from the mainstream and particularly at a moment when we do have a Right Wing trend in our media.
So for me the Internet is the ability to pierce through that veil and for those who might not otherwise be heard, to share their views with others and to build a kind of virtual community. Of course, it’s also important for mobilizing and activating people. There was a reason that you had millions of people in the streets of this country in the run-up to war in Iraq. And it wasn’t as a result of what they were learning in newspapers, for the most part abdicated their role as a press in a free society.
You had news people were getting on the Internet beginning to understand how they felt they were misled into this war which moved people to take action.
HEFFNER: Do you think that the Right Wing has used … used the bloggers, or blogging?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Oh, absolutely.
HEFFNER: And doesn’t that concern you?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Absolutely. I do think, though, that at the end of the day there’s nothing more trans-partisan of an issue than an fair marketplace of ideas. The concern I have is, when I mentioned the vigilant quality, I do think that we’re seeing the Right Wing pressure the mainstream media into the main-streaming of Right Wing views. “Don’t trust me” … on the eve of the Democratic Convention in Boston in 2004 … the three anchors … Peter Jennings was still alive. Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather talked about the pressure they are under from the Right Wing media which is pushing their message through email, through other methods. It’s what our media columnist Eric Alterman calls “working the refs”. Which is … as a result again … what you see on TV and let’s not forget, I’m proud The Nation is at 200,000; I believe that the role of a magazine of opinion is to elevate the discussion in this country, which has been dumbed-down in many ways, but 80% of Americans get their news from television.
Now I do television and I understand both its possibilities and constraints. But I am not optimistic about the trend television is moving in.
HEFFNER: But you talked … you, you used an expression before and I didn’t know whether you mis-used a word or not. Forgive me. You talked about the fair marketplace … I didn’t know whether you mean “free marketplace of ideas”, or “fair”.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, it’s interesting. I think free and fair. The fair marketplace … I meant “free” and I mean a diverse marketplace of ideas.
Because we are a great nation of many views. One thing I dislike and we try to fight against at The Nation is that stereotypical red/blue map …
VANDEN HEUVEL: … which is thrust in our faces on television, election nights. I believe this is a much more diverse country that, it’s made up of many different colors, that in “red” states you have green, yellow, purple.
The Mayor of Salt Lake City … Rocky Anderson … is a subscriber to The Nation. I could go on. So I think we’re being fed this view that we are a deeply polarized nation. Of course there are divisions. But what is unfair to citizens is that you do not get that open, fair, free marketplace of ideas. You’re getting something much more constricted. And I haven’t even mentioned the blurring of lines between entertainment and news, which doesn’t contribute to an informed citizenry, which at the end of the day … at the root … is what allows … which is the lifeblood of democracy.
HEFFNER: But if you talked about an informed citizenry and that’s your objective, is there enough of a sense of responsibility? Is there enough of a sense of making sure that an “informed” citizenry also is a product of our blogs. Because what you get is opinion. Lord knows you get that. But do you get real information?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, let me put it this way … The Nation is a magazine of opinion …
VANDEN HEUVEL: … it’s also a magazine of news and views. We break news. But there’s … we are also a magazine which believes accuracy is not only a virtue, it is a duty. We also believe that it is important to be open about your values. And in doing so, then you, you know, cover the news …
HEFFNER: But what …
VANDEN HEUVEL: … and you cover … but it’s, it … all I’m saying …
HEFFNER: I don’t …
VANDEN HEUVEL: …but I’m saying … forget the blogs for a moment, because again a small portion of people are getting their news from blogs.
Let’s look at television. It’s, it’s … there’s a pretense to objectivity on television, when in fact, you might get one and a half hands clapping. And it’s not contributing to an understanding … think of the fact that the woman who was abducted in Aruba … that got hundred of times more coverage than some of the most grave issues of our time … the Downing Street memo which indicated the facts were fixed around a policy to take us into war. Or the fact that increasingly, Richard, the consolidation of media, and again that’s why I’m proud to be part of an independent publication … the consolidation of media with its response to the bottom line, not to the public interest, not to be too reductionist … isn’t going to contribute to a media that allows the flourishing of civic values.
HEFFNER: Well, you’re right about the bottom line which I guess made me a bit more puzzled than I would have been otherwise by your use of “marketplace” …
VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, but the …
HEFFNER: What’s so great about the marketplace?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Listen, I mean I think … you know, the, the marketplace if there’s a grand diversity of ideas, of transactions, of a range of views … maybe it’s a construct I’m using. But I, I do believe that … you know, that, that the skewering of … the abdication of the presses’ responsibility to the watchdog role it should play … becoming more of a stenographer to power.
Think of the press conference on the eve of war. In March 2003 … I believe it was February 2003 … not a single tough question was asked by a White House Press Corps, which to some extent had abdicated its role … but to some extent was intimidated by an Administration which I would argue has used fear to make its case; has called those who raise tough questions and oppose its policies, un-American. It continues to this very day.
And to me the question will be, “are we far enough away from the kind of manipulation of fear, the divisive politics, created by this White House, so that an American public can see through the deceits, can see through the corruption and work for a more productive politics?”
HEFFNER: And you really do feel that it is the diversity that the blogs represent, presumably that will take us further and further away from that?
VANDEN HEUVEL: No, I believe that we need a new media landscape … completely. I am a …
HEFFNER: How would you construct it?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, I think you begin …first of all … at The Nation you never say “never”. You always believe in an alternative. There’s simple things: restore the Fairness Doctrine, which was repealed by President Reagan, I believe, in 1987. Get some moxie in anti-trust laws. Look at the fact that there is suddenly an awareness among millions of Americans about the importance of media in democracy. In June 2003 … three million Americans, thanks to the power of the Internet gathered together to petition the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission … and these were people from across the spectrum. From the NRA, to MoveOn, Code Pink, Women’s Peace Group, and said “Enough with all of these lifting of cross-ownership regulations. We want a media that respects localism, that is diverse and that isn’t controlled by six corporations.”
HEFFNER: What …
VANDEN HEUVEL: People are waking up to some extent around those issues and there are good Congress people. There’s a media reform group in the Congress. So there’s some …
HEFFNER: What, what appeals to you about the Fairness Doctrine that you would like to see it …
VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, I’ll tell you one thing that strikes me is the year after the Fairness Doctrine was repealed, and it’s a little more complicated than this, but Mr. Limbaugh emerged. And our radio landscape today is virtually completely dominated by the Right Wing. I’m not saying there should be government inference …
HEFFNER: What are you saying?
VANDEN HEUVEL: … but again I come back to the marketplace … that there be the ability to have responses. That there be a restoration of a Fairness Doctrine that was part of an American democratic process.
Part of the problem, I think, Richard, is the rollback and here I include regulator rollback … effective regulatory rollback. Effective regulations. But the rollback of the rights, the regulations, the liberties that have created this country are being rolled back primarily in the service of private interests and at the expense of public interests. And my belief and hope for an effective, smart government in the service of a common public good, is what I think many Americans, many Americans would respect, particularly after what they saw the hurricane Katrina and the lethal incompetence of an Administration which so despises government that it’s almost humorous, if it wasn’t so sad that they’re in charge of our government.
HEFFNER: Would you advocate also a Fairness Doctrine for the printed press as well as the electronic press?
VANDEN HEUVEL: I’d have to think about that. But I do think that there is … I do respect the fact that in addition to the blogs playing a kind of accountability role, at their best, that some newspapers are including Ombudspeople in their process. And I think the Letters to the Editor are useful. I often find some days that the Letters to the Editor …
HEFFNER: Are better?
VANDEN HEUVEL: … are smarter than the OpEds you’re reading. Or some of the commentary in the paper. But I do think rather than imposing … the hope is that you can have alternative media. That you can have the blossoming of independent media, which becomes more and more difficult with this consolidation. That is, you know, part of our landscape and I may be visionary, I may be implausible in my hope of an alternative.
HEFFNER: You know what puzzles me, it really does … I hear what you’re saying about the blogging and the bloggers. It seems to me that the fairness that you are looking for, and I respect that so much, is undermined by this diversity, by the multiplication of the media inputs. And that we had a greater amount of fairness when there were fewer inputs and responsibility was the theme.
VANDEN HEUVEL: I’m not sure. Let me put it this way. What I worry about to some extent is the fragmentation and Balkanization of our media landscape.
VANDEN HEUVEL: I thought of it the other day. May I just say I’m, I’m not sure what the future of blogging will be. I think also by the way the Internet is not going to set us free and that the consolidation I’m describing is also going to be part of the Internet world. Those legislative fights to colonize the Internet by corporations are going on in Washington.
The fragmentation and Balkanization was brought home to me the other week, when I read about Walter Cronkite going to a media conference, I believe, in California. And he reminded those in the audience of his role in the Vietnam era. Who can forget, and I was younger, but I remember the role he played, in addition to the movements and all, in saying, “Enough, let us find an honorable way out of a war that must be ended.” And he said he would say the same thing today about Iraq.
At that time, many years ago, Walter Cronkite, had such authority. That authority was both productive and perhaps too establishment. But we miss that today. We lack that today and that fragmentation is of concern even while it has possible democratic impulses. But I do think the Balkanization of our country is, is of concern.
HEFFNER: Yes, but you see I, I think that that’s what you’re talking about … the Balkanization and the Balkanization is the blogging and the separation out of many, many, many, many, many different voices. Newt Minow felt that way …
VANDEN HEUVEL: Right.
HEFFNER: … when he was Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission … that we must have more voices. The more voices didn’t speak very well.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah, but there’s …
HEFFNER: Didn’t educate or do the things that you want the media to do.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, but the more voices, the more diversity. Doesn’t mean everyone’s running scatter-shot. It also means that in this country, which I said earlier, where you do have a grand representation of different points of view. Those should be represented. At the same time let me just say that on core values; core principles, which I believe Americans have ascribed to, let me just give you two.
I think two mainstream issues … support for national health care and support for an end to this war. If you turn on your TV tonight, it is very unlikely that you are going to see, hear someone talk about the importance of national healthcare in this country. Or an effective spokesperson for the importance of ending this war and provide a series of proposals. To me that is a poverty of this nation. That we don’t have two mainstream views represented on the mass transmission of our media system.
HEFFNER: I think I would agree with you in terms of the war in Iraq. I’m not so sure that I would agree with you that there won’t be voices heard about the need for national healthcare.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, I’ll wage that. Let’s turn on our TV sets tonight.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Starting at 6:00 p.m. you’re going to hear more about some provocative comment; some Congressman using a Hitler analogy. I mean, you know, there’s a, there’s a trivialization of our news which concerns me. Now listen, don’t, don’t make me out to be someone who’s just sitting there reading L’mode Diplomatique or The Economist every day. I have a 14-year-old daughter, I am fully aware, by the way, of the vibrancy of the political culture and how many kids are learning from that. It’s not all silliness. But there’s a lot of silliness. And I would like a real reality show. By the way, Michael Moore is making a new documentary called Sicko about our healthcare system.
VANDEN HEUVEL: That will be a real reality show and not what you’re watching on “The Real World” or “America’s Next Top Model” and all of that stuff.
HEFFNER: And you know I was reading in the New York Times Book Review back last year … you participated in a roundtable discussion and at one point I was fascinated to find Katrina vanden Heuvel saying, “I agree that too often Liberalism has become associated with license instead of liberty. But you know that among Progressives there is a critique of this kind of free market, vulgar culture, which is promoted not by The Nation or The American Prospect or The New Republic, but by Fox Television.” What would you do about it?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, I think, I think the important thing is to educate citizens who so associate Liberalism with this decadence or the destruction of cultural health of this nation to make clear that, “No, we want a politics and a media that speaks to people’s lives. And that Fox, while it preaches or funds, so-called family values is in fact purveying stuff that is, is not very healthy.”
On the other hand, I’m not, I’m not … I, I, don’t … I am far less concerned, I have to say about this kind of stuff shown on television. What concerns me is the way people are living in communities. That they have good education and healthcare and they’re not threatened by, you know, insecurity in their streets. That to me is more important. What worries me about the Fox use of … misuse of family values by the Right Wing is that it’s to distract and divide politics. In the same way that I think the Right Wing uses gay marriage, uses these cultural issues to distract and divide Americans who are more tolerant, I do believe.
HEFFNER: Do you wish you hadn’t said this … not about Fox … but about the vulgarization …
VANDEN HEUVEL: Oh, no, I believe there is a vulgarization. I mean I think one doesn’t crack down on it, one lives with it, but I do think there’s a vulgarization of our culture in politics that comes from market-driven values. And, you know, I think more voices, more speech … I’m not talking about a crack down and I’m not, you know, someone who is opposed to, you know, a bawdy time, but I do think there’s, there’s an ugliness in our … and a violence, the violence is so ugly.
I would just add to that the other concern I have about Liberalism, which is even more serious, is that too often despite the relentless Right Wing assault on the term “Liberalism”, which is just to be, in my view, fought fiercely, is that Liberals have too often paid too much attention to the social and cultural issues and not enough to the economic justice issues. As a result, I do believe that the working class felt that they had been given up on by Liberals who didn’t pay attention to the bread and butter issues that are at the core of, in my mind, a Liberal Progressive politics.
Look at the news today … Ford laying off thousands of workers. What is an adequate response? How do we speak to those who are losing jobs, who are so desperate with the deterioration of work and wages in this country?
HEFFNER: I gather its fun for you at The Nation to direct yourself to these questions.
VANDEN HEUVEL: “Fun” is not a word … (laughter) …
HEFFNER: Come on, you’re having “fun”.
VANDEN HEUVEL: I wake up every morning … ready to go and ready to come to The Nation and do the very best we can to bring ideas into the discourse and to change the world. It’s a very tough job. It’s consuming. I am criticized by my daughter sometimes because I bring up politics. I believe there’s a politics to everything. We have a young sportswriter. We … you know … so she says, “Enough, Mommy.” But … ummm …
HEFFNER: Well, I’m …
VANDEN HEUVEL: … it is exciting. I’m excited about the job.
HEFFNER: I’m being told “enough”.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Okay.
HEFFNER: Not, Mommy, but … thank you so much for joining me …
VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you.
HEFFNER: today, Katrina vanden Heuvel.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.