Hendrik Hertzberg

There at the “New Yorker,” Part I

VTR Date: March 11, 2002

Guest: Hertzberg, Hendrik


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Hendrik Hertzberg
Title: “There At The New Yorker”, Part I
VTR: 3/11/02

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I should report that the other day I spent some totally delightful reading hours in the only other place I’ve ever been in that has around as many issues of The New Yorker magazine at the stacks of that wonderful publication piled precariously high one upon the other in my room at home.

Issues I should note, that like many of you, I’m sure, I literally can’t keep up with week after week of “must read” articles, reviews, commentary, profiles, fiction, and, of course, cartoons. Always the cartoons.

Nor is this an advertisement. It’s just a fact of life that means vacations for me, these days, seem only to be times to try to keep up with the magazine’s offerings. Which I never quite seem to do anyway.

Of course, as you might guess, it is editorial commentary The New Yorker’s and others that interests me most of all given the nature of my work on the air and in the Academy. And so my guest today is Hendrik Hertzberg, Senior Editor at The New Yorker, and the man, who along with other longer pieces, so often writes the editorial comments that make the magazines front of the book, “Talk of the Town” such an absolutely “must read” delight.

Mr. Hertzberg was early on a staff writer at The New Yorker, became President Jimmy Carter’s Chief Speech Writer in the White House. Was at the Liberal Conservative, or Conservative/Liberal New Republic magazine for more than a decade, serving two terms as its Editor, then returned to The New Yorker, where we so much enjoy reading him today.

Indeed, I’d like to start today by talking with my guest about that editorial “we”, as I asked Robert Bartley and Jack Rosenthal about it here on The Open Mind back in 1988 when they were Editors of the Editorial Pages respectively of the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

In the first place, why “we”?

HERTZBERG: Well, you know, at The New Yorker “we” was a kind of religion for better than half a century, and the whole “Talk of the Town” section was written by an imaginary person who referred to him or herself or themself as “we”. When Tina Brown became Editor of the magazine in 1992, she banned “we” …

HEFFNER: I didn’t even remember that.

HERTZBERG: “We” was basically dropped. Yeah. “We” was dropped and “we” has remained dropped except once in a while for a piece that’s written in a sort of an ironic tone. So …

HEFFNER: Was your famous“bicycle piece “we”?

HERTZBERG: My famous bicycle piece was “we”. That was back in the “we” days during my first stint at The New Yorker which was between … bits between, what, 1969 and 1977 … this was the era of William Shawn, the “old” New Yorker, and pretty much everything I wrote then was in the guise of “we”. And when I came back, fully expecting to be “we” again, I found myself suddenly something else.

HEFFNER: Did you miss the editorial “we”?

HERTZBERG: “We” made it … “we” made it a lot easier to write certain kinds of stories. But it was more important, really, in writing … reporting stories than, than the kind of thing I do, the editorial essay. The quasi-editorial …

HEFFNER: It was really “I” …

HERTZBERG: Well, it’s … it’s something … I can’t say “I” because The New Yorker comment, the lead article in “Talk of the Town” is a strange hybrid. It’s, it’s a writer’s voice, mine, or one of my colleagues who writes it when I don’t. But it’s also a kind of editorial, so it’s also the voice of the magazine. So you can’t say “I”, you can tell the little personal anecdote, even if you disguise it as “we”. “We” went somewhere, “we” did something. So this is one of the disciplines of writing that piece.

HEFFNER: Is there no “I” around?

HERTZBERG: You mean in here somewhere? [Laughter]

HEFFNER: No, no, no, no, no. I mean at The New Yorker so that … it’s not an editorial board, is it? Or …

HERTZBERG: No, it certainly isn’t.

HEFFNER: … is it a consensus of some sort?

HERTZBERG: You mean who decides what that article should say?



HERTZBERG: Well, it’s, it’s me in the first instance, and the editor of the magazine, David Remnick in the first instance.

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

HERTZBERG: [Laughter] In other words, I can say what I like as long as he is, however reluctantly, willing to, willing to let me say it. And he usually is. He usually is. I often, as a result of discussions with him say it in a different way, or even modify the substance of what I’m going to say, naturally because of rational argument, not because of rank pulling.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm. MmmHmm.

HERTZBERG: But The New Yorker has never been a democracy. When, when Harold Ross was editor, when William Shawn was editor, when Robert Gottlieb was editor, when Tina Brown was editor and now with David Remnick as editor, it’s always been a benevolent dictatorship.

HEFFNER: That’s the way it has to be, doesn’t it? To maintain its character?

HERTZBERG: It probably does have to be that way. It also saves a lot of time in meetings that you don’t have to have. But yes, and, and the values are democratic, the politics are democratic, but the, but the office is not democratic. And that saves … that means there’s very little office politics because there is no power to joust for. The editor has all the power.

HEFFNER: But let’s take the, the business that you present about your attitude, your feelings, your philosophy, your conclusions and the editors. Largely they reflect what your thinking is because I guess you think alike.

HERTZBERG: Basically, we, we think in a kind of … in harmony in a way. We don’t think identically. But we think roughly along the same lines, and usually arrive at roughly the same place.

HEFFNER: Now, question, what about the power that you must feel, being able to take a magazine and lead its comments in this way with an extremely, highly intellectual audience that must pay a great deal of attention to your editorial conclusions.

HERTZBERG: Well, I hope that’s true. Its not something that I’m terribly or even at all conscious of when I’m actually working on one of these things, then the only thing I’m really conscious of is the terrifying blankness of the, of the computer screen, formerly the piece of paper. And the imminence of the deadline. After something comes out and if there’s some sort of feed back about it, if there are letters, if it’s picked up by some other publication, if somebody notices, I’m always a little bit astonished. But it is a wonderful thing to have the soap box and I couldn’t be more … I pinch myself, it’s extraordinary to have that, to have that place to preach from.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but you’ve had a soap box for some time now at The New Yorker … at the New Republic …

HERTZBERG: Yeah, and then as a ventriloquist in the White House.

HEFFNER: Now, come on …

HERTZBERG: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Let’s parse that … tell me about that “ventriloquist at the White House”.

HERTZBERG: I’m not sure who was Charlie McCarthy and who was Edgar Bergen. I think that was … in a funny way, writing for “Talk of the Town” was a great preparation for being a Presidential speech writer.

HEFFNER: How so?

HERTZBERG: Because you’re writing in the first person, it was “we”, in the old days at The New Yorker, and when I wrote for President Carter, it was “I”, but the “I” wasn’t me, it was him.

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

HERTZBERG: So the idea of writing in the first person for an imaginary character, and the, the President to a speech writer is an imaginary character, based on reality. And, you’re not … you, you actually have … in many ways you have less scope, of course, then when you’re writing under your own name. In fact in lots of ways, you have less scope. You’re saying … you’re writing “I”, but you’re writing, you’re writing dialogue with only one speaker.

HEFFNER: And the influence?

HERTZBERG: I guess there is, I guess there is influence. I, I have a few … I have a few little crusades that I push. Sometimes I notice, sometimes I notice that I’ll make a point and in a mild way, it might get picked upon. I mean an example is after September 11th, when essentially I wrote that I thought that war was the wrong metaphor for what we were about to engage in. And that crime, and fighting crime was perhaps a more useful metaphor.



HERTZBERG: Not that military action would be ruled out in any sense. But that what had happened here was not an attack by a state on another state. The metaphor of war, though adequate to the horror of the situation and the enormity of the task held the possibility of leading us down blind alleys and wrong paths. Now obviously I lost that particular point. It’s now universally referred to as “a war”. But I think, I think that I and others who made this point, at the time, still had some small impact in suggesting that, that the ways in which this was not like other wars. Not like any wars.

HEFFNER: Where do you think we’ve been taken? Which paths have … for good or for bad in your own terms … taken us in the wrong direction? And which in the right direction, as far as you’re concerned? Today.

HERTZBERG: Well, certainly the wrongest … the wrongest of the directions is, is the notion that, that because we are at war, then it follows that we can’t have dissent, we can’t have a whole range of, of normal political activities. That’s the wrongest of the wrong paths domestically … anyway.

HEFFNER: May I stop you for moment?


HEFFNER: The way you put it. Has anyone said, maybe people have thought, but has anyone of consequence endorsed the idea that you can’t have normal exchange of ideas.

HERTZBERG: In a way … yes. I mean just the other day, when Senator Daschle gave a very mild speech suggesting that, that the … that there was not a blank check for anything that the Administration wanted to do, and that, that did remain to be seen whether, whether everything would work out exactly the way the Administration hopes. He was immediately attacked by the Republican leadership, for being disgusting … “how dare he”, said Senator Lott, I think, “how dare he criticize the President when there is a war going on.” Well, the implication of that, since we’ve been told that the war will go on for the foreseeable future, that the President can’t be criticized as long … for the foreseeable future. That’s a suspension of politics if there ever was one.

HEFFNER: “A suspension of politics”. Tell me what you mean by “a suspension of politics”, it sounded to me like Lott politics and it sounded to me like what we’ve heard so often, not in parallel cases, cause we haven’t experienced such cases. But didn’t you really expect when the Democrats would begin to stand up and offer what sounded like criticism or warnings that there may be criticism coming down the path. That the Republicans would stand up and cry “partisanship in war”?

HERTZBERG: Partisanship, yes. But criticism … and I must say that many Republicans disagreed with Lott said. And John McCain, for example, said, “you know, asking questions is what Congress does. And that’s, you know, we’re not going to abolish that.” I’m not suggesting that we’re headed for dictatorship, or that there’s any real repression. Just that, just that there’s a wide range of issues that are on the table for the public to consider. And, and certainly there should be no question about the propriety of debating seventy or eighty or ninety percent of them. And then the few that you can legitimately say … you can legitimately even make the argument that, that national unity should take precedence over, over open and frank discussion … even when it comes to those issues, there shouldn’t be a damping of open discussion.

HEFFNER: I guess what I was trying to indicate was not that I think that there should be, but that isn’t this the game that’s always played. Maybe it certainly shouldn’t be played, but there it is and I suspect if the shoe were on the other foot, we might be hearing the same thing. But maybe you don’t feel that way …

HERTZBERG: Well, though I do think that, that every time there has been a … every time the country’s been involved in a controversial adventure overseas, the argument has been made that criticism in some way equals disloyalty. And that is, indeed, part of … of normal political street fighting. So that … there isn’t really anything … there isn’t anything new about that, but that has to be resisted anyway. It has to be resisted … it had to be resisted in the Vietnam War and it has to be resisted and it has to be resisted every time it raises its head.


HEFFNER: Let me go back to a question that I started with because I don’t want to lose sight of it, and that has to do with “oh being nice to you and being nice to each guest … you came here and you talk about the power they have, etc., etc. But so many journalists who come to this table disavow power. There’s … it’s always that “there’s no one in here but us chickens.”

HERTZBERG: [Snicker]

HEFFNER: … sort of thing, “No, we don’t have power”. When Bartley and, and Jack Rosenthal were here at separate times, they both wanted to play down the power of the editorial stance that they took. What do you think about the press, the media and its power and their power in our times. You’ve been critical in your comments in The New Yorker, I wish you’d expand upon your feelings about the role that the media play now. When you were writing about Ashcroft, and you were writing about the way the White House has tried to get the presidents of the networks and then through a phone call to the New York Times to play down Bin Laden and other things. You’ve, you’ve had something very forceful to say. What do you think about it?

HERTZBERG: Well, to go back to Bartley and company and, and the role of editorials in the press, the role of … the expression of outright opinion and whether that constitutes an exercise of power. You know journalists, journalists are kind of bred and taught to, to pretend and to believe that they are essentially neutral observers. And that, therefore, by definition they can’t have power. And in many ways that’s a useful mental discipline for journalists to think that. Just as the idea of objectivity is a useful mental discipline, even if you can never really achieve it. It’s a good, it’s a good lodestar to guide you in the right direction. But it’s a very different matter when you’re dealing in opinion. And certainly the Editorial Page of The Wall Street Journal like The New Republic, when I was there, like my own, my own perch at The New Yorker is, is a place for battle. It’s a, it’s … you’re in the fight. Yes, you regard your … you regard your opinions as being supported by the evidence. You think you’re fighting for what is in the best interest of the public weal. But one of the joyous things about it is that, that you can openly advocate what you want. And certainly The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page is a fighting organization. And increasingly The New York Times Editorial Page is, that, too. I mean the crusade that they have … to use an unfortunately term these days …


HERTZBERG: … but the fight that they have waged for campaign finance reform is, is a perfect example. I mean they are a player in the, in the fight over campaign finance reform.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “a player?”

HERTZBERG: I mean that just as much as, as Senator McCain, or Senator Finegold or Common Cause, The New York Times Editorial Board is part of … is one of the forces arrayed in favor of campaign finance reform. And they are very much, they’re very much involved in that political fight on one side. And then, you know, and then you turn the page … in either The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal and you’re in a different world. Where these two worlds had started to mesh and maybe in ot a particularly wholesome way, I guess, is on cable television, is in the 24 hour cable news chat networks ….

HEFFNER: You mean the meshing between editorial and reportage?

HERTZBERG: Yeah, between punditry and reporting, where increasingly, partly because it’s less expensive then, then reporting, increasing television news consists of people sitting around a table, in a studio …

HEFFNER: Gee, like us.


HERTZBERG: … somewhat more elaborately decorated than this one … [Snicker]

HEFFNER: No comments, please

HERTZBERG: And peddling opinions. Now here it’s where we’re absolutely frank about what we’re doing. We’re having a conversation and we’re … I’m expressing my opinion and you’re expressing yours. We’re not sitting behind a news desk in some gray area where, “well are we saying what we think about reality, or are we saying what reality is”. And that line has gotten more and more blurred in the, in the broadcast media.

HEFFNER: Why? For the sake of money?

HERTZBERG: That’s always a factor and a big one when it comes to broadcast journalism. It’s also for the sake of audiences, it’s for the sake of filling immense amounts of time. And it makes, it makes good television, it’s conflict that makes good television and these channels are also very narrow, they’re rather narrowly aimed. You know, paper people wondered, during the Impeachment crisis, when poll after pool showed that the public thought that the press was playing way too much attention to Monica Lewinsky and all these stuff. And it was distracting the country from its real business and yet the cable networks hammered at it … hour after hour after hour … and they did so because, for them, it provided ratings. It doesn’t matter what 200 million people think, if 500,000 people think that they “can’t get enough of it”, and as a result, tune into MSNC or CNN or Fox.

HEFFNER: But you know it’s interesting that you say that because you’ve also written comparing the reach of the regular networks … And you’re not saying this about the regular networks, you’re talking about cable, in large part … compare their audiences and size with the audiences that cable has. And you can’t see the, the impact of cable in terms of real numbers.

HERTZBERG: No, but you … it’s there in terms of … it’s certainly there in terms of the impact on the more active chattering classes. And in many ways the, the big network news operations are a little bit like Life magazine was before it collapsed. When, you know, Life magazine … just before it collapsed, it think it had never had a higher circulation. It was, it was a dominant, enormously important force, editorially, in American life. It was like a, like a fourth branch of government. I mean when Life magazine came out with that memorable week with pictures of all the Americans that had been killed in Vietnam during one week … this had a … just a seismic impact and yet that was right about the time when Life was starting to go under. Simply because the economics of it weren’t working. And the economics of network television news also seem not to be working. And we’re due … this whole flap over “Nightline” and Ted Koppel, you know, is just a symptom of, of a change that is coming. I mean that … hopefully, it’s conceivable that it will … that it won’t be a complete catastrophe … the outcome of it. But the star-based system of television news is probably … of network television news is probably doomed.

HEFFNER: And in its place … comes what? Nothing.

HERTZBERG: Well, I don’t know. I don’t know. Possibly, maybe a less star oriented kind of news, much more fragmented. The, the networks, like Life magazine in away were, were a sort of common experience for, for the country and, and many of those experiences are vanishing on all sorts of levels. I mean the movement, the move for, for school vouchers is one expression of it. You know the common school, the public school that would educate all Americans in citizenship … that idea, that idea is under siege. And the experiences that we all share together which for the last couple of generations have often been something on television … some great public event that is … that the whole country focuses on ..

HEFFNER: What do you think …

HERTZBERG: … these experiences are slipping.

HEFFNER: What do you think the consequences of that slippage would be … we only have a minute and a half left to this program.


HERTZBERG: Well, they’re not good. It’s … it’s easier to see the negative sides of them … a more Balkanized society, a society where people have fewer common points of reference to … for discussion and to unite them. I can’t say that it’s, it’s going to mean a sort of collapse of public comity … I don’t think that’s by any means certain. I don’t know what the results are going to be, but, but it’s hard to see how they will be particularly good.

HEFFNER: What takes the place … you say you don’t see the collapse of public comedy?

HERTZBERG: Comity … [laughter] Excuse me for …

HEFFNER: I thought I could make it clearer.

HERTZBERG: Well, the comedy has never been more healthy.

HEFFNER: Which is the point, isn’t it? In a very real sense.

HERTZBERG: Well, in many ways the … what has replaced, just as David Letterman may replace Ted Koppel, the great common experience people have is of laughing together. The, the … my favorite network news program is “The Daly Show” on, on Comedy Central, and maybe that’s not so bad, if we all laugh together, even if we don’t all think together.

HEFFNER: Let’s pick that up because I don’t believe you believe what you’re saying right at the moment.

HERTZBERG: {Laughter]

HEFFNER: But Rick Hertzberg, thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind.

HERTZBERG: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. 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.