Victor Navasky

A Matter of Opinion, Part I

VTR Date: July 12, 2011

Journalist Victor Navasky discusses the influence and ethics of journalism.


GUEST: Victor Navasky
VTR: 06/23/2005

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And it was a quarter century ago that I did my first program with today’s guest, Victor Navasky, then the Editor, as he would remain for years to come, and now the Publisher of The Nation, America’s oldest journal of opinion. In fact, more than a quarter century before that interesting encounter over “Naming Names”, Victor’s controversial book concerning Hollywood blacklisting in the 1950’s, his predecessor as The Nation’s Editor, the redoubtable Carey McWilliams, had given me my first real writing assignment: a review of historian Kenneth M. Stampp’s brilliant study of Lincoln’s strategy of defense at Fort Sumter titled “And The War Came”.

Well, in that period of a rapidly escalating Cold War between East and West, McWilliams obviously embraced this youthful reviewer’s quite present-minded insistence that the Civil War “wasn’t necessary or inevitable”, as wars never have been nor ever will be, and in turn titled my essay “Why Wars Come” and prominently displayed it on The Nation’s cover.

So that my association with Victor Navasky’s own journal of opinion is long, indeed, however often I’ve found myself in disagreement with its opinions … and those of its long-time Editor, now Publisher.

Of course, I think our mutual friend Bill Moyers has probably put it best about my guest’s wonderful new Farrar, Straus and Giroux volume, “A Matter of Opinion”:

“Navasky”, he writes, “is that most valuable of journalists: the subversive patriot who loves his country too much to see it becoming a plaything for plutocrats, scalawags, and scoundrels; “who loves justice too much to see it betrayed by false prophets; “and who loves his craft too much to see it as anything but a calling.

“I cherish this account of his adventures”, concludes Moyers, “for reminding us why the journalism of opinion is the heart and soul of democracy — as long as the last opinion is never assumed to be the right one.”

Well, Victor, that sort of bit from Moyers really puts it as you want it put, doesn’t it?

NAVASKY: Unless you say, “The last opinion is never the right one.” (Laughter) So maybe … you know, who knows. Yeah, no, it’s very generous. And I’m very pleased to be here and also to have been at the end of his comments.

HEFFNER: So tell me, what’s your own feeling about the way “A Matter of Opinion” will be met by your fellow journalists?

NAVASKY: Well, based on what’s happened so far, it’s gotten a very nice reception in the place that it’s most critical of, which is the mainstream media. On the Right, The National Review wrote a review which was partly a … took me to task for being more entertaining and less the Marxist dogmatist that they think the Editor of The Nation is supposed to be. And they say, “Why doesn’t he come clean and, in effect, reveal how … that he’s a dogmatic Leftist?”

And, so, I have no idea. And … how it will be received down the road and I see it as part of a continuing conversation. I hope that that’s what happens. That people will take issue and then I’ll respond and then maybe from that we’ll all get a little closer to that elusive thing, the truth.

HEFFNER: You’ve never been concerned about that dogmatic Leftist characterization, have you? You’ve embraced it, in fact.

NAVASKY: Ah, well, personally … I mean … I see The Nation as not having any party line and as our being faithful to the original prospectus of 1865 which said that it would be “The organ of no movement, no party, no sect.” And, ah, you know, people say about journals of opinion, as a class … the problem with them is they preach to the converted, they preach to the choir.

And I look at our own magazine and I say, “Hey, just a minute. In the mainstream media they give equal time to the Democrats and the Republicans. We don’t feel obliged to do that. But there’s more space between our various writers and readers than there is between Democrats and Republicans.

For example, our radical Feminist readers believe that pornography should be banned. And our Civil Libertarian readers believe that nothing should be banned. And our radical Feminists who are Civil Libertarians have a conversation among themselves in our pages.

Our Human Rights Interventionist readers believe we ought to go into Bosnia and lift the arms embargo. And our Pacificist readers believe that we ought to go into nowhere (laughter) because … and, as a magazine, we have a general presumption on behalf of non-military solutions to political problems.

But there’s a big debate there. So, of course, our Socialist Democratic top-down planners have a great disagreement with out Luddite Anarchistic Green bottom-up bio-regionalists.

So, it’s a whole set of arguments and conversations that you don’t find in the mainstream media … you do find in our magazine and in magazines like this, actually Right or Left. And so, the, the image of them as having pre-conceived dogma that is going to be regurgitated every week is just wrong.

HEFFNER: Well, I, I want to know … in “A Matter of Opinion”, you, you relish so much the reputation of presenting opinions, and that is what The Nation is meant to do. But how do you see that matter of stating opinions vis-à-vis the mainstream media? What are its obligations when it comes to this matter of opinionating?

NAVASKY: Well, here’s how I see the media writ large and where we fit into it in relationship to the mainstream media. People will say, you know, they’ll attack our magazine as Stalinist or neo-Stalinist or Socialist, or Liberal or anti-Semitic or Zionist. We’ve been called all of those things.

If they really want to wound us they say, “But the real problem with you is that you are ideological.” And I say, “Yeah, hey, we are ideological”. But, and we happen to be on the Liberal Left at this point on the political spectrum. The country has drifted in my view all the way over to the Right.

Now National Review is ideological and The Weekly Standard is. And they are all the way over on the right side of the spectrum … the Conservative right side of the spectrum.

The mainstream media that you’re asking about, The New York Times, Time and Newsweek, the television networks … they say that they … unlike us … that they are not ideological. And my view is mainstream media are equally ideological, it’s just that they have the ideology of the center and it is part of the ideology of the center to deny that it has an ideology. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Is that really … is Centrism really an ideology?

NAVASKY: Well, sure. I mean I’ll tell you a … an exercise that I give to some of The Nation’s interns over the years …to discover what the ideology of the center is. So, okay, let’s look at page two of The New York Times … and the Times, by the way, which I worked for, as you know, and write about in the book is a … was a marvelous experience and I think it’s the best of the papers that we have in this country.

Turn to page two and they have a thing called “corrections” and then every once in a while you get something called an “Editor’s Note”, unlike the “Corrections” which give correct dates or spellings … the “Editor’s Notes” say things like “It was wrong for the Times to say that X is notoriously short-tempered because it is against Times’ policy ever to print anonymous pejoratives.” Or “It was wrong for the Times to quote Y attacking X without giving X a chance to respond, because it is against Times’ policy ever to print an attack without giving someone a chance to respond.”

And, what I do is I have our Interns copy all of these rules and we came up with like between 25 and 30 … of the latter … stated as absolutely as I’ve just stated them to you. Then the next phase … I say, “All right, I’m going to give you some hypotheses. We want to find out where the ideology of the center is. Where is the center? It’s not that it’s a bad thing, by the way. Center may be right and the Left may be wrong, or vice versa. But let’s find out what it is.

I’m going to give you some hypotheses and let’s see whether they’re evenly applied. And let’s … and you come up with some of your own. So I’m going … hypothesis number one: these rules don’t apply to children. Now … that’s … well, of course, they don’t apply to children. I mean who would apply them to children?

Well, The Nation ran an article by a teenager saying that kids should have the right to vote. And when I said to her, this is some years ago … “At what age? I mean at 12, at 14 … at 9?” She said, “I don’t want to say at what age … kids should have the right to vote.” I said, “Well, it would be better and more possible if you gave an age.”

She said, “Why, we don’t say if someone is 102 they lose the right to vote.” Why should I … when they want to start voting, they should be allowed to vote.” Okay, so, they don’t apply to kids.

Hypothesis number two: they don’t apply to prisoners.

Hypothesis number three: they don’t apply to Communists.

Hypothesis number four: they don’t apply to foreigners. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t, but let’s see.

Hypothesis number five: they don’t apply equally to Israelis and Palestinians.

Hypothesis number six: they don’t apply to poor people of color. Well, maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Let’s see. Let’s look at what The Times … and then I invite the students to come up with their … Interns to come with their own. And from that you begin to get a sense of, you know, what … of the so-called, what they used to call in law school, the “reasonable man” in those days … they only had male law students … what the “reasonable man” believes … and that’s … and if you vary from that, you’re in some kind of a … you’re marginalized, you’re over there, you’re a peculiar person and, and that’s … so to me … yes, the center does have an ideology.

Now, when people call The Nation and or the National Review ideological … what they’re really saying is “You leave out inconvenient facts, you stack the deck, you have a pre-determined conclusion and you mobilize your stuff to reach it.”

That’s bad journalism whether you’re Right, Left, or Center. And that’s not ideology, that’s something else, and that’s my … the way I look at it.

HEFFNER: Are you very much concerned about that kind of “bad journalism”?

NAVASKY: Oh, we point it out all the time and occasionally confess if we’ve been guilty of …

HEFFNER: Have you been guilty?

NAVASKY: Have we been guilty? Well, you have to read our “Letters” pages … our readers think we’re guilty every week. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: No, no, no. It’s not …


HEFFNER: … not the readers, it’s the former Editor, now Publisher I’m picking on.

NAVASKY: Have I personally been guilty? Oh, yes, I’ve been guilty. I have a section in, in “A Matter of Opinion” where I talk about when I worked at The New York Times … how I set up former Vice President Hubert Humphrey and he wound up riding it out. I mean I sort of regret it, although I think he deserved it. But you know, I was guilty of that, I mean I was following him around in the 1968 Presidential campaign and heard him … and I took notes everywhere he went … he said, “What we need is the politics of the future, not the politics of the past (write that down). What we need is the politics of youth; not the politics of age” … (write that down). “What we need is the politics of hope, not the politics of despair” (write that down).

So I have this long catalogue of about 20 of these things and at that time, there was … there was a lot of talk of the so-called “new politics”. So I came in, I got an … private time with him in his office. I said … “Vice President Humphrey” …and I said it this way, I said, “do you think the ‘new politics’ has any meaning, as a concept … or is it just a phrase?”

Hoping, thinking, assuming he would say “It’s just a phrase”, and that would be my punch line to say, “After following this man around for two weeks, and blah, blah, blah … when I asked him what he thought of the new politics, he said, “It’s just a phrase”, which is what he said. Now, he deserved it because of the way he was, it seemed to me, sort of sloppy with language and all that, on the one. On the other hand, I had set him up. If I had … what I should have done is just said, “What do you think of the new politics?” And rather than … “or is it just a phrase?”

And, and so, that’s not a terrible sin. But it’s something when, when you think about it, it’s too easy to set people up. Shouldn’t do it. There are other mistakes one makes in the course of reporting, and I talk about those as well, personally and other things.

HEFFNER: You know, you, you quote Janet Malcolm. It’s that wonderful section that I give my students to read every year … and you, you quote her and I wondered how much you agree with her? For example, although I had never taken a course in journalism ethics, I knew that somewhere it must be written that “though shalt not set up …


HEFFNER: … thy subject”, as you just said. That’s what Janet Malcolm was writing about many years later when she began “The Journalist and the Murderer”, her book about the journalist Joe McGinnis and his relationship with his subject, a former Green Beret convicted of killing his family, with these two remarkable sentences.

And I wonder, I’d really like to get your opinion …


HEFFNER: … about them. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

NAVASKY: Okay, well first of all, just to be nitpicky about it … it’s an overstatement. Not every … I mean, come on … people who are covering the local fire station, people who are covering battles on the school board …

HEFFNER: Okay. But, you … you …

NAVASKY: … they don’t, they don’t …

HEFFNER: … you believe it more or less.

NAVASKY: Okay. Okay. That’s number one. Number two, I reviewed her book and was critical of it in the following way. That Joe McGinnis had a deal with the, the defendant in that case. And the deal was … it was an example of checkbook journalism … that he would share in the profits of this book. So, that meant … they had a contract together and there are certain sort of assumptions you make when you have one of those contracts. So it’s much more complicated and different than a normal journalist relationship to a source … in Joe’s case.

Now, so, so I pointed that out and she didn’t point that out. So, I had … thirdly I was supposed to be a witness in that case and I wasn’t, and that … so I had a personal thing there.

As far as what I think about what she says, I think she has identified a critical dilemma that journalists have. For example, when I was writing about … you mentioned before … “Naming Names”, the book about the Hollywood blacklist … I … one of my key people to interview was the late Elia Kazan, and Kazan was famous because he had been a member of the Communist Party, he had been very active on the Left in the early years of his career, when he was in the group theater and then when the McCarthy show came to town and the UnAmerican activities started interrogating people about their past, he not only told the truth about his own past; when asked about “and who else was in the party with you?” …he named names and he took an ad in Variety and in the New York Times urging others to do likewise. So he became a red flag in this dispute … of what was the right and wrong thing …

HEFFNER: No pun, huh?

NAVASKY: … to do there. So I wanted to interview Kazan. So I sent him a letter. Now, I could say, “Dear Mr. Kazan, you’re a key person for me to interview in this book because you were an informer and I want to find out, you know, what you think about it.”

I didn’t say that in the letter. What I said … here’s what I did say to him. I said, “Dear Mr. Kazan, I’m writing this book about the UnAmerican activities committee investigations into Hollywood and I want to come talk to you about your own views about it and your own role in what happened.” And then I had a paragraph where I said, “I want to say to you that I was brought up to believe that it was wrong to cooperate with these committees and that I, I’m a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, I still believe that. That’s where I start from. However … I’m not interested in re-fighting the battles of the past. I’m interested in learning the complexities of what’s going on.”

So what I said to him was true. On the other hand, I could have equally said to him, “Ah, you know, that … hope you’ll see me, but you’re not going to come out very well and I can’t imagine what you’re going to tell me which, which would change my mind about what you did”.

The fact was I was interested in hearing his statement about what he did. And I think and hope that I was an honest portrayer of what he had to say about what he did and then I stand back and say, “okay, here’s what I think about what the right and wrong things were to do then”, although I have to be very humble about what I would have done, because until you’re faced with that, you don’t know what you would have done.

HEFFNER: I remember when we did our programs …


HEFFNER: … on “Naming Names”. I started off the program, it was live … not on tape …


HEFFNER: … and I said, “I’m going to ask you, not to name names, about ‘Naming Names’ because I didn’t think that it was fair …

NAVASKY: Yes. Yes.

HEFFNER: … just as you didn’t think that the naming of names was fair. But you named names …


HEFFNER: And I took you to task for it and then you told me that … I think it was your mother … who said, when she watched it, that I hadn’t been nice to you. But I invited you back …

NAVASKY: You did.

HEFFNER: And you came back and I was always very much impressed with the fact that you came back on the program and we talk generally about the whole business of naming names without pointing fingers at this informer and that informer. And I had always wondered at that time about your attitude toward fairness and balance. And I wonder about it now. It doesn’t come out here as clearly …


HEFFNER: As I wonder what do you think about that … in journalism generally …

NAVASKY: Journalism.

HEFFNER: … not The Nation.

NAVASKY: Okay. In journalism, generally. I think balance is a very elusive, tricky and dubious test. Because balance between what? I mean balance between the Nazis and the Jews? Balance between the Democrats and the Republicans? Or balance between what’s right and what’s wrong? I mean it’s a, it’s a thing that I don’t find helpful.

I do find fairness a trickier concept because I believe … on the one hand I believe in fairness. On the other hand … I tell the story in, in the book about a caricature David Levine did of Henry Kissinger. And it caused a great uproar in the office. And … but the fact is, if you know David Levine’s caricatures, his work … who’s a brilliant guy, who you see in the New York Review and elsewhere as well. The key thing about his caricatures is they’re unfair. They, they exaggerate the … a characteristic of the person, but he captures a truth through that (laughter) exaggeration. So, the question is … you know, when is fairness the only standard you use.

For example, I also publish … quote … Bob Sherrill in this book, I think it’s towards the end … right there … where he takes me to task … he sends me a letter and he takes me to task for being too fair. And he says to me, you know, you’re a smart guy, you’re very intellectual and you understand all these feuds between the Intellectuals … he said, “I couldn’t care less and I don’t understand …” he said. But let me tell you something, “I hate corporations much better than you do. And I hate politicians and it’s downright gutter, the way I hate them.

Now that hatred which he’s very upfront about, but he is an old-fashioned populist writer … gives him an energy and a passion which drives him in the direction of truth. And he doesn’t pretend to be fair. He pretends to be … telling the truth as he sees. And let the other guys answer in their own time, in their own way.

HEFFNER: You said “he’s …

NAVASKY: That’s one voice …

HEFFNER: … this and this and this kind of writer. You’re the editor.

NAVASKY: That’s one voice. That’s one voice. Yes, and I am so proud when I was being the week to week Editor, now Katrina does the week to week editing, but I was so proud to be able to publish folks like Sherrill, like Molly Ivins, like Catha Pollock, who writes for the magazine. Much as I may disagree with them at one time or another … yes, I think that’s part of our job.

Now it’s … but part of our job is … to introduce these ideas so that they will be part of a conversation that we hope it will happen in our pages, but … but we hope it will also happen beyond our pages. And that conversation … it’s a dialectical process … you put out one proposition … not just to be outrageous, but because you think it has merit … and then you get a counterproposition; then out of that conversation you get a sense of what’s important and what isn’t.

And the late historian Christopher Lasch once said something which, which I think is very important and I quote it in here. When he was complaining about how society has become a spectator society … people used to be involved in the great debates that Lincoln, Douglas had and that’s what journalism, in his mind was and ought to be about. And, you know, he said, and John Dewey and Walter Lippmann had a basically different way of thinking about the issue that he raised.

Lippmann thought there is a truth out there, the way there are molecules to be discovered; the way scientists can discover them under a microscope. Put the right kind of news microscope on this set of facts and you’ll come up with the truth.

Whereas John Dewey said sometimes that’s true, but a lot of times it’s really a matter of asking the right question and that if … so get the conversation going. Now what Christopher Lasch added to that, in my mind, was … he said instead of thinking of information as the pre-condition of a debate, where you mobilize the facts on your side to argue against the facts on the other side, think of it as the by-product of asking the right questions.

And that’s a much different conception of journalism than the first. And I think it comes closer to the mission of magazines like The Nation than the first. Which may come closer to the mission of The New York Times, and that’s aside from the political, the political values and being upfront about them, which is … has to do with what I was talking about earlier when I talked about ideology.

HEFFNER: In the about two … two and a half minutes we have left, I want to know whether you were saying that the mission of The New York Times and the mission of a journal of opinion like The Nation can be the same?

NAVASKY: No, I was saying they are different missions. The Times is a daily paper; we are a weekly. The Times is … aspires to be the paper of record, we aspire to be a journal of opinion and we … I believe opinions lead to ideas which … if you’re lucky, lead to wisdom and, and The Times, I’m sure, has it’s own formulation … to afflict the comfortable from the afflicted. And eventually through the sharing of facts to, to lead to wisdom in its own way. I … but my difference with them …


NAVASKY: … is that they purport to have no political value assumptions and, and I think the fact that we have them and journals of opinion as a class have them, makes us … in a funny way … it’s easier for us to be honest and upfront and it’s easier for the reader to know where we’re coming from. When you think you’re getting it “the way it is”; when you sort of read these disembodied, this disembodied voice with the pretense of narrative, or the fact of narrative neutrality, but the pretense of having no values at the base of it. And that’s a very interesting, complicated distinction to, to explore. And we sort of do it every week in the magazine. And I try to describe it in the book.

HEFFNER: Half minute. You’ve had it easy, haven’t you? Being there at The Nation, rather than at The New York Times where you once were.

NAVASKY: Yeah. I was at The New York Times. I felt I’ve had it easy in life. I mean I started my own magazine, a political satire magazine, Monocle … our motto was “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”. I went to work for The New York Times, I, I had a great job there and I learned a lot there. I left there to write books and I was privileged to be able to do it. And I was privileged to be at The Nation. I stayed at The Nation longest because, you know, the first day … when I was at The Times, if I had an idea I would turn around to ask my boss about it … my first day at The Nation I turned around, almost as a reflex … I had an idea … and there was this old grimy window and I saw my reflection in it, and it was, you know, it was my responsibility. And that’s a privileged position to be in.

HEFFNER: Victor, our time is up. Would you stay and let’s do another program.

NAVASKY: Of course.


NAVASKY: How could we not?

HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me today.

NAVASKY: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, right here, 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 another 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.