Hendrik Hertzberg

Back at ‘The New Yorker’, Part I

VTR Date: December 3, 2003

New Yorker writer Henrik Hertzberg discusses politics and the media.


GUEST: Hendrik Hertzberg
VTR: 12/03/2003

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I can best describe my guest today as my favorite editorialist, Senior Editor at The New Yorker, and the man who so often writes the brilliant editorial comments that make the magazine’s front of the book, it’s famed “Talk of the Town”, such an absolutely must read delight.

Hendrik Hertzberg was early on a Staff Writer at The New Yorker, became Chief Presidential Speech Writer at Jimmy Carter’s 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 today so many of us read him so attentively.

Indeed, a few months ago my guest wrote a “Talk of the Town” commentary about what some consider the rather noisome and even worrisome political talk radio that here in New York, as in the rest of the country is dominated by the Hard Right. And Mr. Hertzberg makes certain we know what that means.

“Remember the old joke about politics being show business for ugly people?” he asks. “Well Right Wing radio is niche entertainment to the spiritually unattractive. It succeeds because a substantial segment of the Right Wing rank and file enjoys listening hour after hour as smug, angry, disdainful middle-aged men spew raw contempt at reified enemies.”

“To the chronically resentful they offer the sadistic consolation of an endless sneer … at weaklings, victim group whiners, cultural snobs, feminists, environmentalists, and, of course, Liberals, defined as the Clintons; other members of the Democrat Party and persons suspected of thinking that the State ought to help correct for various kinds of unfairness or calamities … economic, racial, climatic, medical.”

Well now Mr. Hertzberg has reported some venture capitalists have set out to do something about this, like creating and financing a radiolib talk network to combat all the radiocon talk stations. So that even more angry talk seems to be in our future. And I wonder whether my guest today thinks we’re likely to end up pointing with pride at all this talk, talk, talk. Or viewing it with alarm.

HERTZBERG: [Chuckle]

HEFFNER: What do you think?

HERTZBERG: Well, if there was … if the battle was a little more even, if there was a, if there was a Liberal or Left Wing equivalent to this enormous Right Wing talk radio empire, then maybe we’d point with pride. Then it might become an emblem of, of democracy and freedom of speech. Right now it’s a mugging. And a mugging is not a particularly elevating spectacle.

HEFFNER: Do you think Liberals are able to be as mean and nasty as Conservatives are?

HERTZBERG: On, on occasion, yeah. I’m not sure that they can, that they have the stomach to do it around the clock. I think the problem with Liberal talk radio maybe that the production costs are going to be high. Because simply sitting there and saying over and over again … “Conservatives are … Conservatives, what a bunch of jerks. Conservatives, what a bunch of jerks. Conservatives, what a bunch of jerks.” I don’t think that’s going to build an audience. They’re going to have to be funny; they’re gong to have to be imaginative and that costs money.

HEFFNER: But the radiocon people … are they imaginative and funny …do they have production values?

HERTZBERG: They are, some of them are … I mean Limbaugh is the most talented of them. And he is, some people think funny. And there is a certain, there is a certain kind, kind of masochistic fascination, if you’re a Liberal, in tuning in once in a while. But there are no real production values, there’s no … there’s no … it’s a cast of one on, on each program and then some telephone screeners.

It will be interesting to see if, if, if Liberals can do it. It’s interesting that now there’s an enormous sort of Liberal attempt to reproduce the Conservative counter-establishment. Which originally … which originated as an attempt to reproduce the Liberal establishment.

So we’ve go this ping-pong game over generations going on. The Liberals establish an establishment or Conservatives imagine that they do. Then the Conservatives model their counter establishment on what they think the Liberal establishment is. And now the Liberals are trying to model a counter-counter establishment based on what they think the Conservative counter-establishment is.

HEFFNER: Well, wait a minute. Just between the two of us …

HERTZBERG: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Do you think Conservatives were correct in making the estimate, and I don’t mean the several books that have been written, listing the percentages of Liberal commentators. But do you think that they were correct in just assuming that by-and-large news people in the media are Liberal.

HERTZBERG: Well, it depends on how you define Liberal I suppose.

HEFFNER: Well, you define it.

HERTZBERG: Well, if you define it as being more or less sympathetic to the underdog; more secular than pious …

HEFFNER: Couldn’t you say “religious”?

HERTZBERG: Well, you can be, you can be secular and religious at the same time. But … but … if you like, more secular …


HERTZBERG: … than religious. More secular than pious.

HEFFNER: ????????

HERTZBERG: More irreligious than religious.

HEFFNER: What Liberals we are. You’ll accept my word, I’ll accept your word.

HERTZBERG: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: But go ahead.

HERTZBERG: In that general way I suppose it’s true that many, that most people who are attracted to journalism are of, of a kind of Liberal frame of mind. They are … they also have an objective ideal. And often over-correct for their own, what they perceive to be their, their own inclinations, and that’s one of the reasons I suppose why Democratic politicians, in the last generation, not just, not just Bush/Gore, but earlier than that, too, have been worked over in a way that Conservative politicians tend not to be.

HEFFNER: So this … goes with the territory?

HERTZBERG: Yeah, it goes with the territory. There’s a big effort …there’s a big effort to attract … to create a, a conservative career path for journalists. It’s hard to say whether that will work because the values that draw people to journalism and the activities that draw people to journalism and the salaries that do not draw people to journalism, generally speaking, are better calculated to attract people of a more or less liberal frame of mind than a more or less conservative frame of mind. The salaries have been going up.

HEFFNER: You put it in such a nice, pleasant way. But you really are saying, in effect it seems to me that the basic hard Right attack on the media has had some substance behind it. That the orientation of so many of the journalists has been …for whatever reasons … something we’d call Liberal.

HERTZBERG: No, I wouldn’t credit that attack at all, actually, because …

HEFFNER: Why not?

HERTZBERG: … although … even though, even though the basic private, you might say, orientation of probably a majority of reporters of, of journalists, is liberal. That is more than made up for by the fact that the orientation of the proprietors of the news media is overwhelmingly Conservative and Republican. And the fact that the, the journalistic ethic … the credo of objectivity … means that its … if this bias, if it indeed exists, is kind of automatically corrected for as it goes along.

HEFFNER: “Automatically corrected for” in your estimation more in terms of media ownership or in terms of media philosophy … reporters, journalists, philosophy.

HERTZBERG: It’s hard to draw the line where, where those two … where those two differ. In certain organization and certain media organizations that the existence of a Conservative ownership has a subtle effect on, on coverage. And in others it’s more the, the ideal of objectivity; the notion of evenhandedness that there’s more than one side to every story. That, that has the greater effect.

HEFFNER: Well, we know that back in FDR’s day, when you’d read in your magazine, The New Yorker, you’d see a cartoon that shows these fat cats sitting around a drawing room saying, “Let’s go down to the TransLux and hiss Roosevelt.”


HEFFNER: Ah, we know that at that time the reporters, the people who wrote the news were pro-New Deal and ownership … people who wrote the editorials or who commanded what was to be in the editorials, the publishers, the owners, were anti-Roosevelt. But do you think that dichotomy is true today, too? And that it manifests itself in quite the same way?

HERTZBERG: Well, there’s more … not entirely, no. Because the old-fashioned newspaper proprietor who, who issued orders about how to slant coverage does not exist in the same way it did in the twenties and thirties. With one exception, that’s the Murdoch empire. And that’s a pretty big exception, because it includes, it includes some important newspapers here and in England and Fox News. And has a global reach. And has an impact on the rest of the media. So that is the … that is the surviving and important example of the old fashioned Hearstian “I’ll provide the war, you provide the coverage” attitude toward the news.

HEFFNER: But then you’re sort of saying that what you had mentioned before doesn’t have quite the power one might have thought and that is, the balancing out of the Liberal, Liberal mindset, headset … and I’m not saying “bias” or working over the news, but the mindset of the working stiffs in journalism. That we don’t today find that ownership is balancing that out.

HERTZBERG: No. Ownership is having a different corrupting influence on the news media.

HEFFNER: What is it?

HERTZBERG: It’s the bottom line. It’s the … it’s the increasing pressure on media properties to produce profits in line with the rest of the, of the speculative economy. The idea of public trust, the idea that a news organization or a book publisher is a different kind of institution from a cosmetics company. Or, or a public … or a utility or an automobile dealership … that idea is a corrupting one. And I think a lot of journalists simply can’t do their best because the resources are no longer made available.

I’m talking about the kind of great mass of daily newspapers, monopoly daily newspapers throughout the country which are … in some ways they’re better than they used to be. They are, they’re probably a little, they’re probably more objective. The kind of basic level of mediocrity is a little bit higher, but the …but the … there used to be, the country used to be full of exceptionally good newspapers spotted here and there … St. Louis and in Louisville … in lots of different cities around the country, there would be very enterprising newspapers owned by public spirited families that really contributed to the journalistic life of the country. And that’s been flattened out by chain ownership and by these properties, and I use that word pointedly, being viewed as cash cows and milked in the like manner and they develop a bovine mentality as a result.

HEFFNER: Well spell out how that impacts upon this radiolib, radiocon or newspaperlib, newspapercon … dichotomy.

HERTZBERG: Well, the, the … the radiocon thing is a puzzle … I’m still trying to figure, figure it out. I mean to some extent it’s a product of, of the end of the Fairness Doctrine at the FCC.

And of a conscious effort by the Conservative counter-establishment to advance its ideas. That’s part of it. Again, I think it’s a kind of entertainment though … and its ironic that it should be the Right Wing that, that now views politics as all there is to life and as sort of the personal is the political … the everything is the political.

Where, where the … which is something that the old radical Left used to specialize in, there are so many parallels between the Conservative movement and the old Radical Left. And that’s one of them, a kind of obsession with politics. And also a sort of paranoid obsession with the scheming of the hidden, mysterious forces that, that supposedly dominate our lives. It’s not the bosses and the working class, any more, it’s the Libs.

HEFFNER: It’s so interesting that you talk about the demise of the Fairness Doctrine. I can’t get anybody interested in that. In, in academic sense. Maybe that’s because it’s been so long now since we had a Fairness Doctrine. And when you study the so-called, the supposed “chilling effect” of the Fairness Doctrine, you’re talking about the most liberal of the Liberal media people who were protesting back before President Reagan managed and his FCC managed to get rid of it. And we haven’t managed to put it back into effect.

HERTZBERG: And I doubt we … I doubt it will ever go back into effect. In a way it was a product of a scarcity media environment. The rationale for it is no longer what it once was. When you had … when you, when you had three networks and 13 channels, a maximum of 13 channels on your TV set of which six or seven would come in, then the idea of a kind of regulation that would, that would make for a balance in, in coverage and opinion on those limited number of outlets, had a better rationale than it has now when there are so many thousands of outlets.

HEFFNER: But that wasn’t your rationale, was it? I mean I know that the Supreme Court unanimously decided in the Red Lion case in favor of the Fairness Doctrine basically in terms of the scarcity argument. But I would imagine, having read your editorial comment for so long now that you feel that fairness and balance just comes naturally. You don’t have to have a scarcity argument, you don’t have to say, “Well, there’s really no one else around to balance this” to insist that someone who writes be fair what they write. Do you …

HERTZBERG: I, I, I and I, and I don’t mind insisting that. But I am wary of the State insisting. And I do have some sympathy with the anti-Fairness Doctrine, with the logic behind the anti- … behind the people who were against the Fairness Doctrine.

HEFFNER: Why are you so concerned about the State doing that?

HERTZBERG: It’s a dicey business when the State gets involved in saying in, in … in prescribing the, the content of what’s on, what in the media, what’s printed and seen.

HEFFNER: Did you … did you think that it was dicey back when we had a Fairness Doctrine?

HERTZBERG: I never much gave … I didn’t pay much attention to the Fairness Doctrine back then and I don’t know whether … you talked about trying to get academics interested in studying this … I’d love to see a history or a study that would show … that would separate out what effect the Fairness Doctrine had as against other forces in, in making television news, for example, what it was in its golden age, in the kind of Murrow age. And whether … what other forces were involved in that.

I don’t know that there was that much … that the Fairness Doctrine and the, the doctrine of public service that there … a certain amount of air time had to be used for public service. That probably had a bigger effect than the Fairness Doctrine. I mean the Fairness Doctrine involved more electoral politics, didn’t it?

HEFFNER: Oh, no. No. I, I don’t … well ….

HERTZBERG: … impact you, for example. Did it ever have the slightest effect on anything you did?

HEFFNER: Only when it was gone one day and someone sat where you’re sitting and talked at some length in what I thought was an unfair manner in dealing with other people. And when I checked with my attorney friends I found that, because this is a regularly scheduled program and because it has the public affairs patina, I wasn’t obliged to say, “we mustn’t do that”. But you didn’t put the program on the air because it wasn’t fair. And there was no way of making up for that unfairness. And that was an attitude, I think, that … now, was I ever “chilled?” Never chilled, by the Fairness Doctrine because it really meant that if you were a broadcaster, what you did had to be fair.


HEFFNER: Not that you had to have 20 minutes for someone else if you had 20 minutes for this fellow. It just wasn’t fair. We’re not talking about equal time, now. I mean and I think that those things are a bit confused. But you know it’s interesting, when Fred Friendly was here, it was sometime before Fred died, but Fred changed his mind about the Fairness Doctrine. He wasn’t so much against it anymore.

And when Andy Rooney was here just a couple of week ago, not against the Fairness Doctrine. And I think the people who felt strongly, negatively about it, before are now beginning to think we could handle a Fairness Doctrine more easily than we can handle the absence of a Fairness Doctrine. That seem strange to you?

HERTZBERG: It doesn’t seem strange to me, but I don’t know whether it’s, it’s the product of, of a really careful analysis of the Fairness Doctrine per se, or a dislike of the current outcome of, of the status quo. And a hope that, that a Fairness Doctrine could change that status quo. I wouldn’t put my hope in it and wouldn’t want to put my hope in, in a government decree saying “You’ve got Rush Limbaugh, so you’ve got to have Al Franken”.

HEFFNER: That isn’t what the Fairness Doctrine said, you know.


HEFFNER: It really isn’t and some other time we can go into it. But let’s talk about print journalism. Were you a supporter of the National News Council, which wasn’t a matter of government saying anything; it was an independent … or were you one of those media people … print media people … who said, “oh, no.”

HERTZBERG: I didn’t see anything wrong with that and I think it is …it’s … it, it served as a kind of catalyst that has now led to … ahmm, one of the forces that has led to a healthy development in the mainstream press, which is this whole institution of ombudsmen and reader-advocates, and a kind of institutionalized self criticism in the press. These efforts by the newspapers to keep themselves honest. It’s self policing … self-policing is not something I have any problem with. In fact, I’m all for it. And I guess the National News Councils helps foster that atmosphere …

HEFFNER: Even though it was killed.

HERTZBERG: It was easy to make fun of. It was a kind of a pompous, humorless notion I suppose. But what did it die of?

HEFFNER: It died of the opposition of CBS, for instance, and the New York Times; without those, you couldn’t survive. And they were against it … “Don’t look over our shoulders”.


HEFFNER: So you’re a believer in voluntarism.

HERTZBERG: Well, if they … they would have … they would have to have … the National News Council or any private group could …can be a watch dog and nobody can stop them. But the, the Times and CBS wouldn’t cooperate …

HEFFNER: Well, … they really did … their opposition made it impossible to continue foundation support, etc.


HEFFNER: … so we come back to the almighty dollar, without them … but you’re saying now that increasingly the ombudsmen approach is taking the place of that kind of self-regulation.

HERTZBERG: Ultimately the news organizations themselves have to decide to meet their responsibilities. And the New York Times, the greatest news organization in the world has been brought low by its own arrogance in, in recent years, and now has opted to police itself; has opted for a bit of institutional built-in humility by making Dan Okrent their, their reader-advocate.

HEFFNER: In the one minute we have left, and then you’re going to sit there, you promised me to do a second program for next week, you think self regulation works generally in our kind of society?

HERTZBERG: No. Generally it does not work and I would hate to see any of the things I said about self-regulation in the media applied to self-regulation in, in environmental matters, for example.

HEFFNER: Just the media. Leave us the hell alone.

HERTZBERG: Well, and, and that isn’t … yes … and I think it is different from other businesses because freedom of speech, freedom of, of conscience, freedom of information, these are basic values, they are goods in themselves. They’re not means to some other end, they’re what … they’re the reason why we want to organize our society the way it is organized. And they should be protected in a way that other kinds of so-called freedom doesn’t deserve.

HEFFNER: I worked it right. So you make that speech at the end.

HERTZBERG: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Our time is up, but stay there and we’ll do another program. 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.