Robert Kuttner

The American Prospect, Part II

VTR Date: April 13, 2000

Guest: Kuttner, Robert


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert Kuttner
Title: “The American Prospect”, Part II
VTR: 4/13/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two new programs with journalist, economist Robert Kuttner, the co-Editor with Paul Starr of The American Prospect, now an every other week publication that has grown in stature and readership over the past decade.

Let me pick up now where we left off last time and I want to ask you, Mr. Kuttner … we were talking about Bill Clinton and we were talking about that wonderful piece that you did … I thought it was wonderful …

KUTTNER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: … in which you related the fact that so many of your friends were divided as to whether he had been good, bad or indifferent for the country, for the Democratic Party, etc. Where do you come down in the final analysis? You, yourself?

KUTTNER: I come down kind of on the one hand, on the other hand. And let me take a moment and kind of take stock. On the one hand, that is to say the “good” Bill Clinton … the economy is booming, unemployment is a shade over 4%. We’ve had phenomenal economic growth. On the other hand, we’ve had increases in inequality. On the one hand, Clinton has, I think, done a good job finally at giving the Republicans enough rope to hang themselves and to demonstrate how extreme they are and to discredit themselves with a lot of voters. On the other hand he trimmed somewhat more than he needed to. He tacked to the Right, sometimes deliberately discrediting his own party … so called “triangulation”, more than he needed to. The Lewinsky affair obviously was not, was not terribly helpful. I think some of his views on trade have been more laissez faire than necessary and have divided his own party. Right now as we speak, you’ve got divisions between most Democrats in the House of Representatives and the Administration. And Vice President Gore, who’s the standard bearer this time, on the issue of China’s admission to the World Trade Organization. Clinton didn’t have to do that this year. He didn’t have to widen those divisions in his own party. He could have waited until after the election. So, I think in general his stewardship of the economy has been good, with the exception, and it’s a huge exception, of widening inequality. I don’t think he’s been a good enough partisan as Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson, or John Kennedy. The last two Democratic Presidents, unfortunately, Clinton and Carter have been weak partisans. They’ve often made their party the bogeyman, the scapegoat, so I think he has done a terrific holding action. He’s been an incredible survivor. He has out trategized the Republicans time after time after time on budget issues. But in the course of doing so, he has been willing to run against public expenditure and public purpose more than he had to.

HEFFNER: You know, reading The American Prospect, generally and forgetting now the columns that have to do specifically with Clinton …


HEFFNER: … your interest in condemning him for not being a good enough partisan sounds very strange to me. You’re an intellectual. The American Prospect is one of the most highly intellectual publications in the country …


HEFFNER: … and your pushing for partisanship?

KUTTNER: Well, The American Prospect is a non-partisan publication. We do not endorse anybody, we’re not affiliated with the Democratic Party. This is me, Bob Kuttner, speaking. And I think one of the obligations of a strong President is to be a good party man. And I think our best Presidents really have been advocates of their point of view. Political parties are the way that in a democracy you aggregate coalitions, you advance programs, you bridge over divisions. And I think when a President or candidate presents himself as being above party, I’m suspicious of that. I mean Roosevelt succeeded in part to the extent that he could mobilize his allies in Congress. So did Lyndon Johnson. So did John Kennedy. And so, sure The American Prospect as an intellectual magazine, we talk about public issues. But I, as an individual, I’m a partisan Left Liberal Democrat. I … people say, “well, gee, the Democrats are pretty terrible, why aren’t you in favor of a third party?” And of course, the rejoinder is “I’d be happy with a second party”. And so I think some of what we do at the magazine is to, is to write about issues. So I think I’m speaking more personally. It’s just my personal criticism … one criticism among many … of Bill Clinton. And yet, of course, when you compare him with the opposition … I’ll take Clinton any day of the week.

HEFFNER: Okay. Gore?

KUTTNER: Pretty much the same. A little stiffer, not quite as nimble, not quite as charismatic. Clinton is a man of such charm, Clinton could sell an egg to a chicken. And Gore doesn’t quite have that touch. So, so I would say on the issues, they’re two peas in a pod … pardon me. In terms of political efficacy Gore is probably Clinton times maybe point eight or point nine.

HEFFNER: Let me … let me raise a question in the form of three words … to get your reaction. The First Amendment …

HEFFNER: … what, what’s Kuttner’s fix now on the role of the First Amendment, where we are, what his intellectual position is, and if the magazine has a position.

KUTTNER: Well I … let me broaden the question slightly because I think one of the things I fault Clinton for has to do with some of his positions on, on criminal justice issues where he has not been a terribly good civil libertarian. He’s presided over a period when police powers have been expanded …

HEFFNER: In … incorrectly?

KUTTNER: Yeah. I think so. Now, interestingly, just recently we’ve seen a recognition that there was an overreach on the question of summary justice in the seizure of assets. Someone who is only peripherally involved in drug trafficking … and drugs, by the way, are at the heart of this. I think there’s such a fear of drugs that we have been willing to take a few steps down the road towards a police state if we think that’s what it takes to get rid of the scourge of drugs. So that for a while prosecutors were being allowed to just seize assets before someone had even been found guilty. This is summary justice. We’re seeing it in the Immigration and Naturalization Service. We’ve got a whole class of people now who are legal, permanent residents who have fewer rights than other American citizens do. Where we have administrative summary justice, where some low-level Immigration and Naturalization Service agent can decide that someone is a menace and because of some crime that was committed for which the person has already paid his debt to society, twenty or thirty years ago, that person can be held in detention … indefinitely if the country to which they want to deport him doesn’t want to take that person back. And there are some 2,200 people who are called “lifers” who are permanent, legal residents, who are rotting in jail. There are a lot of people of both parties in Congress who are trying to revisit that issues. But that was a Republican sponsored Bill … 1996 Immigration Act that was rushed through Congress and signed by President Clinton. I think in the area of political debate there is this mistaken notion that money can simply can be equated with speech. And, and over the years the court … the Supreme Court … has come down on both sides of this issue. The court has said that commercial speech doesn’t enjoy exactly the same protections as political speech. So the courts have upheld the fact … the regulation … I think it was originally a Federal Trade Commission regulation … that when newspapers print paid ads, they need to differentiate the paid ads, from the news copy. That is, in a sense, an infringement of free speech. You could take a purist position and say that “if I want to pay The New York Times $100,000 to print an article and disguise my commercial message as news, that should be my “right” … my First Amendment right. The Courts have said, “No”, there’s a higher interest in the public knowing what is commercial speech from what is political speech, or First Amendment speech. And I think by the same token when a political message is really commercially sponsored by the, by the National Rifle Association or by any other interest group, there is a higher interest in vigorous democratic debate, in making sure that you don’t have to pay to get the megaphone or the microphone. So, I think in all of these areas the First Amendment is somewhat under siege. But then the First Amendment is always under siege. You know, the most unpopular organization in the country is probably the ACLU and thank God for it.

HEFFNER: Are you one of the besiegers when it comes to media activities that you consider destructive? Anti-social?

KUTTNER: Well, I heard a man the other day, a high ranking official of a major news organization attack “the media”, and of course, “the media” … that’s plural, that’s not singular. And thank God there are lots of different media. And a lot of the media are very cheesy. And there are also quality publications. And one worries when the quality publications feel that in order to sell magazines or newspapers, as Newsweek did on the Lewinsky business, that they have to be just as cheesy as the tabloids. I worry about the health of The National Enquirer and the other supermarket tabloids because the news magazines somehow give them a run for their money, and are just as cheesy as the supermarket tabloids. So I, I do worry that the so-called quality press keeps lowering the standards. I worry that television news becomes more and more like television entertainment … this hilarious flap about Leonardo deCaprio having a conversation with Clinton and these so-called journalists, who are basically celebrities, being, being very offended that a “real” celebrity is getting in on their act. And, and posing as a journalist. You can’t tell the players without a scorecard … who’s a celebrity, who’s a journalist. So I think a lot of these trends are destructive. On the other hand, opinion journalism, intellectual journalism, in a funny way has never been healthier. There are probably a dozen political magazine, weeklies, bi-weeklies like The American Prospect, monthlies. The New Yorker, I think, in its current incarnation is brilliant. The New York Review is brilliant. The Atlantic is brilliant. And The Times and The Post and the Wall Street Journal, except for the Editorial Page do a damn good job, too. So there’s no shortage of quality press and I think in a sense at the end of the day the public gets the media that the public deserves.

HEFFNER: Wait a minute. Wait a minute, wait a minute. What do you mean by that which I’ve heard so often, “the public gets the media that the public deserves”. That means that “anything goes”.

KUTTNER: No, I think it’s up to the press. Particularly the quality press to uphold standards in its own profession. But if there are people who can make buck by, by pandering to the baser instincts of the American public, it’s their First Amendment right to do so. And you and I, as much as we wish it were different, we can’t really stop them, we can only try and shame the so-called “quality” press that has some sense of journalistic ethics not to stoop to the level of the supermarket tabloids.

HEFFNER: Which brings up the question of a News Council. Are you in favor of a reviving, or revising and reviving the National News Council.
KUTTNER: I think it might help marginally. I don’t think it’s a panacea, I think the public journalism movement, so-called is a good idea but not a panacea. And, you know, at the very top of pinnacle, the five or ten best dailies, they do, they do a pretty good job. I think they have not lower their standards, I think the quality magazines, do a good job. I think the networks I worry about more. CBS News is a shadow of what it once was. And the “Balkanization”, the fragmentation of television … what with cable and the Internet … means that there aren’t the resources to put into news that there once were and that makes it harder to, you know, to really put out a quality product.

HEFFNER: Of course, if there were a National News Council, there would be cries again against … about censorship, and the rest. And you know, I have a particular interest in what one thinks the media …


HEFFNER: … do that is wrong and that is harmful. Do you see any place where you might soften your use of the First Amendment because you feel that one or another of the media are encroaching upon the good life.

KUTTNER: No. Absolutely not. I mean the, the only area in which I think the prevailing judicial doctrine about what is protected speech ought to be challenged …

HEFFNER: Politics …

KUTTNER: … is, is this bizarre notion that money is speech. I mean we’ve heard that “money talks”, but that doesn’t mean that money is Constitutionally protected speech.

HEFFNER: Do you think then that anything goes as far as the media are concerned ?


HEFFNER: … as long as they have customers, as long as people buy the damn papers or see the damn movies or watch the damn television screens.

KUTTNER: Well, you know, a good example is the Internet. I mean there are all of these schemes to try and come up with filters to protect children from pornographic web sites. And so far … or to give parents the tools with which to program their television sets. And they haven’t worked very well. It turns out that some of these filtering programs filter out websites with information on breast cancer because they detect the word “breast”. It turns out that the kids are much more nimble at figuring out the technology than the parents are. So that the parent has a piece of software that supposed to allow them to program the television set to screen out certain shows and it has to rely on the 12 year old to show him how to use the key to the lock. I think it’s a lost cause.
HEFFNER: Now, wait a minute “lost cause” because they haven’t worked well? Or “lost cause” because there really isn’t the kind of problem that requires our attention.

KUTTNER: I think censorship in general is a lost cause. I think there are some extremes of pornography that are so anti-social and so grotesque …

HEFFNER: By “pornography” you mean violence as well as sexuality, I’m sure.

KUTTNER: Ahmmmmmm.

HEFFNER: Or do you find another place for violence?

KUTTNER: I don’t like violence. I think the kind of violence that occurs every day on network television that occurs in the movies is probably Constitutionally protected …

HEFFNER: I’m talking about whether it’s protected by you … I’m asking you whether you have shifted your ideas abut the application of the First Amendment?

KUTTNER: Well, but let’s separate the question here: I, Bob Kuttner, as a matter of taste as a matter of my values, as a matter of the norms that I’d like to see widespread in the society would be happier if there were less violence on television, less violence in the movies.

On the other hand, there’s violence and then there’s violence. Macbeth is a very violent play. And it’s cheap, tawdry violence that one detest, but …

HEFFNER: Well, let’s talk about the cheep, tawdry violence.

KUTTNER: You, you know, you, of course, were involved very, very directly in industry self-regulation. I think that can help. I think you can to some extent shame executives into dampening down the violence, dampening down the pornography. The problems is that if you look at network and you look at even a PG movies, over the past say, 20 to 30 years, the bar keeps getting lowering.


KUTTNER: I don’t watch a lot of entertainment television and, and every time I do, every time I watch a sitcom, I’m amazed at this year’s sitcoms, just in terms of what can be said on television, are one degree tawdrier than last year’s sitcoms were. And that’s, that’s not a good trend for society. So I think it’s good to try and shame the networks into raising some standards, but I don’t think censorship in the sense of government saying “Thou shall not do X or Y”. I don’t think it works. And I think it’s a slippery slope.

HEFFNER: Slippery slope to what?

KUTTNER: Well, to more censorship. To censorship of unpopular views. The, the First Amendment advocates, the purists at the ACLU and sometimes they drive me crazy. I mean I don’t think there’s a single member of the ACLU of which I’m one, who agrees with every single thing the ACLU does. But the ACLU likes to say, the cure is more speech. The cure is not to suppress speech. And if the tastes of the public are low enough that money can be made by pandering to the baser elements of the public taste, then I think the only thing you can do is try and shame the industry into resisting that temptation.

HEFFNER: Shame versus dollars, right?

KUTTNER: Well, I think that’s right.

HEFFNER: Which one wins?

KUTTNER: Well, dollars often. But, but … well, you know this better than I do. I mean I think even with all of their imperfections, I think rating systems have helped a little bit. Don’t you agree?


KUTTNER: You what … you think it’s just as cheesy as it would have been even if there had been no rating system at all?

HEFFNER: No, no, no, no. That isn’t what I’m saying. I’m simply saying that that notion that anything goes, as long as its rated is a sign of misunderstanding of what’s happening to us. And a sign that many people don’t recognize what you just said … every time, each year as you watch …

KUTTNER: It gets worse. Yeah.

HEFFNER: … or your listen … it gets worse. So I think one question has to be, I respect the, the points you make, but one question has to be … is the situation now and is it becoming more so bad enough to demand our attention, not simply in saying, there’s a First Amendment and there’s nothing that we can or should do about it.

KUTTNER: Oh, I … again there’s the question that Tonto posed to the Lone Ranger, “what you mean ‘we’?”. I mean who’s “we”? Is “we” public policy makers? Is “we” individuals? Is “we” the industry? I think anything we can do to discourage executives from large media companies from, from pandering to the most base instincts of the public, short of outright censorship we probably ought to do. I’m not in favor of the lowering of standards any more than you are. So I don’t believe that “anything goes”. But I think somehow you have to reconcile your concerns to elevate the quality of the products of the mass media without resorting to government censorship.

HEFFNER: It’s certainly a point that’s shared by most intellectuals in this country …


HEFFNER: … and perhaps most people in this country. But the question remains, what do you do about the product that’s there and do you decide it doesn’t present us with a clear and present danger, and obviously that’s the way you opt … it doesn’t.

KUTTNER: I’m a pretty, pretty strict civil libertarian.

HEFFNER: Then where are we going since in a sense you have given expression, not to anti-First Amendment principles, but you have certainly in the area of political contributions. Certainly in the area of campaign funding … but I think in probably other areas as well, you’ve argued for a return to a good, New Deal, strong, pro-regulatory posture.


HEFFNER: And that was always the, the evil lurking in the forest as far as Conservatives were concerned. An evil based upon First Amendment considerations.

KUTTNER: But, but Conservatives, I think, get it exactly backwards in the sense that they are against regulation when it comes to health, safety and environment. But they’re for regulation when it comes to the government snooping under your bed to see whether you’re a sodomite, when it comes to saying that if you burn the flag, you can go to jail. I think Liberals go the opposite way. Liberals don’t mind government regulation when it’s in the interest of health or safety or education. But I think most Liberals don’t want the government in the bedroom. Most Liberals don’t even want odious speech to be interfered with. So it really comes down to social and economic regulation versus a free expression. And I think most Liberals, myself included, are in favor of social and economic regulation, but against regulation of free expression.

HEFFNER: Free expression, you include in free expression, not just political ideas, but some of …

KUTTNER: Artistic.

HEFFNER: … Artistic? But what we were talking about before, let’s say in terms of the violence that we see in the media, do you …

KUTTNER: I don’t like it. As a private …

HEFFNER: Do you include it as artistic?

KUTTNER: Well, you know, you could have a whole show, a whole series of programs on, on controversies such as Giuliani’s recent fight with the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the question of whether you should go beyond tolerating offensive art to subsidizing offensive art? That’s a very difficult question. I’m a little bit more conservative than some of my Liberal friends. I don’t think it’s incumbent upon the National Endowments with taxpayer money to subsidize the most outrageous provocative art they can find. And now that doesn’t mean that that art should not be able to be exhibited. I think the Maplethorpe exhibit, when it went around the country, there were all the disclaimers … “this is fairly raw stuff, if this bothers you, don’t look at it”. It’s your freedom not to go to the exhibition. I’m not sure I support underwriting art that some people would find religiously offensive or pornographic with public dollars. So, the thing is these are shades of gray. And if you’re, if you’re looking for nice clear bright lines, they’re very hard to find in these areas.

HEFFNER: You would be concerned, I gather that we couldn’t differentiate between ideas, as let’s say the Founders meant ideas, and the expressions that we see in terms of violent films and violent television, etc. That they both deserve the protection of the First Amendment.

KUTTNER: Well, they … look crummy, violent, awful television unfortunately from a taste point of view, where from a “what do we want our children to see?” point of view is probably Constitutionally protected speech. That doesn’t mean we have to endorse it, that doesn’t mean we have to encourage it. Maybe we even ought to try to fight it, to discourage the industry from, from putting it on the air. And that’s a, that’s a balancing act. That requires holding in your mind at the same time two somewhat contradictory view points.

HEFFNER: You don’t … you don’t …

KUTTNER: And it’s hard.

HEFFNER: You don’t think that it has been demonstrated … not proven, but demonstrated, that what it is that I’m talking about, the violent television, the violent films lead to a situation in society … Columbine, etc. Not by themselves by any means, but they contribute to it.

KUTTNER: Boy, that’s …

HEFFNER: Presenting a clear and present danger.

KUTTNER: That’s a really tough question. I mean was it guns, was it violence on television, was it the youth sub-culture more broadly defined? I would be worried that if we really start censoring, you know, pretty soon you get to Lady Chatterley’s Lover or pretty …

HEFFNER: The slippery slope.

KUTTNER: But it really is a slippery slope. It’s not just to turn a phrase.

HEFFNER: And old Charlton Heston is saying that about the NRA.

KUTTNER: Well, Charlton Heston was in his share of violent movies. [Laughter]


KUTTNER: Not very good movies, too.

HEFFNER: Okay. In the half minute left … where are you going with the magazine?

KUTTNER: We’re going for one hundred thousand readers. We’re trying to make The American Prospect the flagship Liberal magazine, and we’re trying to do it, not by watering down Liberalism, but, but reminding people why we need an economy that has a public sector as well as a private sector. Why we need a society that has citizenship as well as money. And we think those are enduring ideas. We’re trying to create a hospitable home for younger writers, and put some spine back into the backs of Liberal politicians.

HEFFNER: Robert Kuttner, thank you so much for joining me again on The Open Mind.

KUTTNER: Great conversation. Thank you.

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.