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The Nation’s Victor Navasky on Opinion Journalism

August 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation, discusses his new book, "A Matter of Opinion" and the role of opinion journals in the media.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Nation Magazine is this country’s oldest continuously published weekly magazine. Expounding the view from the left, it has a long, colorful, and often controversial history. But in an era of fast changing media and technology, what is the role of it and other journals across the political spectrum today, and in the future? A new book called “A Matter of Opinion” takes up that and other questions. Its author is Victor Navasky, the longtime editor and now publisher of The Nation. Welcome to you.

VICTOR S. NAVASKY: Good to be here, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that comes through most in your book is what a high-wire act it is to keep a magazine like The Nation going. What’s the key to survival?

VICTOR S. NAVASKY: It is more a cause than a business.

JEFFREY BROWN: More a cause?

VICTOR S. NAVASKY: More a cause, than a business. And it’s — you know — on the one hand. On the other hand, if we weren’t run like a business I don’t think we’d make it. And then thirdly, E.L. Gotchen, who founded the magazine in 1865, had a formula. It’s a very low budget, the paper is newsprint paper, but it’s not just because it’s cheap, it’s also a rebuke, sort of, to the Madison Avenue slickness of these magazines that have very high production costs and values and that they get burdened with those costs and values and eventually they become too much.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what’s the answer to the question I posed in the introduction? What’s the role of the small opinion journal in a society where we have ever larger media on the one hand and new technology on the other that reaches out to grab people in new ways?

VICTOR S. NAVASKY: Well, first of all, I think the critical precondition for a magazine like The Nation is that it is independent. We have an ad campaign that says “No one owns The Nation; that’s why so many somebodys read it.” And then we have pictures of everybody from Ani DiFranco to Paul Newman who is one of our owners. The role is to give an independent perspective on what’s going on. It’s to question the official line. It’s to monitor the major media. It’s to publish information that you won’t find in the major media. But basically, it’s to explain the underlying meaning of events in a way that the sort of convention of narrative neutrality in the mainstream media doesn’t permit.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, many people look at the media landscape today– the public square as you refer to it– and they say “We have too much opinion. Everyone’s yelling at each other.”


JEFFREY BROWN: You write that “To me, the problem is too little opinion, not too much.” Explain.

VICTOR S. NAVASKY: Okay. When people say, “We have too much opinion,” I like to think what they’re talking about are the shout shows on the cable television. To have a serious opinion, you’ve got to have — first of all, you’ve got to be able to state your opposition’s point of view better than he or she states it him or herself. Secondly, you’ve got to mobilize the evidence.

Thirdly, you’ve got to present an analysis and moral, political and cultural argument which will persuade your reader, viewer and listener that you’re right. That, it seems to me, is the highest function that journalism can perform, rather than just overwhelm people with so-called facts.

And there is a literature out there, the late historian Christopher Lair said, you should look at facts not — or information– not as the precondition to a debate but as the byproduct of it. So the key is to ask the right questions. And that’s what the journal that journals like The Nation do at their best.

JEFFREY BROWN: Part of the argument seems to be that everyone comes with an ideology and so true objectivity is impossible? Is that what you’re saying?

VICTOR S. NAVASKY: What I believe and what I say in the book is, look, sure, The Nation at this point in time is on the left. And we have the ideology on the left, although we are an independent magazine.

We don’t have a party line, we don’t have a dogma, we’re not predictable in ways that people tend to think we are. National Review or The Weekly Standard has the ideology of the right. And, you should forgive the expression, the NewsHour, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, the networks, they have the ideology of the center and it is part of the ideology of the center to deny that it has an ideology.

When people want to marginalize a magazine like The Nation, they’ll say– we’ve been called Stalinist, anti — neo-Stalinist, socialist, liberal, anti-Semitic, Zionist, but when they really want to hurt us, they say “you’re ideological.” And my point only is, yes, we are open about our political values, but if we trimmed, if we left out inconvenient facts, if we stacked the deck in favor of what our argument, if we mobilized facts in order to reach a preconceived conclusion, that’s bad journalism. It has nothing to do with whether you’re ideological or not, in my view.

And so, it seems to me that these journals are, because they are open about their political values, you give the reader a better shot at understanding and deciding whether or not he agrees with you by knowing where you’re coming from in the first place than people who pretend that they have no values whatsoever and that from out of the sky this story belongs on Page 1 and this story belongs on Page 23 and this belongs on the first paragraph rather than that. It’s a set of decisions are made that are not based on objective criteria. They’re based on subjective criteria. Molly Ivens once said, you know, look, I’m a– when she said it she was 49. She’s probably now all of 50, who knows.

But she said, “I’m a 49-year-old white woman from the South and there is no way that my perspective is going to be the same as a 16-year-old high school dropout single black mother,” and that anyone who is talked to five witnesses to an automobile accident knows that there’s no such thing as objectivity in that sense.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you one thing about being a journal of the left. If you look at the landscape now, whether it is political, economic, many aspects of our social life, it would look as though The Nation seems to be on the wrong side of history. Does it look that way to you?

VICTOR S. NAVASKY: Well, I’ll put it this way. If identifying with the dispossessed is the wrong side of history, then we’re on the wrong side of history. If having– and when you go backwards, The Nation, of course, was founded by people in and around the abolitionist movement who were said in their day to be on the wrong side of history. Was the abolition of slavery the wrong side of history?

No, it wasn’t. So, someone once said that The Nation is a magazine for the permanent minority. And I said, well, I don’t know if I like that. I mean, I don’t mind being in the minority but the permanent minority, it doesn’t sound great to me on the one hand. On the other hand, if it means that you’re ahead of your time rather than on the wrong side of history, then that’s not a bad place to be.

And I think on a whole range of issues, including the problems posed by the atomic bomb, which the late Freda Kirchwey identified as a critical issue; all of the arguments about the war in — the invasion of Iraq before we entered Iraq, the Katrina Van Den Heuval’s Nation was — were running, and Jonathan Schell’s combination of reporting and essay writing about this as well as all the other people in the magazine, that’s not the wrong side of history, I think. And I think we’re learning that every day.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, Victor Navasky, the author of A Matter of Opinion. Thank you very much.

VICTOR S. NAVASKY: Thank you very much.