Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, is in Seattle this week for events today, tomorrow, and Friday as part of a yearlong celebration of her magazine reaching its 150th year. I spoke to her by phone while she was in Portland on Tuesday.
How do you live to be 150? And keep in mind you're talking to a publication that just turned 24 and is still living with its parents.
The Nation still lives with some of its parents. We have their DNA in our media circulatory system.
How did we live this long? I'd say one of the reasons is a ferocious independence. That's been one of the keys to The Nation's survival—and, I think, why we'll thrive in this period. I think it's always been important in this country to make room for dissident, rebellious voices. And I think The Nation has survived because it has stayed true to principals: a belief that empire is toxic to democracy, a belief in economic justice, a belief in social and racial justice.
Speaking of the magazine's politics: I was online watching some of the clips from Hot Type, the documentary about The Nation that will be showing at the Seattle Public Library on Friday, and it was pointed out that The Nation started as a Republican magazine.
The idea of Republican, as you well know, shifted through time, and there is a reason that one can say that Lincoln was a member of the Republican party. So it did start—in its first 50, 60 years—more as a publication of classic liberalism. It was a believer in free trade, it was ferociously opposed to corruption wherever it found it, and as I said one of the only real consistent strands was this belief in the idea that empire was toxic to democracy.
But it was founded by a group of abolitionists, and you had within that strand a kind of radical Republicanism, moderate Republicanism, but above all a commitment—as the term abolitionist describes—a commitment to abolishing slavery.
But the magazine zigged and zagged in those first 50, 60 years. It found its true voice, and I would argue a voice that continues today, with the arrival of editor Oswald Garrison Villard in 1917.
All power to The Stranger, by the way—I think reaching a quarter century soon is a great thing. But you look out at the landscape in this country and The Nation was part of the founding of the NAACP and the ACLU, institutions which I think—like The Nation—have continued to find their way into this 21st Century.
And it's a very different century for news magazines, political magazines, alt-weeklies, daily newspapers. The documentary that will be shown here in Seattle about the history of The Nation is, as I mentioned, called Hot Type. I'm not even sure people know what hot type is anymore. Can you fill us in?
Yeah. When I was an intern at The Nation, one of my first jobs was to man / person the teletype machine. We had correspondents in the Middle East and they would send us copy. We then moved to the fax, we then moved slowly to computers. Hot type—we'd roll the magazine. The production department would literally roll the magazine in hot type, and then we'd pack it up in a little package and take it off to Port Authority in New York City and it would go on a bus to Pennsylvania where the magazine was printed.
And when you say "roll it in hot type"...
I mean, it was like you'd literally take rollers and roll the text onto paper... "Hot type" is a throwback to a period when you didn't have the digital world. Today we transmit our files digitally, obviously. You talk about survival—I mean, one of the things the documentary doesn't show as explicitly is on our actual brithday, July 6 of this year (the magazine was founded on July 6, 1865) we launched a new web site. I think it's nimble, it's beautiful, it allows us to bring our journalism to a new audience. But it doesn't change our journalism.
I value the digital world because I think it can expand our readership and our impact—both in this country and the world. And it speaks to a new generation. So I'm not a stickler when it comes to platforms. I think you want to get out your ideas, your arguments, your investigations in as many ways as you can. Print remains an anchor. It's more curated. It is still a kind of closely curated aggregation of editorial thinking. I'm all for getting it out there, but we also play hard on social media to make sure stories—and our ideas and arguments—are out there. But it's a tough time. We all know that. It's a tough time for the business of journalism, for the survival of journalism, and there are all kinds of discussions about how you do it, all kinds of new models. I like to say the old world is disappearing and the new one is not yet born. We will see where we all head.
Are you in the position that a lot of other publications are in now, in which you have a larger number of readers online than you do for the print edition?
We're read by more than a half-million readers each week on 12 different platforms. The print circulation of the magazine is about 120,000 so do the math. You can see that we're read more widely online. But you know that, you're playing in this world, too.
Yeah. But what do you think about the way the actual nature of the platform—online publishing—has changed political discourse.
Here's what I think: I think there's a commitment at The Nation—and it may sound old-fashioned—a belief in intelligent, reasoned discourse, in a public discussion that informs and doesn't make people spectators, as so much of our political coverage certainly does—and you see it play out in this season as we do in other seasons.
But I think The Nation is not into clickbait in the digital sphere. Richard Kim, our executive editor, wrote a very smart letter launching the site in July and noted that our five top pieces on the site in the last year had been one about online Twitter feminism, one about the financial crisis, one about the US-Russian conflict over Ukraine, and one about the Israeli siege of Gaza. Those are serious pieces that are high-quality journalism that are moving in different ways because of the platform, but they're not a dumbing down, so to speak, of journalism.
Now, what we'd like to do, obviously on TheNation.com you can intervene, you can tussle more quickly with some of the conventional arguments and take on the conventional wisdom, and I find a value in that—to challenge more quickly. But we also do essays and photo essays on the web. So I think marrying these two—print and digital—has been so far valuable.
The Nation is different from The Stranger in that you are not supported by advertising. You yourself are an owner, or a part-owner of The Nation. Can you explain your model?
Absolutely. Since about 1947 we've had something that was called "Nation Associates." Now it's called "Nation Builders" in the last few years. What it is is, we have 20,000 small donors who give above and beyond the subscription price. Could be $5, $25, $50, $100, $150. We also have, almost like a theatrical production, a Circle of 100—people who give $5,000 a year over the course of three years and often renew. So it's a structure that allows all kinds of people to be part of the Nation community—to contribute to a media outlet, to a community, to a cause, in many cases, they feel is valuable.
It's like crowdfunding before crowdfunding became an online thing.
You know, it has some of that quality. We did just participate in an interesting crowd-funding project, Beacon. I don't know if you know it, but we raised $50,000 through about 300 small donors, through Beacon, which is a form of crowd-funding, to bring on an immigration rights journalist for this election. And we're trying to do that with a racial justice correspondent. So we try to work in different arenas where there is the possibility of raising money for a serious beat project. But you're right that Nation Builders has the quality of a kind of crowdfunding before it even existed. Because this started, this program, in 1947.
In any case, it's a brave new world out there but I do think there's a lot of high-quality journalism being done. And there's a lot of really lousy journalism being done. Good journalism—certainly investigative journalism—takes time, takes money, takes editors, takes a team sometimes. You know, things that are not in plentiful supply—as you all know—in the digital brave new world.
This is a kind of side-note, but since you were speaking about the money it takes to run a journalistic enterprise, I'm sure you know there's been a long-running conversation about journalism industry internship programs and whether interns should be paid. When you started as an intern at The Nation, were you paid?
I was not paid, but I'm proud to be the editor who instituted the $15-an-hour internship, which it is now. And your good city is certainly at the forefront of the fight for $15. The fast food workers of New York and other cities, Occupy—all of these created a climate in which publications like The Nation, which champions those ideas, had to put its limited funding where it's mouth was.
When did that start?
This is the first group [of $15 an hour interns at The Nation]. I will say, though, that I was an ancient intern, so that there were groups—there were very few unpaid groups. I was one of the first, but there were stipends. There were always stipends. Travel, housing, and a small stipend. But this is the first group, starting in September, which is the Fight for $15 internship.
So with the October 13 Democratic presidential candidate debate in mind, who fits more with The Nation's history of pushing the country's politics in the magazine's favored direction: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders?
Um, Eli, who do you think?
Let me say that The Nation's been covering Bernie Sanders for just under 30 years. What strikes me is how the corporate media has virtually ignored Bernie Sanders for just under 30 years. You think about the fact that he was on Meet the Press last year for the very first time, and John McCain is on every weekend, has a cot in the studio. I think Bernie Sanders, in many ways, has already won.
What do I mean? The issues he's campaigning on are receiving more attention than ever in his life. He's changed the public conversation for the better, he's put long-neglected issues on the table, and he's focused his campaign on serious problems and offered serious solutions. I think Hillary Clinton, you know, as The Nation editorialized last year: this country deserves a contested primary. Not just for the sake of the Democratic Party but for the sake of ideas which are often left off the radar which need to be heard. And Hillary Clinton needs a more progressive challenger. We've seen that...
She's laid out some very important ideas on voting rights, on incarceration, on immigration, but has definitely been moved, not just by Bernie Sanders but by the movements of our time, to take a different position on, for example, the TPP, right?
And you can say that's opportunistic. But my view is that the role of media, of movements is to hold politicians accountable. I mean, if you give them a free pass—anyone—just as if you give government a free pass, they're not going to move in directions that they might otherwise. So I think it's important to keep the pressure on. And, you know, you go to vote—that's the first step. I think one of Obama's great, tragic errors was in demobilizing a coalition that had built up during that campaign and moving inside the beltway.
Chris Hedges was in Seattle a while ago and he said that absent a run as an Independent, Bernie Sanders "simply functions as a sheepdog to corral progressives, left-leaning progressives, back into the embrace of the Democratic establishment"—because, in the end, Sanders won't give people an alternative if Clinton wins the primary contest.
You know, I believe in a wide range of views. And one of the reasons I think The Nation has survived is that's it's been a venue for debates between radicals, progressives, liberals, anarchists, conservatives with a conscience. Chris Hedges has written for The Nation over the years and, listen, that's his viewpoint.
I think it ignores the fact that issues—take the fight for $15, right? It's not just Bernie Sanders, as I said—that emerged from movements. Which are in many ways allied with the Sanders campaign at this point. I think you want to hear from someone like Chris Hedges: What are the movements, what are some of the issues that you would support? Issues that would improve the conditions of people's lives.
I suspect that Chris Hedges—who is, I think, very powerful in his indictment of America's role in the world—might dismiss paid family and sick leave as something conventional, not radical enough. I would disagree. I think it's fundamentally important to make sure those ideas become mainstream and they improve the conditions of people's lives. And at the end of the day, if government has a role, it's not to lie to us, but it's to improve the condition of people's lives. So I think Bernie Sanders, at least, in driving open the debate in this country, is doing something of value.
You talked about the wide range of voices you've had at The Nation. A coworker of mine, Sean Nelson, was—and remains—a big fan of Christopher Hitchens and wanted me to ask you about Hitchens's difficult falling out with your magazine.
Christopher wrote for almost—maybe more than—20 years. He wrote brilliantly about so many issues it would take us hours to discuss, from the death penalty to freedom movements around the world to the state of socialism.
The magazine and Christopher parted ways after 9/11. He published in the magazine for months, months after 9/11, columns about Islamofascism—Islam with fascist face. And what happened in the end was Christopher decided he wanted to leave The Nation. He couldn't work with his—as he used to call us—his "former comrades" anymore and he parted and left. The Nation was prepared to keep publishing Christopher.
I believe in a range of views, I believe in debate. There are debates, even on the left. For example, on Syria there are a range of views. So, Christopher was a valued member of our community, I think, and in some ways be was kind of bamboozled by the neocon misadventure and that was sad to watch because he was a brilliant writer and columnist.
While The Nation has had a range of voices over the years, it also occupies a certain band on the political spectrum and offers a certain kind of voice in the political discussion. And I wonder if you think that the voice you're offering, the type of progressivism that you're trying to push toward, is more or less marginal than when you started as an intern.
I wouldn't even use the word marginal. You buy into the frame of a mainstream corporate media which wants to ensure that people think ideas that are fully in the mainstream of this country—and this country's history—are marginal. But I would say that we are perhaps living through the most progressive moment in this country's history. That you are seeing—listen, you are sitting in Seattle. I believe The Stranger endorsed Kshama Sawant.
Yes, we did.
I believe she's probably the only Socialist on a major city council. But I think you're beginning to see motion toward issues that were once off the table.
And yet at the same time we have some of the most strikingly visible economic inequality that we've had at any point in the history of this country, and that's a reality in Seattle as well.
It is. But at least it's not under the—how to put it? Occupy was dismissed in many ways as a failure—not by all—but movements go in zigs and zags. And what Occupy did was at least raise the national consciousness—and not just among progressives—about this gilded age, about the radical inequality.
It is the case that there are structural reforms that need to be done but you also need to have movements and those inside the system who recognize that this is not sustainable, that this is dangerous. So I think that we're at a point where you can wake up with despair, or you can wake up with a fighting spirit. Yes, we're in the fight of our lives against corporate control, against plutocracy, against the fact that in this election 158 families so far have funded close to half or more of this election season. You have a right-wing court. But if you sit back, you're going to give this country over to those forces.
And I'm just saying, unlike a decade ago, or unlike when I was an intern at The Nation—which was a full force Reagan era—you do have movements. I would like to see more of a peace and justice movement, because I think you need it in terms of the US depredations abroad. But you do have an economic populist, progressive movement in different areas. And you also have Black Lives Matter, which is a continuation of the civil rights movement into the racial justice movement, taking on—achingly taking on—the injustices, the horrors that have assaulted communities in this country for too long. So at least there's an awareness.
There's also motion in some ways. It's never commensurate with the scale of the problem. But there is motion. If you had told me ten years ago that there would be $15 minimum wage initiatives around this country—in New York state, the governor calling for it across the state... It's not the silver bullet, to use an overused expression, but to deny that motion is to essentially say, "Let's give up and just hand it all over."
You've been a woman in one particular workplace for a very long time, and now you're the leader of that workplace. I wonder if you can reflect on what it's been like for you to live and thrive in what has typically been a male-dominated world: political magazine publishing.
You know, Eli, that's a tough one. At The Nation, I've always been treated—even as an intern—I've never felt there was any—it was a very progressive workplace.
And I think for so many women—the structural issues are so tough, right? I was talking earlier about sick leave or childcare, which The Nation has, which I think is part of a woman's security. The Newspaper Guild was founded at The Nation in 1937. The union, the empowerment of workers, men and women, women and men, has played a role. And I've been treated with respect by my colleagues. I've been treated with respect, for the most part, in the larger media world. But I think if women are going to play a full role, women need across this workplace all the kinds of policies and mindset that I think are at The Nation.
Respect, dignity, structural change. And what really scares me, I have to say, Eli, is the assault on women's reproductive rights, which we're seeing play out in brutal force with the attacks on Planned Parenthood and the attempts to defund Planned Parenthood. That, to me, is not just about a woman's right to control her own body but it's also about economic security, family security. And of course it's about an assault, above and beyond, on low income, poor women.
And I think that's the struggle in this country: to connect women across class, across race, to fight those battles. That's how I see it. I feel privileged, both for being at The Nation—which as I said is a workplace of respect and dignity, with the labor union—but I also feel that we have a lot of work to do in this country and we've regressed in some fundamental ways.
One particular discussion in Seattle across a lot of levels—at the city level, at the county level, at the business level—is paid maternity leave. And it's gotten very specific, in terms of how many weeks people are offering. So just on that one issue: how many weeks of paid maternity leave does The Nation give?
Forgive me, because we've been in the process of changing it as we enter into discussions [with the union]. But I think it's six months. Forgive me. I should know this. But it's a good package. And the medical package, all of that is part of the kind of weaving of a safety net that as you know has been unwoven because of the decades-long attack on the labor movement. The labor movement is under assault. Terrible assault. But there are new alternative forms of organizing, and there is an interesting awareness among younger people of the value of labor unions. And I'm sure you've followed what's going on with Gawker, with Salon, with HuffingtonPost. The terrible irony is that as labor is at its weakest moment in decades, decades, decades, a younger generation is seeing the power and value of it.
Is that a terrible irony?
Well, it becomes more difficult. The power of labor is weaker. So as people join labor, it may strengthen it. But you need a lot of waves of people joining, and you need a different kind of court, all of those things.
Well, I know you have to go soon to get on a call with Mayor Bill DeBlasio to talk about the "inequality agenda" he's been working on. Still busy in year 150...
Absolutely. I think part of this year is that there's a recommitment to what we've seen play out in this country—horrible and terrific, hopeful and despairing—and, armed with that history, an awareness of the role we can play going forward. I do think history needs to be brought to bear on so much of our journalism and politics. Our longtime contributing editor, Gore Vidal, used to like to call this country "The United States of Amnesia."
And it's only gotten more so, I'm sorry to say, with the speeding up of the "news cycle" on social media. People can't even remember recent history because the news now moves on so fast.
I know. But you know what, we're fighting that.
Some of the questions and answers in this interview have been condensed.