Fall 2005

Opinion’s Place in Journalism

Victor S. Navasky explains why he loathes objectivity and values ‘critical opinion.’

By Ray Jenkins

A Matter of Opinion
Victor S. Navasky
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
464 Pages. $27.
In the first few pages of this extraordinary book, the reader will sense that Victor S. Navasky is taking us on a rollicking joy ride, not only through his own exhilarant life and times, but also through the life of The Nation as America’s oldest surviving magazine of opinion. As he gathers speed, we discover that Navasky is also ruminating—confronting and examining—with relentless candor and honesty, the most vexing ethical and moral issues of journalism, which chiefly involve maintaining fidelity to principle. When the ride is over, we know that we have read one of the best books on the trade in a generation.

And no one is better equipped to take us on such a ride than Navasky, who in his half-century in the business has been reporter, editor, publisher and journalism professor. With zest and relish he covers his tours of duty as editor of the saucy 1960’s satirical magazine, Monocle, then at The New York Times Magazine before settling in, 25 years ago, at his life’s calling as the chief helmsman of The Nation.

That The Nation has survived at all is something of a miracle. The magazine first appeared the year the Civil War ended and seems to have turned a profit in only four of its 140 years of existence. Through all those years its survival depended not so much upon the kindness of strangers—fickle readers—but rather on the benefaction of wealthy patrons whose own interests seemed quite inimical to the magazine’s legendary leftist editorial philosophy. To carry on under such arrangements without gaining a reputation as a “kept woman” was a remarkable achievement indeed. (Consider, by contrast, the ignoble fate of a contemporary right-wing journal of opinion, The American Spectator. When its principal patron, Richard Mellon Scaife, withdrew his massive financial support in a fit of pique over the Spectator’s refusal to give a good review to a shoddy book, the magazine, for all practical purposes, collapsed into irrelevance.)

One must stand in a certain awe of Navasky’s courage to take over what appeared to be a moribund magazine of dwindling circulation and resources, in the aftermath of the cold war, and carry the tattered banner of socialism in the land of triumphant capitalism. And yet by cobbling together support from that fading band of conscience-driven liberal capitalists—most notably the actor Paul Newman—Navasky, now ensconced in the publisher’s chair, not only rescued The Nation from threatened oblivion but also brought its circulation to a record-breaking 184,000. (It must be added that the circulation drive was greatly enhanced by its bete noire of the day, George W. Bush.)

Ever the indomitable optimist, Navasky confidently believes that in an age when print journalism seems to be rushing headlong to take its place in history beside the quill pen, The Nation not only will survive but will flourish—along with, he quickly adds, its much newer polar opposite, William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review. The reason, Navasky believes, is that these journals are not constrained by slavish devotion to journalistic objectivity, which Navasky heartily loathes.

It might be noteworthy that only fleetingly does Navasky mention The New Yorker, which is undergoing a spectacular renaissance under the brilliant editorship of David Remnick. Long noted for the highest quality journalism that changed the whole political landscape—Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” being foremost examples—in recent years The New Yorker has converted its once-gossipy “Talk of the Town” into a major voice of opinion journalism through the must-read work of Remnick, Hendrik Hertzberg, Adam Gopnik, and other talented writers. With a decidedly liberal tilt, and with the great advantage of solid bases in readership and advertising, The New Yorker might well turn out to be The Nation’s chief competitor for readership and influence.

In Navasky’s words, The Nation’s highest purpose is “to explain the underlying meaning of the news.” And this means more than mere pompous ranting. It means avoiding all the pitfalls enumerated in George Orwell’s sacred text, “Politics and the English Language.” Most of all it means the pursuit of cutting-edge reporting, with an acknowledged point of view unrestrained by the demands of objectivity. Whatever he might mean by “critical opinion”—a term he repeatedly uses—Navasky makes a compelling case that The Nation’s place in history lies in the work of such great reporters as Lincoln Steffens and his spiritual heirs such as Fred Cook, Robert Sherrill, Andrew Kopkind, Christopher Hitchens, and so many others whose work has graced the pages of the magazine over the past half-century.

The Editorial as Opinion

What are we lesser mortals to learn from the joy ride with this renowned editor and teacher? As I read Navasky’s tales of high adventure, I often found myself ruminating over the experience of my own half-century in journalism, much of which was spent writing opinion journalism—meaning, in daily journalism, editorials. And I confess it has not been a comforting experience.

When I was a young reporter, a favorite pastime of the new kids in the newsroom was to snicker at the palpable nonsense served up each day by the learned editors of the day. Eventually, of course, I reached that exalted position myself, but I must admit that I secretly looked over my shoulder to see if the new kids on the block were still snickering.

In a time of midcareer boredom, I succumbed to the lust that lurks in the hearts of all editors: I got mixed up in politics. In 1979 I took a position as deputy press secretary to President Jimmy Carter. Almost the day I arrived at the White House, my new colleagues—and, for that matter, my former colleagues in the press as well—began to cautiously approach me with the loaded question, what have you learned from being on “the other side?”

It wasn’t long before I came up with an answer that is still valid today. “Well, I learned that it’s a lot easier to write an editorial than it is to write a public policy,” I’d tell them. “When you write an editorial, you can be reasonably certain that nothing specific will happen: no one will put a bomb under a train, or switch their party affiliation, or even kick their dog. But when you write a public policy, all sorts of things happen: businesses fail, people lose their jobs, nations go to war. So serving on ‘the other side’ is a humbling experience for someone who had an opinion on every subject on earth, whether he knew anything about it or not.”

Thoroughly chastened after my brief stint in politics, I returned to the safer realm of opinion journalism to serve out my time until retirement a dozen years ago.

Thanks to the Internet, I now can follow opinion journalism more broadly than ever before, and I must say that while there are fine examples of thoughtful commentary to be found here and there in the hinterland press—modern equivalents of William Allen White’s Emporia Gazette, I suppose—what passes for editorial writing these days is all too often a mishmash of dullness, vacillation, predictability, obscurity and, ultimately, irrelevance.

But I don’t wish to be judgmental. As one wag put it in describing the predicament of opinion writers (this is the cleaned-up version), no cook can make the soufflé rise every time, but when you are an editorial writer, you have to put it on the table no matter what the condition.

Navasky’s sparkling book is here for one and all to read and to apply the tough lessons to themselves.

Ray Jenkins, a 1965 Nieman Fellow, was editorial page editor of The Evening Sun in Baltimore for 10 years before his retirement in 1993.

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