The Daily Kos, which is generally one of the best and most comprehensive Democratic political blogs, has decided that the cause of the week is to attack The New Republic, because "it's not on our side."
Kos is right about one thing: Sometimes, even to this day, The New Republic is treated elsewhere in the press as a standard-bearer of liberalism, as a Democratic party journal, or as defining the left edge of mainstream thought, so that anything to the left of it can be dismissed. Obviously, that's a ridiculous way to classify the magazine, and wouldn't have been accurate even in the days of Walter Lippman, when TNR took the "liberal hawk" position favoring entry into World War I against the anti-interventionist "Lyrical Left" exemplified by Randolph Bourne. But that misperception is not the magazine's fault.
Kos's whole line of argument is actually somewhat offensive to me. The point of a magazine is not to be "on our side." I don't read a magazine to have my views reinforced (that's what I've got blogs for). I read political magazines to learn something I don't know, to hear a viewpoint well articulated that expands or challenges my own, or, above all, to read good analytical journalism, with real reporting. I have to admit, I often skim The Nation and The American Prospect, and put them aside bored because every story is, "here's another reason Bush sucks," without any significant reporting -- not that I don't think Bush sucks, but I don't need to read another rehash of it. By the same measure, The Weekly Standard can often be worth reading, while The American Spectator and National Review are not, because they are simply cheering on the presumptions of their readers. (The American Prospect has improved recently.)
I've been reading the New Republic for a very long time, although with several gaps when I thought the magazine had become uninteresting. Unlike Lisa Simpson, I didn't have a subscription to The New Republic for Kids, but I probably would have if such a thing existed. I remember reading it as a politically obsessed teenager, and the reporting of people like Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke, who were probably in their early 30s at the time, and neither one much more liberal than they are today, was a great window onto Washington of the Carter era. When Michael Kinsley and Rick Hertzberg were the editors, it was a great and lively magazine, although the growing obsession with Israel and "Is it good for the Jews?" (the counterpart in its day of Kos's question, "Is it good for the Democrats?") began to weigh it down.
Then came Andrew Sullivan, who I think ruined the magazine, not because of his conservatism, but with his determination to pull it away from its base of political reporting into all sorts of directions of ungrounded cultural commentary. There's only so many times I want to read Camille Paglia's musings on Madonna -- give me the goods on Senator Baucus, please! I can't remember who came first after Sullivan, Charles Lane, under whom the magazine seemed lifeless, or the late Michael Kelly. Kelly was good at nurturing young writers, but, in the first tragedy of his life, he, like Christopher Hitchens, sacrificed his considerable gifts, and the magazine's, to his prurient obsession with Bill Clinton.
But today I really think that The New Republic is as good as its ever been. (Well, I can't say ever, since I'm not actually a hundred years old.) Certainly the best it's been since before Andrew Sullivan. And the reason is that the core of young actual journalists is as good as it's been since Barnes and Kondracke. Ryan Lizza, Jonathan Chait, Michelle Cottle, Michael Crowley, Franklin Foer, Jonathan Cohen, Noam Scheiber -- they've all been there a while, know what they're talking about, and produce big, significant stories all the time. John Judis and Spencer Ackerman have done more to advance the story of the misuse of the CIA than anyone else. Crowley (a friend of mine) wrote the definitive piece on the abuses of the congressional process and the mistreatment of Democrats. The measure of a magazine should be the quality of its writing and reporting, not the degree to which it corresponds to it's readers' views.
Is this reporting sometimes going to be unhelpful to Howard Dean or other Democrats? Absolutely. Does that constitute being "hell-bent on destroying our most likely nominee"? Of course not. Take, for example, Franklin Foer's recent TNR cover story on the problems Dean would face as a result of being among the most secular people ever to run for president. Kos doesn't give examples of the stories he thinks will destroy Dean, but I'm sure this would be one he would have in mind. But the article didn't cause any additional harm to Dean other than to reveal existing facts. The article was a well researched and thoughtful analysis of how public expression of religious faith came to figure in American political life, how relatively recent the phenomenon is, how Bill Clinton dealt with it, and how the attacks on Dukakis in 1988 as liberal, such as over the Pledge of Allegiance, were really meant to mark him as secular. These are all true and important facts, like them or not, and will be a burden for Dean, which he will have to strategize around. (It's one more reason he will have to build an electoral majority without the South and border states.) Putting these insights together in a sharp analysis is a contribution to our understanding, not an attack on Dean. And Dean obviously took some lesson from it -- the wrong one -- since it sent him running to the Boston Globe to announce that he had some sort of relationship with Jesus, although the actual nature of the relationship ("He's been an example for 2000 years, which is pretty remarkable when you think about it!") seems rather platonic by the standards of the Fourth Great Awakening.
I think part of the problem here is the presumed superiority of blogs to "old media." Most blogs have a stance, and some are specifically intended to be on someone's side, particularly the zillions of Dean blogs. Blogs are great, obviously, and if one reads a lot of them, one can get a very well-rounded view of a lot of topics. Just to take one example, the Daily Kos itself had some posts breaking down the internal labor movement politics that led to the SEIU and AFSCME endorsements of Dean that were superb, and there is very little in the mainstream media that can provide comparable insight into the internals of the labor movement. But there is still a place for a real political magazine, one that brings together real reporters and analytical opinion writers who cover a fairly wide range of views, with good editors and an intention to provoke and surprise. The New Republic is doing that as well as any magazine in the U.S. right now, and whether it helps or hurts Howard Dean should be the last thing the magazine or its readers think about.