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Is The New Republic "On Our Side"? Should It Be?

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.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 3, 2004 | Permalink


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I second Mark's position on The New Republic as a magazine, and his contention that TNR should not be a partisan political voice but a venue for reflective serious journalism. Indeed TNR's domestic political writing has been quite excellent in the last 18-24 months (I am less attracted to the international focus (not only as regards Israel/Palestine) because of, I suppose, Marty Peretz's less than invisible hand. And Leon Wieseltier's self-conscious dabblings in 12th century Kabbalah to explain Tony Judt or 9/11 leave me mourning the absence of a Dwight MacDonald in our midst. But I digress).

As for reading outside one's ideological milieu to refresh and retool the analytical lenses, I heartily concur. Look, I don't think I have ever really disagreed with Katha Pollitt on any substantive point she has made but I find her so damn difficult to enjoy. Part of it is surely the beleagured sense one has having the obvious restated (no matter how effectively); but the knowing Upper West Side quality to it leaves me wanting at the end of the day. With that in mind allow me to recommend Cass Sunstein'a new book on dissent. A welcome antidote and a good illustration perhaps of some of Mark's assertions.

Posted by: Leonard Benardo | Jan 3, 2004 7:06:49 PM

Excellent reasoning on display here. I think that TNR does, in fact, have a talented staff of writers and is still capable of publishing excellent commentary here and there. Truth be told, I don't really care whether they're "on our side" or not, but I do like a well-thought out article.

However, if I do have complaints about TNR it is because they, too, manage to sound to shrill, even more so when they approach a topic they (as a collective) seem to disagree with.

For me, recently, this has been Iraq and their approach to covering candidates who disagree with the Iraq initiative. Their coverage of Dean has been incredibly unbalanced, it seems to me. (And I'm not a longtime reader of TNR so I really can't say whether this differs from years past.) It seems, though, that they latched on early to his disagreement on Iraq and dismissed him as someone unworthy to be the Democratic candidate. (Insulting to a reader like me who tuned into Dean early precisely because of that stance and stuck around for his centrist domestic policy platforms.)

I agree that Franklin Foer's recent Dean article was fantastic and is, indeed, something the candidate will have to confront, but their otherwise daily campaign coverage is frightful.

That being said, you have an excellent blog here, Mark--one that I have now book marked!

Posted by: Bailey | Jan 3, 2004 8:20:10 PM

This is a good commentary on what's wrong with DailyKos, which I think has also declined precipitously in the last year. It's merely now an improved version of Democratic Underground, full of partisans (with some exceptions) who are blind to any idea or argument that doesn't stroke them. And Kos himself is a very able cheerleader, but not remotely the open minded visionary that we really need running a blog - that's what we need for a blog to really reach its potential to communicate.

Posted by: jacko2 | Jan 3, 2004 10:50:13 PM

I am not knowledgable enough to comment on the specifics of the quality of TNR but I have to say that their ad which Kos refused to run, but others such as Josh Marshall have displayed, comparing Dean to Paris Hilton doesn't entice me to want to read it and suggests that they have an agenda.

The problem to me is that inside the elite media world, one key to success is to show how smart, independent-minded and cynical you are . The attitude and sometimes style (e.g. Maureen Dowd) with which you write seems to matter more than substance.

I certainly don't want to read magazines that "are on my side" and somehow I don't think Kos does either, I've got a feeling this is something of a straw man argument. But on the other hand the fact that they are *conciously selling* the magazine as "look where not one of those dumb true believers who fall for Dean ---we think he's an airhead" makes me think this is likely to shape their views.

Sometime back, Krugman said some things in a Buszzflash interview that I think nailed why he's been able to attract such a following and why someone like me is always skeptical of the so-called top journalists:


BUZZFLASH: You're not a full-time journalist. Do you think that gives you a bit of distance from both the media and from politics when you write your columns?

KRUGMAN: What it means is that I don't have any of the usual journalistic or the journalists' incentives. I'm not part of the club. I'm not socially part of that world. I don't go to Washington cocktail parties, so I don't get sucked into whatever kind of group-think there may be, for better or for worse. I don't necessarily hear all the latest rumors, but I also don't fold in with the latest view on how you're supposed to think about things.

It also means that I'm moonlighting. This is not my career, or I didn't think it is, anyway. And if it means that if I'm frozen out, if the Times finally decides I'm too hot to handle and fires me or whatever, that's no great loss. So I'm a lot more independent than your ordinary average journalist would be.


BUZZFLASH: James Carville, I think, called you courageous. Do you just call it like you see it? Do you just look at the numbers and tell people what the numbers tell you?

KRUGMAN: I could have made the decision to either not do this column or to do it and to say, OK, my expertise is economics, and I'm going to write this in a very cool fashion. And I'm going to write columns praising something, anything about the Bushies, and make snide attacks on the Democrats, just to keep an even-handed feel to it, so that people won't get mad at me. And I decided not to do that. For whatever the reason was -– pig-headedness or whatever –- I certainly stuck my neck out quite a lot.

I think this attitude of "we've got to be snide about Dean in order to show we're smart" is what underlies the TNR ad.

An "Economist for Dean"

Posted by: lerxst | Jan 3, 2004 11:04:52 PM

In response to lerxst --
The TNR ad runs something like this: "What do Paris Hilton and Howard Dean have in common? The New Republic." The point of the ad isn't their similarities (if any) but the magazine's range.

As to Mark's comments, he's dead right about TNR's reporting and the magazine's historical ups and downs. But, yes, a lot of the election commentary -- either stand-alone or larded in the running coverage -- does take the line that some perfectly reasonable views place one outside the intellectual pale. Just as the Nation has the familiar Upper West Side air of "we enlightened few," TNR has its own brand of smugness, displayed at its worst by Martin Peretz.

Posted by: Kyle | Jan 4, 2004 1:20:26 PM

I think Lerxst is on the right track here; there does seem to be--if not necessarily in the Decembrist's style, than certainly in the media generally speaking ("liberal" or otherwise)--a kind of knee jerk cynicism about the Dean campaign. It ranges from the "hippies go home" attitude of some in the Lieberman campaign (noted by one of Decembrist commentors) to the pieces in the NY Times that obsess over Dean's "patrician" background to more studied suspicions of insider Democratic bloggers. Of course, just good solid political reporting is a good thing, and I'll take Decembrist at his word that there is some of it in the TNR, which may or may not balance out its crudeness on foreign policy issues (especially those regarding the Middle East) and the way it positions its own politics in the market. A more interesting, and perhaps historical question, is the relationship between the kind of aloof, ironical, and politically muddled centrism noted by Lerxst and the demands of the market driven mainstream media.

In defense of the Nation: There is often quite a bit more to it than an endless cycle of Bush whacking. Sure, it can be annoying at times; but it hardly speaks in one voice, all the time, and does work hard to be "practical" in its political coverage, while sticking to the progressive left without ignoring differences within it. Just because the conclusions reached and the policy recomendations made don't crack the consensus doesn't mean they are not well-researched and well-argued. We shouldn't, in other words, let current ideological configurations define what deserves to be taken seriously. What's more, the Nation makes no claims to be other than what it is: a subscription based magazine, minimally dependent on advertising, and speaking to and for a readership that shares basic political principals. This has its limits; but also its strengths, one of which is keeping the actual dividing line between right and left alive (After all, the magazine did alot of Clinton "Sucks" reporting, too). Again, the Nation is hardly all that one needs. But nor should it be impressionistically belittled for its committedness and political advocacy. Good reporting should be sought out when and wherever it occurrs; I reject those on the left that issue blanket condemnations of the "corporate media". But as someone who has studied these kinds of things, I'd say that the overall wishy washy centrism of, say, the New York Times' editorial positions (it doesn't take a lefty to be critical of the current administration) is a measure of its need to attract a certain demographic (upscale, sophisticated, culturally "liberal" but less so on the economy, and so on) it can package to advertisers, just as the Nation's less accomodating voice is a measure its need to satisfy a much different sort of market calculation. What this has to do with the reaction to Dean I don't know for sure. But generally, there does seem to be that preference for wariness of committment and--uhg!--partisanship--that works so well in market oriented journalism.

Posted by: | Jan 4, 2004 1:24:19 PM

I've subscribed to TNR for about 2 years now. My impression is that it's a fairly balanced magazine because it doesn't give free passes to liberals. The stories point the out intellectual and political dishonesty of both Reps and Dems. In particular, their series grading Dem presidential nominees in various areas is no holds barred.

Sometimes I think folks just want a magazine that gives them ammunition for attacking the Reps, but I think Mark's correct that blogs more or less serve this purpose.

Posted by: Jon Kortebein | Jan 5, 2004 8:30:54 AM

My understanding of Kos' complaint was more that he was sick of TNR being referred to as "the liberal magazine."

In that sense, I agree with both Mark and Kos--TNR is an excellent magazine, but it isn't "liberal" per se; it's neoliberal/neoconservative, and should be labeled as such.

Posted by: praktike | Jan 5, 2004 2:36:53 PM

Beyond the fact that TNR gets labeled as liberal when it obviously isn't the problem is that they just don't like Dean. There is no attempt at balancing the issue or doing some actual reporting, instead they publish the CW from the Washington insiders, "Dean is bad." Sure, they put out some good stuff, but the fact that they've taken a dislike to Dean and from now on we get the equivalent of the Clenis. Hell, next they'll be urging multi-million dollar investigations because someone donated a cup of coffee to Dean at some point in time. Bush is a big strong cowboy who happens to lie like a rug and be pathologically incapable of making decent choices, but Dean is going to ruin the country. Screw them. I don't want a magazine that kisses ass, I want one that does fair journalism. You can keep TNR.

Posted by: Gideon S | Jan 5, 2004 6:57:48 PM

I dispensed with TNR somewhere in the middle of the first Clinton administration. Not because it wasn't "on my side". Not because it was boring. Not because it's referred to as a "liberal" magazine. No, something far more basic: its willingness to unapologetically publish deceptive hatchet jobs like the famous health care essay; its sleazy triviality under Sullivan; its blatant partisan bias under Kelly, whose absence from the scene is no occasion for tears. People who had read the magazine for decades (in my case, since the first Nixon administration, covered so ably by John Osborne) had counted on the magazine to be straight on fact, whatever edifice of opinion the contributor might offer. Ultimately my loyalty to Leon Wieseltier's back of the book couldn't outweigh my disgust with the rest of it. By and large we owe the death of TNR to Peretz; without him there's a chance of recovery. As long as he's around, I'll pass on TNR. Fool me once . . .

Posted by: Michael | Feb 18, 2004 9:05:25 PM

very informal....

Posted by: suzi | May 23, 2004 9:06:54 AM

Family Law: He just needs a little horse sense knocked into him
Wednesday, January 19, 2005
By Eli El
I hope that someday the justice system would be fair. Would most of us be happy if this was true? When we take time out to think about it, there will always be a party whom believes that the judge ruled fairly and another whom believes that they have been wronged. There are some cases where all parties do agree with the outcome. By definition “Fair” is that which is free from favoritism or self-interest or bias or deception; or conforming to established standards or rules. For me fairness is what makes good common sense. Back in the day, when someone would do something stupid, some wise elder would say something similar to, “he hasn't got the sense God gave little green apples” or “he just needs a little horse sense knocked into him.” As rational and logical citizens, we have some understanding as to what makes up common sense. Four years ago, I held the position of truck loader and unloader. I drove a 1985 Cutlass Supreme that barely ran. I also had a 2-year old Mazda that my ex-wife generally drove. Although the car note, registration, and insurance were in my name, I let her have that Mazda. She sold the car a year later and did not finish making the payments. Would it have been fair for me to have sold the car and split the little equity remaining leaving her and my child without a car? I believe that I acted fairly, although she reaped the benefit. My decision was not based on greed or emotions; it was based on “common sense.” I acted on what seemed reasonable. It was not fair for her to sell the car and not make payments on the vehicle. I was raised in The Church of God in Christ (www.cogic.org) and my religion teaches that I should always treat people fairly. On that note, there is a huge gap between Church and State. Let us really take a strong look at this…Once religion, whichever he or she practices, is removed from legislation and “The Law”, there may possibly be no boundaries to human behavior. Are we becoming a society without moral and ethical boundaries and at the same time developing laws which possibly send individuals to jail or even seize their homes? Where does it end? And you wonder why so many politicians fight hard to maintain this ever widening gap between Church and State. There are generally negative aspects of human existence that causes us not to be “fair” such as greed, hatred, voracity, lust, spite, nepotism, immorality, revenge, and even fear. Most religions teach us how to overcome these. Some of us believe that when our political system is not conducted fairly, that politicians benefit. As I listened to NPR last week, I heard of a report that expressed how a group of airline employees voted to take reductions in pay so that the airline would not go bankrupt. For those airline participants and stakeholders understood that this made good and logical common-sense. I have never heard of any group of politicians to have ever done the same.
Most Americans work for a living. Many of us live from paycheck to paycheck. Politicians work for their pay as well. Churches, hospitals, and the political and justice systems are all service organizations. They serve in different ways, but each has an objective that includes service. Some of these have adapted strong business practices. These business practices have made some individuals wealthy. Whenever there is a fusion of money making endeavors with service to The People, there is a strong likelihood that the main focus may be compromised.
“I’m going to rule in her favor so that I don’t upset…”
“His company gives a lot to my campaign…”
“Senator James is here so I am not going to say that…he is a strong contributor to our…”
“I know her dad, so I’m going to rule in her favor.”
“I’m getting a kickback from each Medicaid patient, so I’m voting yes on proposition 49.”
“I’m going to institute more harsh penalties on them, because I’m about to run for District Judge.”
Well, you get the point. What influence does the average American have in legislation? Can we truly impact the justice system? Why don’t we simply nominate and support individuals with common-sense as their focus? It’s almost impossible to convince a politician to sponsor bills and legislation that makes wholesome common-sense if she or he is already in office. Money is generally the only motivator…and you know what they say about money and root. Now, that is not fair. Family Law is really unfair, but what can motivate politicians to develop fair rules for Family Law? I am divorced with one child. Whenever my attorney conveys my argument (that seems to make common-sense), the judge in not impacted by this logical line of reasoning.
I recently read a column by Tresa McBee. She wrote about a professional basketball player whom was not forced to pay $25,000 (15% of his income) each month to the mother of his child. Situation: Steve has a child whom resides in Arkansas. Steve makes $61,000 per year and lives in New York City. For anyone making 60K in NYC is barely making it living in a studio apartment. For someone making 61K in Arkansas, they are living “high on the hog.” They both are forced to pay the same amount of child support and not considering what is in the best interest of the child. Here is a simple scenario…The custodial parent can simply give 80% (which is almost impossible to prove) of the tax-free money to a boyfriend and not be held accountable for this selfish act of immorality. Is this fair? Again, as a Christian, I have been taught to treat people fairly. Some fathers can’t pay their own living expenses due to the high costs of child support. Many women are getting paid multiple kings’ ransoms for having children out of wedlock. Again I ask you, why do so many politicians want to widen the gap between Church and State? We can all do this…Immediately checkout http://www.kyfathers.org/stories/anonymous3.htm and http://www.restonweb.com/community/restontalk/messages010525/7685.html. I went back to school as an adult to complete my degree in Computer Science. I have no aspirations nor time to fight the system…I just want to be treated fairly…and yourself?
© 2005 Eli El

Comments may be sent to: [email protected]
Eli El
303 N. Summit Ave. #3A
Gaithersburg, MD 20877-3169

Posted by: Eli | Jun 12, 2005 10:32:42 AM


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