Victor Navasky speaks on a life in journalism

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Yesterday, Victor Navasky ’54, the publisher of The Nation and former a former editor at the New York Times, spoke on his life in the world of political journalism. Though the lecture, sponsored by the Writing Program, was nominally about the writing process, Navasky mostly discussed the adventures and tribulations of his life.

Navasky founded a political satire magazine, Monocle, shortly after graduating from Swarthmore. He found immediately that “almost everything [in the magazine business] is a business rather than a literary decision.” He despaired at the need to publish regularly (instead of “when we have something to say”) and the intricacies of mass mailing. One thing, he found, was that any founder of a new magazine needs another source of income, in his case, freelancing articles. The way to freelance, he said, was to “sell everything three times,” making one research expedition into several articles.

While researching a book on Robert F. Kennedy’s attorney generalship, Navasky had a close encounter with the government. He was reading the papers of a Kennedy aide when he accidentally found some obscure memos by J. Edgar Hoover on the wire-tapping of Martin Luther King Jr.’s phone. Through some hard-to-get interviews, side trips from various other stories and some lucky favors, Navasky eventually unraveled the story, which was published in the Atlantic Monthly. “You have to piece a story together,” he said. He also related the pains of having an article severely cut by an editor, to less than half its original length.

Next, Navasky spoke of his years at the New York Times, where he was an editor, eventually of the Magazine and later the Book Review. He told of ethical dilemmas while interviewing subjects. Should he tell Elia Kazan the angle his book on the Hollywood blacklist was going to take? In the end, he did not. Did he prompt Hubert Humphrey to say “I think the new politics is just a phrase?” Well, sort of. He found that the “ability to tell the truth [in articles in the New York Times] is inversely proportional to your distance from West 43rd Street [the Times’s offices].” The atmosphere at the Times was difficult to navigate. Eventually, Navasky found that the only way to get articles approved for the magazine was if the daily version of the Times had already written about the story, because “if it hasn’t been written about in the Times, why is it worth writing about?”

Due to time limitations, Navasky barely discussed his work at The Nation. During the question session, he defended his magazine from charges that it “preaches to the choir.” First, he said, preaching to the choir is necessarily to educate said choir. Secondly, there is “more space between our columnists than between the Democratic and Republican parties.” Thirdly, “all publications are idealogical.”

Navasky’s new book, “A Matter of Opinion,” will be available next week.

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