The Death of The New Republic: Should Independents Care?

The media is a common discussion topic on this website, as it should be. Dissatisfaction with both the political system and the media landscape is entirely related.

Followers of IVN want “independent” politicians and media. But that word “independent” is ostentatious and vague, which makes it perfect for political ad campaigns for any party, anywhere (“Want independence from Western pigs? Vote Ba’ath!”) and used car dealerships during the 4th of July (“Celebrate your independence by signing this lease…”). 

Which brings to mind the curious case of The New Republic magazine. The D.C.-based magazine had recently turned 100 years old. It was a veritable institution of American journalism. That was, until nearly its entire staff and editorial board resigned en masse a couple weeks ago.

I won’t recap the events leading up to the insurrection. I’ll leave that to The Daily Beast (there are other good blow-by-blow accounts in New York magazine and The New Yorker). All I’ll say is that this is Exhibit B of evidence that Silicon Valley culture is incompatible with the work of actual journalism. 

The New Republic was a bastion of progressive politics –- to an extent. The magazine was founded by leading intellectuals of the early 20th-century Progressive Era, but as its leadership changed so did its politics.

Starting in the 1970s, particularly after Martin Peretz bought the magazine, it began to fashion itself as a “contrarian liberal,” which is a roundabout way of saying it steadily moved to the Right. It supported Reagan’s aggressive foreign policy against Communism in South America, including aiding the Contras, a right-wing militia group that most of the region, including non-Communists, considered to be a terrorist organization.

Particularly, the magazine radically shifted its stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict to give full-throated support to the former and essentially deny the personhood of the latter. The magazine also assumed and promoted bigoted caricatures of African-Americans and Latinos.

Peretz’s racism was given a huge soapbox (though it was initially denied to him by one of his editors, who he promptly fired and assumed his job).

TNR’s wavering politics may, superficially, appear to be the sign of a truly independent outlet. It took up unpredictable positions (except when it came to war -– the magazine has hardly seen a war it did not like) that upset both conservatives and progressives and was fickle in its endorsements of Republicans and Democrats.

For example, it endorsed the independent candidate for the 1980 presidential election, rejecting both the incumbent Jimmy Carter and the main challenger Ronald Reagan. 

Since its founding, TNR hardly ever made profits. Owning the magazine, at least financially, was always an act of charity, though it came with acknowledged prestige that pays dividends in a town that worships that kind of thing.

However, as TNR’s history shows, its business model means that the owner has near-dictatorial control on what the magazine reports and the positions it takes –- hardly a display of independence. Contrast that (fairly standard) ownership model with that of magazines like The Nation, the oldest weekly magazine in the United States, which is a nonprofit with no owner.

Everybody who works in The Nation “owns” the magazine, which means they answer to nobody and have full editorial freedom. Yet, unlike TNR, The Nation has been largely consistent with its politics; since it’s founding by Abolitionists, it has been considered to be the mainstream flagship of left-radical politics.

To be sure, TNR’s demise is not a foreboding sign of journalism’s apocalypse. The events leading up to its suicide had more to do with horrible management. But that’s the risk it ran with its un-independent business model.