Leftist Takes Over Columbia Journalism Review

, Sherrie Gossett, Leave a comment

In another case of a blogger breaking a story and establishment media following up on it, a blogger known only as “David M” reported on May 31 that “Victor Navasky, publisher, editorial director and apparently co-owner of iconic left wing journal The Nation, is running the Columbia Journalism Review; however, he is not on the masthead.”

To understand the politics of The Nation, consider that its writer Eric Alterman, in his book, What Liberal Media?, criticized the magazine for running columns by “longtime Stalinist communist Alexander Cockburn…” Alterman, a liberal himself, said that Cockburn’s writings were characterized by “unabashed hatred for both America and Israel, coupled with his ravings against such stalwart progressives as democratic socialist representative Bernie Sanders of Vermont and the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota…”

CJR Executive Editor Michael Hoyt told David M that he reports to Navasky, but that the latter’s role was mostly related to the business of CJR: “he hasn’t done much editorially. Most of his work has been on the business side.” By the time Editor & Publisher followed up on the story on June 1, Hoyt’s comments suggested Navasky had absolutely no editorial involvment. Hoyt said that, “It could give somebody an opportunity to make a connection, but the connection is not there. He doesn’t push anything editorially.”

Compare that to what Navasky told David M. “Asked if he has been providing any editorial direction to CJR, Navasky said that he feels free to provide editorial direction to anyone he wants, including the New York Times or anyone else.” Adding to the vagueness, Navasky told David M “I’m trying to help them out. I’m hoping to provide more editorial direction down the road, but I’m focused now on improving the finances.”

Not surprisingly, Navasky downplayed his role to the blogger and merely said he had been given the dean’s green light to do whatever needed to be done to help the magazine.

The responses from CJR and Navasky portray a casual and undefined relationship that has spanned some months. That contrasts with E&P’s reporting that CJR Executive Editor Michael Hoyt and CJR Publisher Evan Cornog report to Navasky, who in turn reports to Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism

CJR executive editor Michael Hoyt said in a phone conversation with David M: “I think he should be on the masthead as soon as possible.” I should think so. Apparently, it’s been decided (perhaps rather quickly) that Navasky will be termed “chairman” of the Columbia Journalism Review.

The Mediacrity blog, written by an anonymous “media insider,” howled over the lack of coverage of the news in the mainstream media. It also noted that it must be “just pure happenstance that CJR has completely ignored the controversy around The Nation’s payola pundit, Ian Williams, reported everywhere from this humble blog to Accuracy in Media and Front Page Magazine and Fox News? Williams worked for the UN as a ‘media trainer’ and writer while working for the UN¯a conflict of interest that has been abysmally handled by The Nation and Salon, which also runs Williams’ stuff.”

Apart from E&P and The New York Sun, there has been no coverage of the CJR-Navasky connection. One can imagine the broad coverage that would ensue would it be learned that some outspoken conservative was pulling the strings behind a major journalism’s school’s prime publication. Adding to the intrigue would be why was the relationship hidden from the public?

In a February article for the D.C. Examiner Laura Vanderkam, a contributing editor to Reader’s Digest, and member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors, took CJR to task over their hypocrisy. In “Hammered: How blogs are shattering the arrogance of the Columbia Journalism Review and why that’s good for journalism” Vanderkam rapped CJR for its double standard.

Among her points:

  • CJR labeled right-of-center Daily Oklahoman as the “Worst Newspaper in America” in 1999, partly because the paper had no liberal columnists. Yet Vanderkam’s search through the past few years’ CJRs yielded no discernibly conservative writers in its pages, either.
  • Vanderkam contrasts CJR’s question posed to Fox News in 1998: “Can a news network dominated by conservative hosts be genuinely ‘fair and balanced,’ particularly toward those on the left?” with their move in 1996 to send a regular contributor to The Nation to profile the conservative editorial page of The Wall St. Journal. Not surprisingly, the assessment was not favorable.
  • In 1996 CJR published a piece called “The Alar ‘Scare’ Was For Real” written by former American Journalism Review managing editor Elliot Negin. Negin criticized the notion that the Natural Resources Defense Council hyped the Alar chemical story. Vanderkam notes Negin was referred to as a “Washington D.C.-based writer.” CJR didn’t tell the public that at the time Negin himself was a writer for the National Resources Defense Council. It was a classic case of a news organization running PR disguised as news.

Ironically in 2004 CJR would follow the lead of the New York Times reports on video news releases and eviscerate the Bush administration for blurring the lines between public relations and news. On March 22, 2004 Zachary Roth wrote erroneously. “Nor, more importantly, does there seem to be a precedent for an administration making a VNR that includes a p.r. professional impersonating a reporter, and signing off “reporting from Washington.” As AIM has previously reported, the very same GAO report which the New York Times (and CJR) used as a springboard to criticize the Bush administration’s production of unlabeled VNRs included information on the Clinton administration’s production of a VNR on the very same subject (Medicare prescription drug benefit), using a former PR professional and political appointee Lovell Brigham as a “reporter.” It was hardly the sole incidence of Clinton-produced VNRs. The rest of the Roth piece, as most of the mainstream media’s reporting on the subject, is marred by a lack of historical context.

CJR, which bills itself as the nation’s premiere media monitor, should help media leaders understand why they are losing their audiences, Vanderkam contends. Instead, publisher Cornog penned a piece entitled “Let’s Blame the Readers” which advanced the notion that thanks to conservatives, Americans are no longer civic-minded, and this is why they dislike mainstream media. Says Vanderkam: “Prominent villains blamed for this decline include both Presidents Bush and, oddly, speechwriter Peggy Noonan.” That piece appeared in the January/February edition which also featured Corey Pein’s “Blog-Gate” article. Pein argued, to the disdain of bloggers, that blogs had not been instrumental in exposing CBS’s Memogate and that “liberals and their fellow travelers were outed like witches in Salem, while Bush’s defenders forged ahead, their affinities and possible motives largely unexamined.”

A current piece in CJR on the “Rise of Faith-Based News” by Assistant Editor Mariah Blake shows partly how Navasky may be helping CJR. The endnote states “Mariah Blake is an assistant editor at CJR. The magazine gratefully acknowledges support for her research from the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund.” Also in the current issue is an article on Sinclair Broadcasting, “Fox News’s cruder but equally zealous acolyte.”

If Navasky gets his wish to provide more editorial direction one may well ask what the results will be. In 1993 Navasky wrote a piece for CJR entitled “Degrees of Sleaze: The Trouble with Balanced Reporting.” In it he lamented the “neutrality” of the press as having contributed to New York Senator Al D’Amato’s 51-49 percent victory over Attorney General Robert Abrams. Referring the reporter’s required “narrative neutrality” Navasky asked “But what if this universally accepted convention has a hidden impact?” He contended “Mainstream journalists, who pride themselves on their noninvolvement and would be the first to declare their commitment to balance, fairness, and the ideal of objectivity, may have literally determined the outcome of the race they were reporting.” Their “narrative neutrality” withheld information that one candidate was worse than the other, Navasky complained, and journalists thereby “helped elect the ‘wrong’ man”¯“Senator Sleaze,” as Navasky referred to him. The “he-said, she-said” coverage reinforced and created an image of moral equivalence, he said. While it’s true that journalism is short on accurate and incisive analysis that puts together the “big picture” for citizens, one wonders, with Navasky’s commitment to The Nation, if any conservative would ever be the “right” candidate.

The critical differences between the candidates were blurred, he wrote, “not because the reporters fell down on the job, but because they did their job according to the rules of the game. Perhaps it’s time to have another look at the rules of the game.” At the Columbia Journalism Review, it’s likely Navasky will get the chance to do just that.

Sherrie Gossett is the Associate Editor of the AIM Report.

 

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