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Ultimate Outsider : Leftist and Fractious, the Nation Is Still Going Strong After 125 Years

December 28, 1990|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"When a new administration comes into power, there's a lot of talk about the adversarial press, but in fact the mainstream press generally takes its cue from the administration, not necessarily in agreeing with what they do, but they permit the national administration to set the agenda of what they're talking about. And frequently the political culture takes on the culture of the administration that's in power."

Meet Robert Sherrill, the Nation's corporations writer and White House correspondent during the Carter and Reagan years. Sherrill was distinguished in his post as White House correspondent by one curious fact:

He wasn't allowed in the White House.

"The reason was that the Secret Service said I was a physical threat to the President," Sherrill says.

Then he hoots.

Sherrill's security file included the fact that he'd gotten into fist fights with pesky bureaucrats in his earlier incarnation as a writer for the Texas Observer--not that the Secret Service told him that when it turned down his request for a White House press pass during the Johnson era. The American Civil Liberties Union ultimately took up his cause, and a federal court ruled on Sherrill's behalf.

"The fun thing about this was that when I was finally going to get a press pass, I never applied," Sherrill says. "I didn't want to be in the White House. I had been in Washington long enough to realize that was the last place to waste your time sitting around for some dumb (expletive) to give a press conference."

Sherrill is the ultimate outsider, journalistically speaking, which makes him the quintessential Nation writer.

"I think outsiders do have a lot more fun," he says. "You don't have to wear an intellectual tie, you don't have to wear an intellectual vest."

Later, Sherrill calls back a reporter to argue with his own assessment.

"I don't like to pretend that people who write for opinion magazines have any more integrity and bravery than the best reporters in the daily press. I think for the last 20 years, the best reporters in the daily press are right out there on the front lines doing as much or more to achieve the kind of reforms that the Nation wants as the Nation itself."

Witness another important dynamic at work at the Nation--the thrill of the fray. Sherrill has it. Navasky has it. The endlessly critical Nation likes nothing better than to take its own medicine.

Take the Susan Sontag Incident. It started with a rally at New York's Town Hall in the winter of 1982, celebrating the Solidarity movement in Poland. Gore Vidal was there. So was Pete Seeger. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. sang a Polish song to the tune of "Are You From Dixie?"

Sontag took the opportunity to take the left to task for being too uncritical of repression in communist countries. Here was the zinger: "Imagine, if you will," she said, "someone who read only the Reader's Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only the Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?"

Intellectually, all hell broke loose. The rally's organizer griped that Sontag had hijacked his rally because her remark grabbed the limelight. The now-defunct Soho News ran Sontag's speech with five pages of replies from intellectuals in the United States and Europe. The Nation itself ran a hall-of-mirrors-like package that included Sontag's speech, comments on her speech from several writers, and Sontag's comments on their comments.

Then, in a piece that spring in Harper's, Walter Goodman actually compared both magazines' coverage of the Soviet Union and huffily slapped Sontag on the wrist: "Particularly irksome to several of Sontag's critics was her reference to the Reader's Digest, a magazine nobody reads apart from its 30 million subscribers. For someone on the intellectual Left to utter a kind word about the Digest was stupefying; the magazine is not merely reaction, it is also lower middlebrow. It runs articles about pets."

Back to your corners.

Navasky didn't mind the brouhaha one bit: "The serious implication of her statement was that the left for many years had been reluctant to tell the truth about the Soviet Union, partly out of reasons of sentimental attachment, partly in response to the McCarthy period when everybody was bashing the Soviet Union, and partly out of moral blindness. So that's a position that is worth hearing and it's also worth contesting, particularly if you're affiliated with the magazine that is the target of it.

"And, of course, it was done gleefully by all the people who for whatever other reasons are happy to see the old mag embarrassed."

Needless to say, the critical magazine has its own share of critics. Among them is Joe Goulden, director of media analysis for Accuracy in Media, a right-of-center media watchdog group based in Washington.

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