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The Media on Speed

The editor of the Nation talks about trying to navigate the 36/7 world of news.

| Thu Apr. 20, 2006 3:00 AM EDT

Then there are the little, unexpected things that arise. We publish a piece that outrages a corporation or a lobbyist, so we get a letter threatening libel action. That can take half a day. That's when you feel like you're in a political campaign because you're tamping something down. So your plans for that day are pffttttt. And then there's television. I did TV this Sunday, but if it's during the work week, I'll usually only do it at the end of the day or at 7:15 on one of the morning shows.

There are so many regular tasks. There's checking out the cover. Our production manager comes in every Wednesday and says, "Here's the final cover," but during the course of the week you decide what that cover and the headlines are going to be, which second, third, fourth stories to feature on it, and then you work it out with your cover designers. I'm also replying to one hundred or more emails in the course of a day. And then there's the Nation cruise, now entering its eighth year, which is an important part of our bottom line. Today, I literally sent a letter to Noam Chomsky asking if he would be on it, and I met with the woman who's kind of the in-house cruise director.

And then people just come through. I have a delegation of Spanish socialists passing through next week. Ben Cohen was in a few days ago to talk about his True Majority project and a sane defense budget. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, Jr., just called and I asked if he'd come talk to us at our weekly Thursday editorial meeting. Then I deal with my mother, who leaves me a voicemail almost every night because she stays up til three in the morning watching C-Span. She leaves me messages like [her already low voice drops to a breathy whisper]: "This man, this military lawyer, I can't remember his exact name, who's standing up for the rights of detainees, he makes me proud to be an American! I know I never say that…" [She laughs.] And I've got a 14 year old daughter who's a basketball fanatic. It's March Madness, and like any good American outfit, the Nation has its pool. Last night I watched the Duke-UConn women's semi-finals with Nika [her daughter Nicola]. And then there's the twice-a-year editorial board meeting this Friday and all the planning that goes into it. And tomorrow, I'll be introducing a Tom Hayden-Laura Flanders conversation at the Strand [book store]. So there's that piece of it.

TE: At least, I assume you're not having to spend too much time worrying about what's going to be in your next issue -- thanks to George Bush.

vanden Heuvel: No, absolutely not. We have a story meeting tomorrow. We often have too many things in the pipeline or planned out, but sometimes what's really important is the ability to rip up the magazine. Hurricane. New Orleans. That's obvious. There was a period of two or three weeks where we were just going with Katrina. Recently, on the other hand, we had Mike Davis on the aftermath of New Orleans and that had been in the works for quite a while.

TE: Multiply this by every day and your life must have that flooded feeling?

vanden Heuvel: Yes, but like you, I would hate to have work that wasn't meaningful, especially because these last years have been so devastating. Maybe this isn't the healthiest thing to say, but the ability to come to work and just be so engaged, maybe it allows me to suppress some of that personal emotion of devastation I might feel otherwise.

TE: Something I learned from Studs Terkel years ago was that action engenders hope. You can't be hopeful just by thinking or wishing, not in bad times anyway.

vanden Heuvel: I know that every day I have to be engaged here and sometimes what's frustrating is that you get so sidelined. One thing that truly frustrates me is sectarian disputes. They detract from the energy that should be going into the larger project. There's also a humbling quality to this job, because there's such an enormity to the outrages. Sometimes, trying to follow all of this closely, your head feels flooded. I'm following so many things and I find I know just a little bit about everything. It's like: How do you put it all together? It's like: When will people understand! Those are the thoughts that roll through your mind.

TE: Does the magazine feel like a hard-to-fit jigsaw puzzle each week?

vanden Heuvel: There is that quality sometimes: Where do you put it, what do you choose, what are we going to highlight? Then there are weeks when you feel like you've gotten it, or others when you know you've done something no other publication in America is going to do. Sometimes, though, frustration lies in the feeling that you just can't convey the enormity of, say, the Bush administration's unitary executive theory. How do you convey that no previous administration I know of has so openly, so brazenly, on so many fronts tried to subvert the Constitution, that what we're living through is a crisis that may bode the death knell of our democracy. Why aren't people jumping up and down? Anyway, that's where the quality of flooding hits and you just get overwhelmed. Then, throw in the Internet, which moves with such ferocious speed and allows for such quick interventions, it all just moves 36/7.

TE: That's a new phrase for me. My knowledge stops at 24/7…

vanden Heuvel: It's just that the Internet is expanding so exponentially that it's not even as confined as the 24/7 cable-media culture.

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