Making money as a public trust

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

Andrew Montalenti comments on the fall of The New Republic:

Take note, journalistas. This is how your readers view your stuff — not as a “public trust”, “a voice”, or “a cause”, as TNR was described by the exiting editors in their resignation letter.

For better or worse, readers view your stuff as a product. And a product, to be bought, let alone used, needs to be useful.

I disagree with that view. It is possible to sustain oneself as a “public trust”, TNR simply refused to do so what was necessary. In terms of surviving as a public trust, many of the good examples right now come from right-leaning political organizations. The National Review provides an example, and so does Rush Limbaugh. I disagree with these people and organizations on most issues, but I think they do a good job of serving their base.

Let’s define “public trust” broadly, as anyone holding a public platform from which it is understood they hope to represent the views of a particular constituency. Rush Limbaugh does this, very profitably, and he provides several services that his constituency finds useful: encouragement, talking points, lines of defense for conservative principles, etc.

Though I disagree with Rush Limbaugh in almost all things, I do think he has demonstrated an awareness of holding a public trust. I’m thinking in particular of the time in 1993 when President Clinton worked out a budget deal that involved all stakeholders, trading some tax increases for some budget cuts. Allan Greenspan felt that this budget compromise was crucial to shore up the long-term health of the American economy. The conservative grass roots were implacable in their opposition to this deal, so Greenspan called Limbaugh and asked Limbaugh to promote the deal on his radio show. Limbaugh refused to do so, using the argument that he had no loyalty to the Republicans, but rather, his loyalty was to conservative principles and he had to be loyal to those faithful conservatives who listened to his show everyday. He felt that this budget deal was in violation of those principles. And, in my opinion, this is the correct way to defend a public trust.

How does The New Republic compare to Rush Limbaugh, in terms of respecting its public trust? Very badly.

Martin Peretz owned and ran the company from 1974 to 2012, and he refused to identify with the progressive movement that existed in the country during those 38 years. There was, for instance, the long standing conflict over his unwillingness to hire blacks and women. A simple Google search will reveal how many times he has been accused of racism and sexism. More so, he has often been overtly hostile to other magazines that are broadly part of the same progressive alliance that the TNR was nominally a part of of. Consider the tone of contempt that he uses to describe the TNR in 2013, after he has sold it:

The New Republic has abandoned its liberal but heterodox tradition and embraced a leftist outlook as predictable as that of Mother Jones or the Nation.

He might find Mother Jones and Nation predictable, but they are doing the hard work of finding an audience. I personally think the food sold by McDonalds is predictable, but that is exactly why McDonalds is profitable. Running a business, even in journalism, is not about having heterodox opinions, it is about offering a predictable service to a constituency that wants that service.

The phrase “heterodox tradition” is a nice way of saying that he did not want to be identified as a leftist. And that is fine, of course, for any individual — each person has a right to their own unique view of the world, and their own unique opinions. But is it a public trust if you refuse to identify with any particular constituency? If you denounce all of the known factions in your society, and you come up with your own unique opinions about things, then you are one guy with some unique opinions; you do not represent the views of any larger group, and therefore you have no constituency and you have no public trust.

Peretz is known to have supported a few Old Left concerns (labor issues) but he rejected most New Left concerns (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc), and he was fanatic in his defense of Israel. As an individual, he has a right to his unique opinions, but as an institution the TNR was adrift for a very long time — it was not conservative, and it also denounced the whole modern movement of the progressives. (There was a brief moment in the 1970s when members of the Old Left were looking for a way to justify the deregulation of the economy, and for this brief stretch, TNR operated as a public trust, representing a real public constituency which, for a brief time, had real power and was having a real debate about the future. This was the peak moment for the TNR under Peretz. It’s been coasting on its laurels ever since.)

How popular would Rush Limbaugh be if tomorrow he decided he was pro-abortion and pro-big-government? His fans would be angry, and he would lose most of his audience. And that is exactly what happened to the TNR over the last 30 years.

I am wary of this assertion as well:

If TNR wants to be a “liberalism’s central journal” contributing to the “promise of American life”, it had better live on the Internet.

Or maybe it should instead be on the radio, since radio has emerged as the platform where most Americans listen to political talk? This is true on both the left and the right: there is stuff like NPR for the left and stuff like Rush Limbaugh for the right.

Or we can conclude that all possible forms of media should be involved in the project. Older people, who have money and influence, still prefer paper, the younger crowd wants the Internet, and many busy people can only listen with their ears while they do something else, so they want radio. My mom loves MSNBC, and watches the political shows every night.

About this:

Liberalism’s central journal won’t be a journal and it won’t be central.

Centralism is something that tends to ebb and flow based on the strength of the movement. Again, Rush Limbaugh played the role of a centralizing force all during the 1990s, in the build up to the 2nd Bush administration, as he commanded an audience of 20 million.

As to the media, that also tends to rise and fall with other changes in society. Radio played a huge role in American politics during the 1930s, but then for a long time it died out. There was a time in the 1950s and 1960s when it was possible to think that television would replace radio, but the rise of the suburbs, and therefore long commutes to work, revived the radio as an important form of media, and set the stage for the big political mega-stars, like Limbaugh.

TNR did not die because it is printed on paper. TNR died because it systematically and deliberately broke all ties with any faction that might have been its constituency. In particular, during the last 40 or 50 years, women and racial minorities have become central to the progressive movement, but TNR ignored their concerns. There is a limit on how often you can express contempt for all possible customers, and then still have any customers. I believe that back in the 1950s and 1960s and even 1970s it operated as a real public trust, but it stopped doing so 30 years ago. For 30 years it operated as the personal journal of one guy who has an eccentric set of opinions that are completely out of touch with any of the larger political movements in the country. Again, he has a right to his own opinion, but the rest of us have a right to ignore him. His unwillingness to represent any political faction that exists in the USA today is what lead to the demise of TNR.

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