“I think journalism is our number one priority right now, in terms of the rehabilitation of our nation,” Hamilton Fish tells Robert Scheer in this week’s episode of KCRW’s “Scheer Intelligence.”
Fish would know: He is currently the publisher of the New Republic and the publisher and editor of The Washington Spectator. He also played a vital role in shaping The Nation magazine. Fish and Scheer delve into issues surrounding current progressive politics as well the future of journalism in America. Full interview below:
The two begin by discussing Fish’s political past and the culture shifts of the 1960s and ’70s, as well as how current educational institutions are producing a “risk-averse culture.” Scheer then asks him about conservative economic models and the failures of the Democratic Party to address economic inequality.
“I can’t really remember when a person running as a Democrat had something to offer,” Fish says, noting that he is a Democrat and has run for office as a Democrat in the past. “We’ve been defending a status quo for about 35 years, against what we describe as a reckless, irresponsible, increasingly partisan and sharp-edged ideological right-wing adversary, and we never really—truthfully, we never really countered their palaver with a viable vision for the American voters.”
The two then move on to discuss alternative media and the decline of local newspapers and radio stations across America. Fish argues that we should look at models in other countries that have succeeded “in insulating journalism, public media, from the partisan fray,” noting that the key is “transparency.”
Listen to the full interview and to past editions of “Scheer Intelligence” at KCRW.com
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Hamilton Fish. A very famous name in American history, but not mostly because of Mr. Fish’s achievements, although they are very substantial in their own terms, ah—
Hamilton Fish: Got a much more gracious introduction a minute ago.
RS: [Laughs] Hamilton Fish—[Laughs]—I can see this is going to be pretty loose. Hamilton Fish is, has really had a tremendous impact on journalism, seriously. He was the publisher of The Nation magazine, and the magazine hadn’t—you know, was a hundred-year-old magazine and had a storied history and published many famous people; but he brought it into a whole new phase, along with Victor Navasky and then Katrina vanden Heuvel, and The Nation became a very vital publication. And he deserves a great deal of credit. And he’s currently the publisher of The New Republic, a publication that was thought to be somewhat to the right of The Nation and also has its own storied history. In addition to that, he is the editor of The Washington Spectator, and the publisher. The reason I say it’s a famous name is one of his great—what is it, your great-great-grandfather, so forth?—signed the American Constitution, right?
HF: Ah, well, I’ll take it. But, ah, no, I think—
RS: Tell us about Ham Fish. I grew up having to read about him—
HF: Well, the name is, there’s a wonderful origin story. That Nicholas Fish was an 18th-century New Yorker, Columbia college student, whose closest friend was Alexander Hamilton, also a Columbia college student. Fish married the great-granddaughter of Peter Stuyvesant; that was the old Dutch mayor of the original New York. And they named their kid after his friend, Alexander. And so it was Hamilton Fish, and that’s where that began. But your point about the impact of that family and its tradition on American political life, and New York in particular, was my great-great-grandfather was the Secretary of State in Grant’s administration. I was introduced to him in a high school textbook by Richard Hofstadter, who described my great-great-grandfather as “the jewel on the head of a toad.”
RS: Jewel on the head of a toad—
HF: Which was a description of Grant’s cabinet.
RS: [Laughs] But another Hamilton Fish became a very conservative congressman—
HF: Right. So his grandson, who was also my grandfather, a very strident anti-communist in the 20th century, and a vigorous opponent of Roosevelt, arch-enemy of truth and justice, and generally a tough customer. But you know, also, kind of an epic figure; he was captain of an all-black regiment in World War I. For most of my childhood and early adulthood, he was the only living member of Walter Camp’s all-time All-American Football Team. Jim Thorpe was in the backfield on that team, so it wasn’t a bunch of slouches. He’d had a really legendary life, you know, throughout; born in 1888, shaped by culture and larger forces that you and I have only read about. I guess I would say he did not change with the time; he died at 100-plus, 103. His last breath was a tirade against communism.
RS: What year was that?
RS: So you knew him well.
HF: Very well. He, um—
RS: Did he think you were a horrible failure and a traitor?
HF: Um—well, I think that he was annoyed. I mean, he—
HF: He, ah, contributed financially to my opponent when I ran for Congress.
RS: Oh, you ran for Congress in his district, that’s right.
HF: Well, let’s not say it was his district; he hadn’t represented any portion of it for 40 years. But I think it was more the name, really, than the geography. I think he was frustrated by that. And at one point he called me a communist, which was a little hard to swallow.
RS: This was when you were running, or just—?
HF: Yeah, yeah.
RS: Oh, yeah.
HF: And it got around. And CNN went to talk to him about this and try to get him to sharpen his critique. And fortunately for me, he said, “Yeah, he’s just like those other communists, The Washington Post and Ted Kennedy.” [Laughter] So I got off the hook. And I got a lot of Jewish votes, because a lot of the members of the Jewish community in our district couldn’t understand why a grandfather wouldn’t support their grandson. And also, my opponent used to start our debates by saying things like, “You know, I spent the last several days trying to think of something I could say that would make Ham’s grandfather mad at me.” [Laughs]
RS: Ah. So, well, but you do come from kind of the old WASP establishment, right?
HF: Yeah, yeah.
RS: The fact is, you’ve been a, from my point of view, a very useful citizen of this republic. And you did it by breaking tradition, breaking what was expected from a certain class upbringing or a certain family upbringing. And I’d like to figure out how that happened so we can have it happen more often. You’re not the only one—one could argue that Franklin Delano Roosevelt broke with his class background; certainly, you mentioned Kennedy—certainly Teddy Kennedy went out of his way to break with that part of his background. So, the makings of Hamilton Fish, what are you, the eighth or something?
HF: The point that’s interesting to me that you’re making is that people are most often a creature of their own circumstance. And if you think of my adolescent, formative years, the sixties, I always was struck by the discovery that the day that Jack Kennedy died, top ten albums in the country, three of them were Peter, Paul, and Mary. The culture had already shifted in 1963. It would be impossible to grow up through those years—death of King and Kennedy, and the anti-war movement, and the Civil Rights Movement, and probably the most potent result of all those years, which was the emergence of the Women’s Movement—it would be impossible not to be affected by it. Also, I think our generation, to some degree, we’re denied the traditional path toward contributing to society, ’cause they weren’t really—they found it very difficult, the sixties generation, to get elected to office; they were usually thwarted. And whether it was a conscious decision or something that occurred naturally, they opted to contribute to the society that they lived in through another path, which generally took the form of a public-interest career. And, you know, we’ve seen the astonishing rise of all of these very significant, useful, public-interest enterprises in every field, whether it’s environment or education or women’s rights, or any of these areas; human rights. Some of the most important professional advocates in our culture in these areas don’t, they’re not in government; they work in the public interest sector. And that has largely been the area of my interest.
RS: Let me ask you about that. Because I think if we go back to the sixties, and you know, now it’s been mythologized beyond recognition. I always think the operative phrase then was: Don’t sell out. If I were to think of one thing that mattered. It cut across the music scene, the political scene, everything; there was a search for integrity. And whether you came from a ruling-class background like you did, or you came from a garment-worker background like I did, that still was uppermost in your mind—
HF: Mm-hmm. That’s really true.
RS:—how could you live a life of integrity.
HF: That’s really true. I mean, I think it’s still true. Not, I don’t mean for me specifically; I think in general, I think it’s a tension in people’s lives. Some people have no problem with this potential conflict, but I think for a lot of people the difficulty of not being tempted, of not spending your professional hours marketing frozen foods, or whatever it is that just doesn’t provide a great deal of value or personal satisfaction. And that generation moved away from that; they sought ways of self-sufficiency, being able to sustain their families and meet the obligations of citizenship generally. But through ways that also contained some degree of service to the community. I was struck when I went—I never went to reunions; I hated them at college; the only one I ever went to was mortifying. But I did get talked into going back to my fortieth college reunion, and only on the condition that I could organize the program. [Laughs]
RS: What college?
HF: At Harvard. And so, you know, so we had a very political—
RS: Were you a legacy Harvard person?
HF: Unfortunately, I have to agree to that. [Laughter] Acknowledge that observation. Nice of you to raise it. But the thing that came out of that reunion was that everybody got behind an initiative to band together and support socially useful initiatives that classmates were carrying out.
RS: What class were you in?
RS: Well, you’re a kid. I spoke at Harvard not that long ago about my previous book, The Great American Stickup, about the banking meltdown. And I raised this question, it was at the Kennedy Center, I didn’t—you know, my opening question was, how did this get to be such a den of inequity? That Harvard—
HF: The money culture. The money chase.
RS: It’s the money chase. So explain that to me. Because the Harvard I spoke at in ’68 [Laughs] when they were confronting McNamara and so forth, was you know, really an exciting place to be. I had my own suspicion of it, having gone to City College in New York, and all that. But it was really quite stimulating and exciting. And some people argue, well, but it was easy to get jobs if you dropped out and blah, blah, blah. But that wasn’t true for Harvard, because you could always get jobs when you graduate. But the fact is, people weren’t so greedy. It seems that Harvard and Stanford and, you know, these elite schools ended up teaching greed.
HF: Well, over 70 percent of the students in the graduating class, recent graduating classes at Harvard go into financial services.
HF: It’s an absolutely staggering, staggering statistic.
RS: It’s the end of the enlightened empire. [Laughs]
HF: Well, these are people who have had every advantage that this society can offer, and the best possible education. Harvard kids are—and these other elite schools—they’ve had these terrific educational opportunities, and these are institutions that have very little obligation. They have so much money that they’re not really accountable anywhere. There’s no real governmental oversight, there’s no boardroom, there are no advertisers—none of the usual forces of American life that shape institutions are prevalent. They basically can do what they want, and their franchise, their only franchise, is to find ways of advancing our society. Whether it’s intractable problems of public education, or vexing challenges of trying to solve our public health dilemmas, addressing ways of producing a more equitable tax system—these are the people who are best trained to devote themselves to these difficult tasks and to come up with original solutions that are ones that we can adopt in our political process and to the benefit of the larger population. But instead, because of this obsession with these endowments and the conservative, behaviorally conservative response that naturally occurs when you’re trying to protect a formation of capital, you just get a very risk-averse culture.
RS: You’ve spent a lot of time schmoozing with influential people. And I don’t mean that in a negative way; I think you’re a great observer of power. You’re kind of the living C. Wright Mills; C. Wright Mills did it from an armchair looking at texts, you’re actually out there. One thing you have to do is raise money for alternative media; you’ve been the publisher of a great hundred-year-old publication, The Nation, that you helped keep alive by raising money. You’re now trying to keep The New Republic alive. You’ve been indispensable in raising not only money, but leading, providing leadership; I’m not going to just talk about you as a fundraiser. But you know, providing inspirational leadership. And I mean this very sincerely; I’ve known you for the longest time, and you’re one of the really great ones. So let me just put that out there. So I’m not baiting you at all. But the fact of the matter is, we’re not talking about—you know, I can understand—the kid comes from Ohio, and his parents, you know, are engineers and working, or working on the assembly line; they got into Harvard ’cause they’re real smart. Yeah, and they want to give something back to their family and community, and you know, help them. I understand all that. And I understand trying to get a good job; hey, I make a living and I try to have a good job and I’m still working at an advanced age. I’m talking about greed.
RS: Greed. And I don’t want to drop that word. Because again, it’s not a question—sure, you want to develop interesting mathematical models. I did it at one point myself when I was a graduate student in economics; that’s fine, it’s a nice puzzle, nice to figure out. But when you apply it to people’s homes and you turn it into a way of swindling them out of their homes and their life savings—
HF: Of course. Of course you’re right, of course you’re right.
RS:—I mean, that—that’s evil.
HF: Of course you’re right. On the other hand—and it’s putting me in this welcome position of being the counter to your passionate perspective—I have to tell you, these people are in many instances educated to the virtues of greed. They come back—
RS: Ah. OK—that’s it.
HF: They come back from this experience actually arguing that it is to the larger social benefit if they are able to increase their wealth and way beyond the needs of, you know, the most extravagant lifestyle. And you end up in these mind-numbing arguments with people who’ve basically drunk that Kool-Aid.
RS: Let’s talk about that Kool-Aid. Because I must say, out of this last election, most of the people I know are angrier with Vladimir Putin, by far, than they are with Hillary Clinton. And yet clearly, in my mind, it’s Hillary Clinton that blew what should have been an obvious victory. One, she shouldn’t have run against Bernie Sanders if she couldn’t make the populist message which Bernie Sanders was making. So we were left with right-wing populism and Donald Trump. And secondly, if you’re going to defeat Bernie Sanders, at least take up his major message that had so excited people, and be a populist. And then this, the Putin-bashing comes in—well, how did we learn, we shouldn’t have learned about her speeches to Goldman Sachs. And yet I can’t imagine teaching a course about modern American political history without reading the speeches that she gave to Goldman Sachs, which only came to us by however they were leaked. And what she says in those speeches goes to what I think is the headline coming out of this discussion we’re having. Educated to the virtues of greed. And when I read HIllary Clinton’s narrative, the phony stuff about the Children’s Defense Fund—I don’t want to go into a whole thing about Hillary here. But the fact is, it’s a belief in a meritocracy that has deceived us. OK? The best and the most virtuous don’t succeed. And the people who can manipulate most effectively do.
HF: They’re all lottery winners, these people.
RS: Yeah, but after all of this stuff, all of what had to happen—and we’re talking about the Federal Reserve study showing black and brown people lost 70 percent of their wealth, not their income, their wealth—college-educated black and brown—I mean, it was a reversal of so much of the Civil Rights Movement and everything. And then you say, the virtues of greed—and you go to Goldman Sachs. Whether you’re being taped or not, whether it’s going to be made public or not, I would expect Hillary Clinton in those speeches to have taken them to task! She didn’t really need their money; she was the anointed candidate of the party. How could that happen? And she not only doesn’t take them to task, in those speeches that we weren’t supposed to read—and which is now blamed for her loss in the election somehow, that and her private email account, which she says is so unfair—but in those speeches, she not only doesn’t take them to task, she says we need you smart people to come down to Washington to fix the problem.
HF: So when Trump wins, he makes the same phone call.
RS: Oh, we expect that. We expect that, yes.
HF: Look, we live in, for better or worse, we live in this capitalist society. There are unbearable distortions that are part of our everyday reality. I have to say, I would go back before Hillary Clinton. I mean, I can’t really remember when a person running as a democrat had something to offer.
RS: That’s a pretty bold statement.
RS: I think George McGovern had a great deal to offer.
HF: I mean, that’s—OK, so, I wouldn’t have gone back that far—
RS: Oh, that’s right, you were only, you were a college kid—
HF:—I mean, I think that—and I don’t only think about the president; I mean, I think about the whole political culture. We’ve—I say “we”; I’m a democrat, and tried to get elected as a democrat—but we’ve been in this position of defending a status quo for about 35 years against what we describe as a reckless, irresponsible, increasingly partisan, sharp-edged, ideological, right-wing adversary. And we never really, truthfully, we never countered their palaver with a viable vision for the American voters. And we haven’t really given them a reason to proudly come forward and say, “I’m a democrat, I’m backing a doctrine of fairness, supporting a policy of job creation and balanced taxation, distribution of public services, that every American can get behind and benefit from.” Look at the numbers. I mean, when I was a kid, everybody was supportive of the measures that the Democratic Party had provided in the middle and the latter part of the 20th century. And now you’d have to, in most communities in this country you’d have to—outside of California and New York—you’d have to really search pretty aggressively to find a people who shared that view. That shift is underway, like it or not.
RS: Let me take a break, which I have to do. I’m talking to Hamilton Fish, who has been the publisher of The Nation, is now the publisher of The New Republic magazine, and has been a major force in American journalism in keeping a progressive alternative alive in the media. And really, one of the key figures in the health, survival and the healthiness to the extent it exists, of the progressive media the last 40 years or so. [Omission] So let me shift the topic a little bit and ask, what is the future of journalism? And I know you—my own view is the model of journalism is broken, and no one has a way of putting it back. And it’s basically not a conspiracy, it’s the result of technology and the growth of the Internet. And the fact of the matter is, when I worked at the LA Times for 29 years, they could run a pretty good paper based on advertising, ’cause the advertisers had no choice; if they—maybe they could go to broadcast, but print was a pretty good way of displaying your car ads and everything else. And that’s the only way they could find their readers. And what happens on the Internet now is you get your readers any way you want. Once you find out they’re New York Times readers of a certain affluence, you can find them on Yelp, you can find them in all sorts of places, and targeted advertising frees the advertisers from traditional sources of any content. The model is broken. And then we have alternative media; thanks to the Internet, as long as there’s net neutrality, we can still reach significant numbers of people, you know?
HF: You should take a bow on the great achievements of the award-winning Truthdig, which you brought into the world.
RS: Right. Yeah, and I believe we all have to give the college try, and we have to be out there doing it, and I applaud what you’re doing, and I’m certainly trying to do it myself.
HF: Well, nobody misses the kind of journalism that you’re talking about more than the residents of the mid-sized American city that’s lost its newspaper. Whatever low esteem they may have held for that newspaper, the fact that there is nobody minding the store as a general cultural proposition, has created a rising alarm throughout this country. And it’s not satisfied by a national NPR daily broadcast; it’s not, at this point, satisfied by some of the valiant little digital startups that have cropped up in some of the voids that have been created by the loss of these papers. But when you don’t know who’s giving money to your city councilman, and you don’t know how much, and you don’t know what they’re doing with that money, and they don’t worry about taking the money ’cause they’re not fearful of anybody finding out—everything collapses. And that’s a broad prescription for a democratic decline. So, yeah, I think journalism is our number one priority right now in terms of the rehabilitation of our nation. I think people are coming around to this perspective; I think they’ve seen the value of it, and they broadly have missed it. There’s also a generation that has benefited from this Internet phenomenon. People who used to sit with their coffee and read the paper in the morning are now downloading four or five sources in a 45-minute period that they’ve curated themselves, and they come away with a pretty good grounding in facts and commentary on domestic and foreign news by the time they get to the workplace.
RS: Agreed. Agreed. There’s definitely a bright side as well as a despairing, concerning side to the Internet. But let me say, when we talk about actually covering—and this is what you’ve done. I’m talking to Hamilton Fish, who’s trying to keep reporters in the field. He’s trying to get people to get plane tickets and be able to go to, you know, where there’s a civil rights disturbance or where there’s a miscarriage of justice or where there’s war or so forth. I mean, that’s what publishers do, and the better ones try to actually pay—
HF: You and I have both employed the apostle of that old-fashioned virtue, which is Chris Hedges, who tells all of this emerging journalism students to get out from behind the desk and in front of the computer and get out into the field and report the story. Interview the people who were witnesses, and go to the police blotter, and find out what happened.
RS: And the fact of the matter is, that requires resources. In some sense, it’s compensated by, yes, on the Internet you can get some of these records yourself; we can all become reporters, and citizen journalists and so forth. But the fact of the matter is, this Fourth—ah, First Amendment; the Fourth Amendment, forget—the First Amendment to the Constitution was written to protect freedom at a time when the individual voice could matter. You could get up in the town square and be the town crier, something one of your distant relatives would have known about, you know. And you could get some printer to publish your little publication and be Tom Paine, right, and have this great document out there and reach people. Right now, the game is terribly rigged, because money can control everything.
HF: We need new models. I’m very interested in introducing your readers, your listeners, people generally who are anxious about the current decline in American journalism, to the general idea of journalism as a public good. There are countries where governments underwrite independent journalism. Interestingly, those are the most democratic countries; cross-analyze the amount of public funding for journalism with the countries that are ranked the highest on the scale of the measurement of democratic values and democratic institutions, you’ll find that they’re the same country. So I mean, I know that even to this day, every time there’s a hint of a liberal perspective on NPR, there’s some Southern senator who winces and calls his staff person and starts getting a bill ready to defund public media. But they have succeeded in those countries in insulating journalism, public media, from the partisan fray. And they do this through transparency; interesting paradox. We have models. We’ve always pounded our chests about the First Amendment and about the great American Fourth Estate. But the truth is, other countries produce as good if not better journalism than we do, all over the world. And that’s not just limited to journalism; it’s true of other social institutions. We have a lot to learn from the successes of our neighbors and our allies and some of our opponents. And I think in the spirit of the globalism of the day, we should steal freely from the success that other countries have demonstrated.
RS: This system that we have, which is unique in that it’s so explicitly governed by a constitution, and it’s so explicitly to be judged by its responsiveness to the voters; how you pick the voters is a somewhat different issue. And it seems to me at the heart of that experiment was that if you ever got too big, if you ever became an empire, if you got involved in foreign mischief, you didn’t have a chance. That’s what they took from studying Greece and Rome and then the, you know, what happened to Spain and France and England—after all, they revolted against one of the most enlightened countries by the standards of the time, right? England—and that had already had its Magna Carta, and had restraints and so forth. And it seems to me the wisdom of the founders—and as I say, family members of yours were in their peer group or among them—it seems to me for all of their failings they had one bit of wisdom, which is if some public, however you define the public, couldn’t hold the powerful accountable, it would always go awry in really frightening ways. That was their explanation of what happened in England. That the checks were not sufficient because basically the people were not empowered. And it seems to me key to that was, don’t have the foreign expansion; don’t have the constant war; don’t have greed be rampant, and develop some alternative basis of loyalty to those you’re supposed to be governing. This is what Confucius dealt with, it’s what Aristotle dealt with; it’s always been the key issue in trying to have sanity in the ordering of human affairs: how do you remain accountable to the people who are being governed, OK, so that you’re not screwing over these people. And somehow, and we began by discussing the failure of elite education and the meritocracy; we talked a little bit about what happened to liberals. But the saving graces of society was the assumption that people of power could also be held accountable or hold themselves accountable. The power would not be allowed to just corrupt them. And that’s been lost. And we just went through an election in which the greediest guy in the country gets to be president because, amazingly enough, he’s able to cast himself as a populist—Donald Trump—and amazingly enough, the media did not actually support any serious alternative or critique of that. So I ask you: How in the face of this can one really think this hope of a sane, stable, de Tocqueville hope of a democratic society with an ever-increasing group of stakeholders, could succeed? It seems to me we are in that sense at the darkest moment in American history. Is that not the case?
HF: De Tocqueville did also share your sense of importance of maturity of journalism and the prevalence of journalism, and remarked on how much a function of this new emerging society journalism had become. And it does provide a measure of accountability that you don’t get when, as we currently see, you have a republican Congress and a republican Senate and a rogue executive, and no one with any especial enthusiasm in the republican ranks to hold this executive accountable, even in the short few months of this obscene presidency. I guess I think, maybe wishfully, that there is this pendulum of history, and that this society is strong enough so that when the acts and the policies of the present figures in power seem wanting to an electorate, it does go on a national level to vote every two years; that they’ll be skeptical of providing these people with continuing occupancy in these jobs, and that they’ll vote them out and vote in a replacement. It’s not a very stable political system, but you know, with all the concerns that we have about how vulnerable people are to the exploitation of huge amounts of money, and the way in which information is distorted, and the way in which they’re being entertained to death, and the reference that you just made about when things go bad domestically these figures go into these foreign adventures in order to distract people and to drum up patriotism—with all of that, it’s still dynamic, it’s still complex, it’s still resilient; it has a pretty good system in place that for all of its weaknesses is capable of reinvention. If I had to predict, I think voters will decide that what they’re currently being fed is not appetizing, and they’ll quite eagerly and enthusiastically look elsewhere.
RS: Well. Good college try, Ham Fish. [Laughs] I applaud, I applaud your effort to find a bright spot here. Ah, that’s Ham Fish, the publisher of The New Republic, former publisher of The Nation, so he’s moved over a bit. And ah, this has been another edition of Scheer Intelligence. My producers are Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. Our great engineers at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. We’re particularly grateful that we could do these recordings in the wake of the Berkeley, or the Bay Area Book Festival, where Ham was participating at a great event, I think now finished its third year, and we were able to use the facilities of Sports Byline and its leader Darren Peck, who has made this all possible. So see you next week.