Two DARING DAMES give us a counter-history of US politics in “Hot Type,” a documentary by Academy Award-winning Barbara Kopple, narrated by editor Katrina vanden Heuvel. It brings to life the incredible 150-year history of The Nation, the oldest continuously published weekly magazine in the United States.
The film should make you feel guilty if you don’t have a subscription (I just re-upped!). Whether you’re liberal or conservative, you can’t ignore how many hidden abuses of power or travesties of social justice were overlooked or downplayed by mainstream media until The Nation’s dogged reporters or famous writers forced them into the American consciousness. The lie on which the Iraq war was launched was revealed early and often. George Will recently explained it away as due to “the momentum” that built toward war before the truth was known. The truth had been told several years before when George W. Bush pronounced his disastrous new euphemism for invading and occupying a sovereign nation: “regime change.”
Katrina Vanden Heuvel, the magazine’s first female editor in its century and a half of existence, nails the Iraq war as “the worst foreign policy disaster in American history.”
It was my great pleasure to work with Barbara Kopple when she asked to make a documentary of my book New Passages, my 1995 sequel to the original Passages in 1976. The film was eagerly produced by NBC tv’s Brandon Tartikoff, then president of the network’s entertainment division. Kopple found many celebrities and everyday women and men who recognized themselves in my theory that midlife today offers us the chance for a Second Adulthood.
One of the highlights of Kopple’s masterful film on The Nation is the way it connects the magazine’s current reporting on farmers in West Texas, their desiccated fields no longer able to grow crops or support cattle, and the Depression-era dustbowl of the Thirties. She finds groundbreaking written observations by famed photographer Margaret Bourke-White in the May 22, 1935 edition of The Nation. Today’s Nation reporter still stands in the dirt and takes notes by hand (not copied and pasted off social media). His story makes real the new underclass of farmers losing their livelihood because of global warming.
Kopple drives her camera through a contemporary dust storm to make the point that our country is always fighting some environmental battle.
In another poignant scene, Kopple shows us the tens of thousands of protestors outside Wisconsin’s Capitol in 2011 shouting “Kill the Bill” that would kill public-sector unions’ right to collective bargaining. It was the first time ever that right had been threatened. This scene brought a new far-right governor to national attention. Scott Walker was the poster boy for the Tea Party. He survived a recall election, slashed wages and benefits for state workers, while cutting taxes on companies. Today, of course, he is a GOP favorite among its swelling team of presidential contenders. Vanden Heuvel shows the iron resolve of the magazine. Losing a fight is only the beginning of a long campaign that may last decades. Governors come and go, like Presidents. But a magazine with a mission of truth lasts as long as supporters who trust it.
On a personal note, the film struck a chord because I am a long and grateful friend of Victor Navasky, perhaps the most visible and revered editor of The Nation in the magazine’s history. He lives just a few doors from me on the Upper West Side, and still keeps an office at the magazine, where he is consulted for his nuanced wisdom of historical events. (An aside: Vanden Heuvel was selected by Navasky as his successor, but was so intimidated by his reign that it took her a full year to move into his office.)
Katrina has also been a cherished friend since she hired my daughter Maura as an intern back in the 80s. The Nation is known for its highly selective internship, where only 12 applicants are picked out of a pool of more than 150, and thereafter coddled, worked hard, taught fact-checking and source-finding as they vet stories for accuracy, and where they make lifelong connections.
Many fall in love with the magazine and stay on to become major editorial voices themselves, while others move on to different journalistic endeavors. However, no one ever fully cuts ties with this institution.
Amy Wilentz, a former intern, did leave full employment at the magazine. But she’s shown tirelessly returning to the scene of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake to report on the thousands of survivors, subsisting in blanketed hovels, forgotten by the media and the world. A contributing editor to this day, Wilentz says of The Nation, “It wraps around you like an octopus.”
I hope the tentacles of this relentless journalistic animal will embrace many new and younger readers, once the film makes them aware of its gimlet eye on American politics. This is an exciting historical moment. An increasingly significant segment of Democrats trusts its populist voices, like Elizabeth Warren and now Bernie Sanders, both forcing Hillary Clinton to the left. She’s condemning mass incarceration and calling for an economic attack on the one percent. Mass movements are being launched in earnest to expose the roots of police brutality against blacks, combat the blindness of climate-deniers, challenge colleges to punish rape on campus.
More than ever, The Nation is a beacon of what’s next.