Yesterday I briefly mentioned Jeet Heer’s big piece for TNR about TNR’s legacy on racial matters. I’d been hearing about it quite a bit in informal conversations, but have now finally read it, and it’s a very useful overview that pulls few punches. I guess the circumstances of the recent rupture at TNR, when a mostly (though not exclusively) white male exodus left virtually no one from the Marty Peretz years, made it pretty easy for the new management and staff to ruthlessly examine “itself” without implicating itself. But it’s still a very good exercise, particularly with respect to the earlier years of TNR, where Heer had to do a lot of reading.
Heer suggests that in its early days TNR reflected but did not exceed the racism of white society generally (he didn’t mention, but might have, that Woodrow Wilson, a leader of the Democratic wing of the Progressive movement well into his White House days, was a virulent racist), but finally began to change during the Depression, and actually became a voice for racial progress as the civil rights era developed:
One could argue that between the late ’30s and the mid-’70s, The New Republic was one of the best magazines outside the black press in its coverage of the rise of the civil rights movement. Thomas Sancton, Sr., managing editor from 1942-1943, was a particularly radical advocate, holding FDR’s feet to the fire for his compromises with the Jim Crow South, and doing brave reporting on the Detroit race riots of 1943. Some of the best work from this period is enshrined in the Library of America’s two-volume Reporting Civil Rights, including Lucille B. Milner’s “Jim Crow in the Army” (1944) and Andrew Kopkind’s “Selma” (1965).
Then came the Peretz era, and it’s only a bit of an exaggeration to say that in Heer’s account editors and writers who fought Marty kept the magazine from too much in the way of dubious commentary on race, while those who didn’t fight him at all (especially Andrew Sullivan and the late Michael Kelly) allowed some embarrassing lapses to occur. But regardless of what was being said about race in the pages of TNR, there wasn’t much diversity among those producing it, reflecting, says Heer, Peretz’s strong preference for working with Ivy League white men.
I should mention that my own regular but less-than-intimate relationship with TNR from the middle of 2009 through 2012 as a frequent freelancer who was eventually signed on for a regular online column occurred after Peretz had sold his majority-share of the magazine and withdrew from editorial involvement, though for a while he continued to write the occasional incendiary blog post. I had more women as editors than men, and no one challenged my non-Ivy educational credentials (actually, Jonathan Chait once busted me for suggesting there was an Ivy test for working there). But in my infrequent visits to the TNR offices, I can’t say I ever encountered a person of color. So the airing of the magazine’s legacy on race is not just a matter of distant memory.