I was tremendously lucky to get this interview and, as you’ll see below, it went very well. Mr. Lapham’s wonderful assistant Ann Gollin allotted a half-hour of his time but he let the conversation go on for nearly two hours, putting off a call to Dave Eggers in the process. I had a tremendous amount of material to work with (nearly 6,500 words) and had to edit it down to some 1,400 words for the MIL blog post. There was a lot of great stuff that I had to leave out, but I was pretty happy with the result.
UPDATE: The interview was picked up by Bookforum in their “Omnivore” section.
Few people in America today have as much experience in media as Lewis Lapham. From his start as a self-described “copy boy” at the San Francisco Chronicleon a summer break from Yale University, Lapham worked his way to the editor’s easy chair at Harper’s Magazine, a seat he held for nearly three decades. Since becoming editor emeritus in 2006 Lapham has, through his “The World in Time” radio show and Lapham’s Quarterly magazine, revisited his passion for history, which had originally led him to undertake a doctorate in the subject at the University of Cambridge.
At a lecture on June 2nd at the National Arts Clubin New York, Lapham fused his background in publishing and knowledge of history to deliver a compelling look “at the ever-changing role of the media”. Here he elaborates on the future of news, partisanship in the press and the art of blogging.
More Intelligent Life: Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002, you said “The media is hand in hand with the government.” That paper currently stands on the verge of bankruptcy. Would you like to see the government formalise its embrace of the media and offer subsidies to newspapers?
Lewis H. Lapham: No. We’ve never in this country had a really oppositional press. We did have at the turn of the 19th century when you had a very strong political division. There the newspapers were operated by political factions—there was the Whig paper, there was the Federalist paper, there was the Republican paper and they were strong in their opinions and very raucous in the insults that they would heap on the opposition. There were still those kinds of papers to some extent after the Civil War, but by the time we get up to the 20th century the big papers tend to be on the side of the status quo—whatever the status quo is—because they’re dependent on advertising. The newspaper comes up in the morning and all the advertising space is already blocked out and you fit the news columns around the advertisements.
MIL: Do you think the foundation model employed by Harper’s Magazine, Mother Jones and a handful of other niche magazines can work on a larger scale? Can it be expanded into the ailing newspaper industry?
LHL: I don’t think it can. The political implication is that it will be hard to maintain the notion of a classical democracy. I don’t know where we’ll get our common ground. There are people that only listen to Rush Limbaugh, there are people that read the Nation. I had a history teacher once at Yale who told me that the important thing about history is not what happened but what people believe happened. I talked to Arthur Schlesinger about that once and said that if you try to write history based on what was being reported in the papers at the time, you would be seriously misled. As a newspaper reporter at the [New York] Herald Tribune, I would go to a press conference, the mayor would give a statement and we all knew that the mayor was lying. If he was good at his job he would manage to deflect any questions. You were forced to write what the mayor said yesterday. That was the story. Whether or not what the mayor said was true… wasn’t your problem. [laughter]
MIL: I think back to that famous Thomas Jefferson quote: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” As someone who’s worked in a newsroom, do you see the implosion of the newspaper industry as a problem?
Click here to read the rest of the interview or make a comment.