An obituary for a magazine and for the capital it chronicled, which once prized evidence over ideology.
The physically and intellectually towering Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who held senior positions in the administrations of two Republican presidents and then represented New York as a Democratic senator for 24 years, had strong convictions. But he believed, above all, that government decisions must be grounded in empirical evidence, not in ideological preference. “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion,” Moynihan famously said, “but not to his own facts.”
I often thought Moynihan’s aphorism could have provided the mission statement for National Journal, the magazine where this column has appeared since 2007. The magazine is ending publication with this issue. Its closing says much about the evolving media business, but perhaps even more about how much Washington has changed since National Journal published its first issue on November 1, 1969.
From the start, National Journal provided in-depth coverage of national policy and politics for an audience primarily of Washington decision-makers—in Congress, the White House, Cabinet departments, and agencies—and the constellation of think tanks, media organizations, law firms, and lobbyists all around them.
When the magazine first appeared, the nation was wracked by divisions—over the Vietnam War, race relations, crime, the sexual revolution—comparable to the strains tearing at American life today. Partisan, generational, and regional conflict coursed through Washington itself. And yet amid all of those centrifugal currents, the nation’s political leaders came together far more than they do now, almost always across party lines, to address genuine problems. In National Journal’s first years, its reporters witnessed agreements between Republican President Richard Nixon and the Democratic Congress to extend the Voting Rights Act, end the military draft, provide 18-year-olds the vote, significantly strengthen the Clean Air Act, expand the national park system, and establish the Environmental Protection Agency.
Over the next two decades, the degree of conflict and cooperation between the parties oscillated. Yet Washington still consistently mediated the differences of our diverse society effectively enough to produce a series of landmark bipartisan agreements. In the 1980s, Democrats, including Moynihan, struck a deal with Ronald Reagan, the iconic Republican, to strengthen Social Security. In the 1990s, “New” Democrat Bill Clinton and the GOP-run Congress overhauled the welfare system.
National Journal was the ideal court chronicler for this extended era of bipartisan bargaining. Through these years it was led mostly by editor Richard Frank, a cinematically crusty newspaperman seemingly lifted from The Front Page, and publisher John Fox Sullivan, an ebullient networker who might have won election as the mayor of permanent Washington (and instead has become the mayor of Washington, Virginia, a tiny town nearby). They attracted a succession of top-tier journalists, many of whom later excelled at larger publications, including Dan Balz (The Washington Post), Robert Samuelson (Newsweek), Joel Havemann (Los Angeles Times), and Michael Gordon (The New York Times). I have worked here twice, covering the Reagan White House and national politics in the 1980s and again since 2007 as a columnist.
Although they might not have phrased it that way, Moynihan’s dictum about opinions and facts guided generations of National Journal reporters and editors. The magazine provided detailed and sophisticated analysis of the most complex policy choices Washington faced—what federal financial agencies were doing (or not) to regulate new financial schemes, say, or how the EPA’s cap-and-trade program for acid rain actually worked. The goal was to provide all sides a common vocabulary of facts and understanding that could facilitate debate, dialogue, and negotiation.
The product was far from perfect. It could become windy and insular. (I used to joke it was the only magazine in America whose subscription list and index almost completely overlapped.) Those flaws left it vulnerable when a new wave of nimble competitors covering the Washington scene emerged over the past decade. National Journal was also weakened by the declining relevance of the weekly magazine format in the 24-hour news-cycle era.
But mostly, I think the magazine’s position deteriorated because the market for its core product eroded as our political system has grown more rigidly partisan. Fewer elected officials now follow the sequence of gathering objective information and then reaching a decision; usually they follow ideological or partisan signals to reach decisions and then seek talking points to support them. With that change, Washington reporting has evolved further toward sports reporting that partisans consult mainly to see whether their side is “winning” each day’s competition. NJ could never entirely compete in that world.
No publication is entitled to permanent life, and National Journal magazine had a good run. (A daily newsletter and website will survive.) The real loss is the ideal it embodied: the belief that our collective choices should be based more on rigorous evidence than on partisan preferences. The political debate is now driven by antagonists who increasingly operate, despite Moynihan’s warning, not only with different opinions but also with different facts. The price of that change extends far beyond the demise of the worthy magazine that is publishing its last words today.