Atlantic Editor On Acrimony In U.S.: 'I Have To Imagine That It Actually Gets Worse'

Oct 24, 2016
Originally published on October 24, 2016 12:54 pm

Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic's new editor, has had a long career as a reporter, covering Israel, Pakistan and Iran, and spending hours interviewing President Obama.

And recently, Goldberg pressed for his magazine to endorse Hillary Clinton for president. He said it was right, even though it's only the third time in its history The Atlantic has endorsed a presidential candidate.

"The Atlantic was founded by abolitionists in 1857 to bring about an end of slavery. It was not merely a non-racist magazine. It was an anti-racist magazine. It was about advancing the progressive American idea. It was about preserving the unity of the Union," Goldberg tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "And so if you look at some of the things that Donald Trump has said and done over the past year, these fly in the face of some core principles of the founders of The Atlantic."

Many newspapers and magazines have called Trump a threat to the republic. Trump has made the media his target, though he also has a media executive as his campaign CEO. All of this poses a challenge for the magazine and widely read website that Goldberg leads. He wants The Atlantic to appeal to a wide audience at a moment when Americans are exceedingly divided.

"We're entering a period in which a profound number of Americans are alienated from a profound number of other Americans, and that is unhealthy and that disturbs me," he says.


Interview Highlights

The election is about to happen, so it doesn't sound like you think this problem is going to end in November.

I can't imagine that millions of Trump voters — having watched him lose and possibly having him come out and say the election was rigged — I can't imagine that all of these millions of disaffected angry people are going to say, "Oh, well. Hillary Clinton won. I guess I gotta get behind her." I wish that — and that's a nonpartisan wish. I can't imagine that this goes away. I have to imagine, and I don't mean to sound overly pessimistic, but I have to imagine that it actually gets worse.

Maybe, though, this experience has been good in that problems and divisions have been exposed and we can talk about them?

It's good in the sense that people are allowed to express themselves and express their frustrations and anxieties and obviously much of the mainstream failed to understand A, what people are feeling and B, failed to come up with solutions that might allay some of these anxieties. On the other hand, the thing that I worry about the most is that we've had an election season and election rhetoric that's untethered from observable reality.

So you have a candidate now who says, "I didn't say X" when there's tape of him saying X, and that doesn't seem to affect his supporters. In the old model when you catch a candidate making an obvious lie that usually hurts the candidate even among that candidate's base. And so we've moved into a new phase of the way in which truth is understood in part of the American polity, and that's troubling.

On being one of the journalists named by the Anti-Defamation League who've been targeted the most with anti-Semitic tweets:

Well, I am glad that Nazis hate me. I consider that a compliment.

These are neo-Nazis. These are neo-Nazis on Twitter. And I'm inured to it in a kind of way because I wake up in the morning, and I open up Twitter and some days I'll have 100 messages all with basically the same theme, which is that I should be gassed and that my family should be put in the ovens. I'm inured to it, but I also think this is a challenge for Twitter in a way. I don't want to be on Twitter as much because I find it a little bit dispiriting to start my day with that kind of discourse. It doesn't scare me, but it just is dispiriting.

Was this happening to you two years ago or five years ago?

No, most of these are Trump supporters. I will say that very bluntly. And it's easy to tell because their avatars are advertising themselves as Trump supporters. And so I link this phenomenon to the rise of Trump-ism and I wish that the Trump campaign would make a definitive statement against this kind of neo-Nazi horror. But so far, I have not had satisfaction on that front.

Do you think Trump's a racist?

At the very least he traffics in racial invective knowingly. To me that's a threshold question. If you do that and if you know what you're doing then, yes, you're a racist. I think he's a racist.

To hear more of this interview, click on the audio button.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The new editor of The Atlantic has a long career as a reporter. Jeffrey Goldberg has reported from Israel, Pakistan and Iran. He has spent hours interviewing President Obama. And this year, he was involved in a decision. Goldberg pressed for his magazine to endorse Hillary Clinton for president. He said it was right, even though it's only the third time in its history that The Atlantic has endorsed a presidential candidate.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: The Atlantic was founded by abolitionists, in 1857, to bring about an end of slavery. It was not merely a non-racist magazine. It was an anti-racist magazine. It was about advancing the progressive American idea. It was about preserving the unity of the Union. And so if you look at some of the things that Donald Trump has said and done over the past year, these fly in the face of some core principles of the founders of The Atlantic.

INSKEEP: Jeffrey Goldberg's job is to push that venerable publication into an uncertain future. He came by our studios to talk at a strange moment for the media and for the country. Many newspapers and magazines have called Donald Trump a threat to the republic. Trump has made the media his target, though he also has a media executive as his campaign CEO. All of this poses a challenge for the magazine and widely read website that Jeffrey Goldberg will lead. He wants The Atlantic to appeal to a wide audience at a moment when Americans are exceedingly divided.

GOLDBERG: We're entering a period in which a profound number of Americans are alienated from a profound number of other Americans. And that is unhealthy. And that disturbs me.

INSKEEP: You just said entering a period, not ending a period. The election is about to happen - doesn't sound like you think this problem is going to end with the election.

GOLDBERG: I can't imagine that millions of Trump voters - having watched him lose and possibly having him come out and say the election was rigged - I can't imagine that all of these millions of disaffected, angry people are going to say, oh, well, Hillary Clinton won. I guess I got to get behind her. I wish that. And that's a nonpartisan wish. I can't imagine that this goes away. I have to imagine - and I don't mean to sound overly pessimistic. But I have to imagine that it actually gets worse.

INSKEEP: Is it possible that this experience has been good for everybody because problems and divisions have been exposed, and we can talk about them?

GOLDBERG: It's good in the sense that people are allowed to express themselves and express their frustrations and anxieties. And, obviously, much of the mainstream failed to understand, A, what people were feeling, and, B, failed to come up with solutions that might allay some of these anxieties. On the other hand, the thing that I worry about the most is that we've had an election season and election rhetoric that's untethered from observable reality.

So you have a candidate now who says, I didn't say X, when there's tape of him saying X. And that doesn't seem to affect his supporters. In the old model, when you catch a candidate making an obvious lie, that usually hurts the candidate - even among that candidate's base. And so we've moved into a new phase of the way in which truth is understood in part of the American polity, and that's troubling.

INSKEEP: So you were named Atlantic editor the other day. And I sent out a tweet about Jeffrey Goldberg being the editor of The Atlantic. And I got a bunch of tweets back - anti-Semitic. And they're, like, elaborate, with artwork and not just one or two...

GOLDBERG: Well, at least they're trying hard.

INSKEEP: ...Like a bunch. And then a few days later, the Anti-Defamation League puts out this list of journalists who've been targeted with thousands and thousands of anti-Semitic tweets. And you were in the top 10.

GOLDBERG: Right.

INSKEEP: What's that been like?

GOLDBERG: Well, I am glad that Nazis hate me. I consider that a compliment.

INSKEEP: And Nazi is the right word for the people who...

GOLDBERG: These are neo-Nazis. These are neo-Nazis on Twitter. And I'm inured to it, in a kind of way, because I wake up in the morning, and I open up Twitter. And some days, I'll have a hundred messages - all with basically the same theme, which is that I should be gassed or - and that my family should be put in the ovens.

I'm inured to it. But I also think this is a challenge for Twitter, in a way. I don't want to be on Twitter as much because I find it a little bit dispiriting to start my day with that kind of discourse. It doesn't scare me, but it just is dispiriting.

INSKEEP: Was this happening to you two years ago or five years ago?

GOLDBERG: No, most of these are Trump supporters. I will say that very bluntly. And it's easy to tell because their avatars are advertising themselves as Trump supporters. And so I link this phenomenon to the rise of Trump-ism. And I wish that the Trump campaign would make a definitive statement against this kind of neo-Nazi horror. But so far, I have not had satisfaction on that front.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking Trump can defend himself, and has, by saying he's the least racist person who's ever lived. His supporters can point out, correctly, he has a son-in-law who's Jewish.

GOLDBERG: Right.

INSKEEP: At the same time, he gave a speech the other day where he started talking about a conspiracy of international bankers. And he didn't say Jewish bankers...

GOLDBERG: That's a dog whistle.

INSKEEP: ...But you say certain things, and people hear them a certain way. Do you think he's a racist?

GOLDBERG: At the very least, he traffics in racial invective knowingly. To me, that's a threshold question. If you do that, and if you know what you're doing, then, yes, you're a racist. I think he's a racist. I go back to the incident with the judge...

INSKEEP: Judge Curiel.

GOLDBERG: Judge Curiel. The way Donald Trump spoke in that period was, to me, un-American and racist.

INSKEEP: This guy's a Mexican, as Trump labeled him, and, therefore, can't be here.

GOLDBERG: Yeah, this is the challenge in media, right? The challenge in media is, how do you call a thing by a name when that thing is, A, in the mainstream now but also an egregious thing? And I think we've had trouble catching up to the new reality. I think now people are having an easier time calling out lies as lies when they're issued. But I know that a lot of my colleagues have a problem using the term racist. And so we say, traffics in racial invective or, divides rather than unites and all sorts of euphemism. But I have to say that when you look at...

INSKEEP: Can you just say what he did and said without labeling it? Is that a way to get out of that?

GOLDBERG: I suppose it is. But there's something about clarity and directness that's useful in journalism.

INSKEEP: And it's a time when you need to say racist if it's racist, in your view.

GOLDBERG: Well, I think, personally, that people will be judged in coming years by how they reacted to these very novel and disturbing events of the past several months. And one of the reasons - I think one of the many reasons we wanted to endorse Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump - only the third time in our history of doing that - is we wanted to get on the right side.

We wanted to say, look, we did what we could. We're a magazine. We did what we could. We wrote about this in a direct way. And I'm proud of that. And I would rather not have regrets later on that I didn't say what I was thinking because it's impolite.

INSKEEP: Jeffrey Goldberg is the new editor of The Atlantic. Thanks for coming by.

GOLDBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.