Kurt Andersen, host of Studio 360 on NPR, is a journalist and the author of the novels Hey Day, Turn of the Century, and The Real Thing. He has written and produced prime-time network television programs and pilots for NBC and ABC, and co-authored Loose Lips, an off-Broadway theatrical revue that had long runs in New York and Los Angeles. He is a regular columnist for New York Magazine, and contributes frequently to Vanity Fair. He is also a founder of Very Short List.
Andersen began his career in journalism at NBC's Today program and at Time, where he was an award-winning writer on politics and criminal justice and for eight years the magazine's architecture and design critic. Returning to Time in 1993 as editor-at-large, he wrote a weekly column on culture. And from 1996 through 1999 he was a staff writer and columnist for The New Yorker. He was a co-founder of Inside.com, editorial director of Colors magazine, and editor-in-chief of both New York and Spy magazines, the latter of which he also co-founded.
From 2004 through 2008 he wrote a column called "The Imperial City" for New York (one of which is included in The Best American Magazine Writing 2008). In 2008 Forbes. com named him one of The 25 Most Influential Liberals in the U.S. Media.Anderson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, and is a member of the boards of trustees of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Pratt Institute, and is currently Visionary in Residence at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He lives with his family in New York City.
Kurt Andersen: In terms of what one is doing now, it’s hard to remain humble and say, “Here’s the impact it’s having.” I would say that the impact in the 15 to 20 year retrospect that Spy magazine had is not insignificant; but it was part of a wave of irony and satire that __________ sort of generational wave of baby boomers growing up that softened the ground for all kinds of things; from _________ to "The Daily Show" that you see today, in a kind of general satirical impulse online and elsewhere.
I can’t quantify it, and I can’t say Spy exactly led to this. But it seems clear to me that we were one of the entities that softened up the ground for what became a kind of “satire explosion,” if you will, these days.
With Studio 360, it’s very odd to me that there’s no other program like it; a general show about art and culture on radio and television that deals with everything from "The Simpsons," to a Bill Viola work of art, to opera, to any bands, that sort of cultural panorama. That there is nothing else like that in America except what we’re doing is amazing to me, because you go to Europe and there are five shows like that only in the Netherlands.
So I hope that, in small ways, it’s having an impact in terms of suggesting that there’s a kind of a cultural conversation to have that isn’t limited to one little niche in the culture, but regards the whole culture as a panorama with dots that can be connected among them.
In small ways that’s an impact. And then again, to suggest that novels can really have an impact is hubris; however I probably wouldn’t write if I didn’t have some hubris. So I like to think that the tens of thousands of people who are reading this novel that I’ve written about the middle of the 19th Century will actually have their brains permanently re-wired to think about the middle of the 19th Century in a different way as a result of having read this book. To the degree that that’s true, that’s a hugely gratifying, albeit small, impact.
I think Spy magazine, not single-handedly, but helped changed journalism. We were doing Spy the same time that ______, as a reporter at the Times, was starting to do political reporting with a real sharp edge and sense of humor. And other people were doing that as well. "The David Letterman Show" was brand new, and that sensibility began morphing into journalism as well. So I think to the degree, to a lesser or a greater degree, a bit of satirical sensibility.
And _______ journalism, I think I’m partly responsible for that. In terms of magazines, we worked really hard. There were hundreds of hours of man and woman labor devoted to each page of that magazine. And so I think just on that level we sort of set the bar high for what magazines could be.
As I write columns and so on, I can’t say that they changed journalism at all; but trying to make sure that each thousand words or two thousand words that I put into the journalistic ________ are things that I would admire, and that I would be provoked by, and that I would find interesting and smart, it’s the best I can do.
I can’t point to an impact. I guess that’s for my survivors and people a hundred years from now to determine.
I would say my proudest achievements are my extremely happy and – seeming – and intelligent, kind children. Co-production with my wife. I would say that I’ve managed to have more than reasonably happy marriage or 25 years is an achievement. And I think the creation of Spy magazine I’m proud of. Very proud of. And I would say these two novels I’m written, I’m proud of. It’s a half a dozen proud achievements.
Well journalism faces a lot of challenges. I’m not sure that what are seen each day as the great challenges, the death of the newspaper, for instance, or it’s being supplanted by online media, is the greatest challenge.
There being a set of facts that we can all agree on is the great challenge of journalism, at least in the near median term. That journalism doesn’t entirely evolve to the left-wing version of facts, or the right-wing version of facts or the Islamic version of facts, and the Western version of facts. There will always be the left, the right, the different cultures, different sensibilities who have their own little journalistic silos of their version of the truth.
And while we can never get back – I’m not sure we went to get back – to the pre-Internet, pre-cable table version where there were three networks and New York Times, and they told us the truth from on high, I do think, and I do hope that we can maintain a shared sense of “here are the facts” and we here in some little place are engaged in a good faith search for the truth.
“The truth” as a thing has gotten a kind of bad reputation from various sides by virtue of various critiques over the last 30 years. But I still think that that is what needs to power and drive journalists. And I hope that the institutions that allowed that to happen in a robust way will figure out a way to maintain themselves, by whatever economic model.
Recorded On: July 5, 2007