Ethics Matter: A Conversation with Writer Kurt Andersen

October 30, 2013


JAMES TRAUB: Thank you so much for being here. I'm so delighted to be here with Kurt Andersen.

Kurt and I first met about 30 years ago. At the time, Kurt was the architecture critic for Time magazine. Then he went on to be the co-founder of Spy magazine, one of the great magazine sensations of the era. Then he went on to be the editor of New York magazine. Then he went on to be a kind of media entrepreneur. Then he wrote—has written—three novels. Then he created a radio program, Studio 360, which is a tremendously successful show that I'm sure many of you have heard on NPR.

So Kurt is—

KURT ANDERSEN: Unable to keep a job.

JAMES TRAUB: He is protean, was the word I was looking for. As Lena Dunham wants to be, Kurt is, if not the, certainly a voice of our generation.

KURT ANDERSEN: And I keep my clothes on most of the time.

JAMES TRAUB: That's the show we haven't seen yet.

Kurt, thanks so much for being here.

KURT ANDERSEN: My pleasure.


JAMES TRAUB: Something that you and I have talked about in the past is that so many people from our mini-generation—we were born in 1954—who are old enough to have been deeply shaped by the 1960s and that sense of the imperative of doing justice, but too young to really have been part of the 1960s, and therefore were witnesses to it, became journalists. Could you talk a little bit about how, if at all, that shaped the fact that that's what you chose to do?

KURT ANDERSEN: Sure. I think that's exactly right. I've often thought, thinking about generations and what they mean and generational cohorts, that this sub-cohort, the younger half of the Baby Boomers, are in so many ways distinctly different in these ways you're describing—this youthful commitment to justice—than our immediate elders.

As a high school student, I was writing what I imagined, in Omaha, Nebraska, in the early 1970s, were truth-telling editorials and columns in the high school newspaper—

JAMES TRAUB: Were you the editor of the school paper?

KURT ANDERSEN: I was not the editor. I was one of the editors—one of my first of many failures.

It was the late 1960s and early 1970s, and indeed I thought I was doing justice in saying that we live in a racist community because there are no black people in this high school of 2,200 and so forth.

JAMES TRAUB: It needs to be pointed out that Kurt didn't go to the highly integrated high school in Omaha, which was full of black people.

KURT ANDERSEN: Because I didn't live near it. But it wasn't a choice, exactly.

Nevertheless, yes, I had that sense, that writing was something that could expose injustice, absolutely. I was the Nebraska high school coordinator for George McGovern's campaign in 1971. I imagined—

JAMES TRAUB: You put him over the top.

KURT ANDERSEN: Well, he won Nebraska, and he, unfortunately, won the nomination, in retrospect.

So that's who I was. I went to college imagining myself as a young leftie. But then, as you know, by the time we got to college, the anti-war movement was winding down, because the war was winding down. The draft had effectively ended, and the next era had begun.

The key moment for me, although I still certainly, academically, wrote a left wing honors thesis and everything—I had nevertheless made this decision, and it was a very clear decision—early on in my college career, am I going to write for The Harvard Crimson or am I going to write for the Harvard Lampoon? I chose the Lampoon, both because it was 1973 instead of 1968 and because I decided that's more who I am than somebody who would have written for The Harvard Crimson. That form of truth-telling was more my cup of tea than the more earnest kind.

JAMES TRAUB: In a more satirical sense, a kind of more distant take on the world, as opposed to the kind of more angry, emotional, direct throttling the world by the collar.

KURT ANDERSEN: Something like that, yes.

JAMES TRAUB: Was Time magazine your first journalistic employer?

KURT ANDERSEN: No. My first job was writing for the Today show, actually, writing for Gene Shalit, who people of a certain age will remember. It was a great first job. He enabled me to publish my first book. It was a fantastic apprenticeship. Then I wrote for Time magazine after that.

JAMES TRAUB: At Time, your brief was much more culture and aesthetics.

KURT ANDERSEN: No, actually. Originally, I, being uppity, thought, I'm going to come here and they're going to make me a critic. They said, "No. You're going to write about national affairs and crime and politics." And that's what I did for the first two or three years I was there.

JAMES TRAUB: Was that a good apprenticeship?

KURT ANDERSEN: Fantastic apprenticeship. It was at a time when it was still—there was no uncertainty about its future and the future of magazines or anything else. And it was trying to become great. It had a series of great editors that really wanted it to be more consequential than it had been. It was a fantastic time to work there and a great apprenticeship.

JAMES TRAUB: It must be hard for you to explain to your two daughters that Time magazine occupied such an incredibly powerful place in the culture, not a million years ago, but when you were writing for it.

KURT ANDERSEN: Explaining to my children that the subways didn't used to be air-conditioned—all the versions of the 19th century that I feel as though I inhabited—sure.

JAMES TRAUB: Do you ever talk about savings passbooks?

KURT ANDERSEN: No. That even seems old to me, Jim.

So I did that for a few years, and then they allowed me to be the architecture and design critic. Then my fellow Time, Inc., friend Graydon Carter and I decided to start this magazine.

JAMES TRAUB: Let me ask you about Spy. Many of you may remember it. I wrote for Kurt at Spy. That's more or less when we first met. It really was a tremendously important magazine.

Talk a little bit about the kind of balance between ironic, detached amusement—kind of lampoonishness—and social criticism, or whatever that heavier thing is.

KURT ANDERSEN: The way we understood it and invented it was that it wasn't just going to be a humor magazine, like humor pieces in The New Yorker writ large. It was going to be this alloy of journalism, investigative journalism in many cases, and a humorous, satirical take on the subjects, mostly—almost entirely. We decided we were going to call a spade a spade in all areas and upset people on the left and the right, and upset various centers of power.

I'll tell you what my children wouldn't understand if I tried to tell them today: the degree to which, for instance, The New York Times was not reported upon, that people did not say boo about this incredibly powerful institution, because it was The New York Times. "Why would you criticize The New York Times?" So we decided, well, there's a thing we can do that nobody else is doing, for instance, and other centers of power. Our motto that we invented before we even had a magazine was "Smart, fun, funny, fearless." And that really was what we tried to do, and sometimes succeeded and sometimes didn't.

JAMES TRAUB: Did Spy have an ideological coloration, or it tried to locate itself outside of all that?

KURT ANDERSEN: We didn't have an ideological coloration. I mean, we were all bien pensant (right-thinking) New Yorkers and believed the right things, but we, for instance, took great pleasure, as wasn't done much then, in going after, say, the Kennedys and the Kennedy mafia with as much relish as we tried to turn Donald Trump into a figure of fun.

JAMES TRAUB: God knows, you succeeded in that permanently.

Should we say that there was something about that age that cried out for mockery, and therefore Spy was its moment?

KURT ANDERSEN: I think that was its moment, and I think there was something about the post-1960s moment. There was a sort of—not that we were Yippies in any way, but part of the antiestablishmentarianism, antiestablishment feeling of the 1960s, produced the National Lampoon and Spy and David Letterman and all of this kind of irony-industrial complex.

JAMES TRAUB: Because you were undermining institutions as well.

KURT ANDERSEN: Yes, yes. So we had this—we, who started it—we had an audience of people who had grown up in a time when mocking one's elders and betters and superiors and establishment was a thing one did. We just took it in this direction rather than trying to do anything important or consequential.

JAMES TRAUB: There were times when people said Spy magazine is taking a hammer to defenseless bunnies or something—

KURT ANDERSEN: Once or twice.

JAMES TRAUB: Were there cases where you felt then or you feel in retrospect that that kind of spirit of gleeful going after people led you astray?

KURT ANDERSEN: You know, a couple of times. And I don't think we would have been doing our job if we hadn't done that a couple of times, probably. To go close to the line and take those risks—inevitably you're going to go over the line sometimes.

However, I will say that we were very careful—so much of what we were doing was, "Oh, should we really do that? Is this person or this thing that they did really so terrible? Are we doing overkill?" That was a constant conversation that we had in the office, to people's great surprise. It wasn't just, oh, let it rip, without thinking.

And it was a monthly magazine, kids. There used to be monthly magazines. We had time to try to get it right and to consider: "Should we do this? Should we not do this? Should this be a little thing rather than a big thing?" As opposed to the 24/7 Internet, where if you have this snarky take on life, you have to do that 10 times a day, every day. We had, I think, the great luxury of firing muskets instead of machine guns.

JAMES TRAUB: Did you get successfully sued by anybody?


JAMES TRAUB: Did you get unsuccessfully sued?

KURT ANDERSEN: I always knocked on wood. No, we never got successfully sued.

JAMES TRAUB: I think you got unsuccessfully sued a lot.

KURT ANDERSEN: No, we never got unsuccessfully sued.

JAMES TRAUB: Really? What was wrong with those people?

KURT ANDERSEN: The one that came closest—and it was a very serious letter from Gore Vidal's lawyer—we had this whole cover story about feuds, and we had sort of a sidebar on him and his litigiousness. He threatened to sue us for calling him litigious, which was fantastic.

JAMES TRAUB: Did you write back and say, "Make my day"?

KURT ANDERSEN: Well, no. I subsequently, many years later—a few years before he died—had a conversation with him and said, "Wasn't that kind of ironic?" He said, "No, I don't believe it was ironic at all."

So there was that. There were other moments of ethical—character-building moments. In one case I remember we were offered essentially money, a lot of advertising, from somebody who didn't want the story that was being reported on them published.

JAMES TRAUB: Is there some reason you don't want to say who that person is?

KURT ANDERSEN: Oh, no. It was Ron Perelman.

JAMES TRAUB: Oh, so much better. I mean, god knows, we don't want to be protecting Ron Perelman.

KURT ANDERSEN: Then there was another time when we didn't know that somebody we were doing a big piece about was best friends with one of our largest advertisers, which was Guess jeans, and that eliminated that advertising.

So it was a daunting operation to not smash the bunnies or the undeserving little people and to try to be stalwart as we were burning bridges—or as we thought we were burning bridges.

JAMES TRAUB: Apparently not.

KURT ANDERSEN: Not as many as we imagined.

JAMES TRAUB: So then you went on to New York magazine. New York magazine, obviously, that's a big, powerful machine. It's not counterculture. It's the culture. Did you do that just because it was a great offer, and who in the world would say no to such a great offer?

KURT ANDERSEN: And I thought that I could do something—it had been a great magazine, and I thought I could make it a great magazine in a new way. No, it wasn't—I didn't go directly from Spy to it. I returned to Time for a year or two. It just seemed like a fantastic job, to get this beautiful—I thought at the time that somebody was going to give me this beautiful old—25-year-old—townhouse and I could renovate it as I wished.

JAMES TRAUB: Had you been a big-time New York reader in the Clay Felker era?

KURT ANDERSEN: I had. In fact, one of the many jobs I applied for out of college and never heard back from was trying to get a job at New York magazine. It was one of those magazine-defining creations for me. It was an entirely exciting thing.

Again, I worked at Time. I started this magazine. It was a weekly magazine. I thought I could do this.

JAMES TRAUB: Did you feel like you were able to carry out your vision?

KURT ANDERSEN: For the two years and eight months I was permitted to carry out my vision, I thought it was pretty good, yes.

JAMES TRAUB: You also ran afoul of the boss.

KURT ANDERSEN: I did run afoul—well, not of the boss.

JAMES TRAUB: The owner.

KURT ANDERSEN: Of the owner.


KURT ANDERSEN: The bosses said, "Pay no attention to the owner."

JAMES TRAUB: The owner is Henry Kravis.

KURT ANDERSEN: "We'll take care of that. You're doing great. Do what you're doing. Here's a raise."

"Great," I thought. And Mr. Kravis had me over to breakfast and said, "You know, you really shouldn't be covering Wall Street anymore in New York magazine." I said, "It's New York magazine. I mean, it kind of has to sometimes cover Wall Street, sir."

Our breakfast ended pleasantly, it seemed, but—

JAMES TRAUB: Was he an intimidating presence? Is he a formidable presence?


JAMES TRAUB: Especially when he owns your magazine.

KURT ANDERSEN: Yes. But again, the interesting, kind of complicated ethical set of issues there was that my actual boss and bosses were saying, "No, no, no, no. We're your bosses. He's just this big investor in the company. Don't pay any attention"—until they decided that they had to pay attention.

JAMES TRAUB: Was it a specific article or was it just the accumulation of writing about his friends?

KURT ANDERSEN: It's a good question. I don't know. Only he and God know that, I suppose. We had run a cover story about Felix Rohatyn and Steven Rattner that was, I guess—

JAMES TRAUB: They were rivals of each other.

KURT ANDERSEN: Yes, and that, I know, was inconvenient for them. And, this may or may not have had an impact, but for the story, it's good: The week before I was fired—it was during the 1996 presidential election—we ran a picture of newly nominated Bob Dole on the cover with his eyes closed. It was a real photograph. It was just a photograph of Bob Dole with his eyes closed. I don't know if I knew at the time, but Henry Kravis was his national finance chair. So that may not have gone over well.

JAMES TRAUB: In case he was looking for the right pretext, maybe that's what he found it in.

So I know there's a little interval, but you then began writing fiction.

KURT ANDERSEN: I did—no interval at all. I thought, "Okay, I've always wanted to write novels, as half the journalists in America have always wanted to write novels, and now I've got essentially a year's severance. I've just turned 40, and it's now or never."

JAMES TRAUB: All your novels are historical novels.

KURT ANDERSEN: Well, no. No, the first novel [Turn of the Century] was set in the near future. The second one [Heyday] is definitely an historical novel, set in the 19th century. The most recent one [True Believers] is—I guess it's an historical novel, but it's set half in the present day and half in 1968.

JAMES TRAUB: When you think of yourself now as a novelist—I know this is an artificial distinction between the kind of imaginative calling and then the social critique residual of it—do you still think of yourself in the journalistic sense of, I've got this thing that I want to say, and the most powerful way to say it is through fiction?

KURT ANDERSEN: No. I don't begin with, "I have this idea and I'm going to stick it in the mouths of these fictional characters in this fictional story." No, not at all.

It is a real distinction, actually. It's not an artificial distinction. Sentences are sentences and paragraphs are paragraphs, sure, but, at least for me, the basic germinal motivations are quite different.

But again, as I was thinking about the three novels I've published so far, they all—"When have I ever written about ethics?" I thought when you asked me to do this. Then I thought, well, the first one is about the sort of ambient, inherent immorality that exists in much of American business, and the main character does something grotesquely unethical in order to discover that his wife has not betrayed him. The second one is about, among other things, the great impulse in the middle of the 19th century to create utopian communes—

JAMES TRAUB: And it's set in 1848, the great revolutionary moment.

KURT ANDERSEN: Correct. The last one, the one I published last year, is about young people in 1968 who believe that in order to stop this immoral war, violence is in order to do so.

Looked at that way, I suddenly thought, "Huh, I guess I am," as you said at the beginning, "still interested in these subjects of morality and immorality," even though I never begin them with that notion.

JAMES TRAUB: The third one especially, which is called True Believers, which fairly recently came out in paperback and which is really a wonderful novel—and I urge you all to read it—kind of loops back to what we were talking about in the beginning, because at least some aspect of it, I assume, is trying to think your way into something that seems unfathomable, which is to say this young woman who comes very close to committing a terrible act, in a way that exposes—

KURT ANDERSEN: Good avoiding of that spoiler—

JAMES TRAUB: —in a way that shows its inevitability to her. It seems unfathomable to us from the outside. She's driven to it in a way that is completely—to her, seems unavoidable.

KURT ANDERSEN: And she's a person like us.

JAMES TRAUB: Like us, right. So in a way, I thought this was kind of a way of trying to think through the 1960s, how is it that this extremeness came to seem obligatory to a whole generation of people?

KURT ANDERSEN: Absolutely. I was 13 and 14 in 1968—as you say, a witness, a kind of marveling witness, to older siblings and the rest of the world going nuts in the various ways it was going nuts. But I had never thought it through from the point of view of somebody more or less like me who would have found themselves in this vortex of extremity, of the extremity of this war, of her friends potentially being drafted to fight in the war, of all of it—and being raised as this kind of good Catholic liberal girl who had to do the right thing in life.

So, yes, thinking that through—I mean, those moments are pretty rare in history, in countries and cultures where ordinary people are driven to extremes. That was really interesting to me, since we certainly haven't had such a thing since.

JAMES TRAUB: I want to come back to this, because, in a certain way, there's a right wing extreme moment that we're in. But I want to come back to that, because I don't want to forget about the last piece of your career.

Studio 360 just seems to me like it must be the most fun thing in the world for you to do.


JAMES TRAUB: Just talk about that a little bit.

KURT ANDERSEN: It's a weekly show on public radio. Ordinarily people say, "You're on NPR [National Public Radio]," and I have come to the point where I say, "Yeah, I'm on NPR." It's not NPR, for a variety of byzantine reasons, but it is on public radio in 180 cities or something. It's one hour a week about culture, generally, design, films, novels, music.

JAMES TRAUB: Basically, whatever interests Kurt.

KURT ANDERSEN: Well, in the cultural realm. It's me and my team of mini-me's—yes, exactly—talking to authors and commissioning pieces about works of art. That's what it is. It's a highly produced hour a week, a kind of magazine show about culture. It's now by far the longest gig I have ever had.

JAMES TRAUB: How long now?

KURT ANDERSEN: It went on the air nationally in 2001.

JAMES TRAUB: Wow, 12 years.

KURT ANDERSEN: Correct. It's tremendous fun. Because I already had my book writing, writerly life going, I was able to create this job as mostly done in the afternoon. It's a great complementary thing for me personally.

It's the greatest fun on earth. The dirty little secret is that hosting a radio show is so much easier than writing. Yes, you read the books; you think about them. You research the person; you think of questions. But then you're done. Somebody else has to edit the tape and put in music and all that stuff. And I've gotten to spend an hour with Norman Mailer or Susan Sontag. That I will not quit on. It is a dream job.

JAMES TRAUB: And you don't have Henry Kravis to report to on this one.

KURT ANDERSEN: No, I don't. I have good bosses and a set of institutions that are on the side of the angels in almost every way imaginable.

JAMES TRAUB: There are a few more things I wanted to talk about, just kind of your view of things now.

To go back to True Believers, it struck me when reading it that this style, this particular American style, of purity, naïveté, self-righteousness, extremeness, excusing yourself in advance, feels a lot like the moment we're in in terms of the right. It's striking that the Tea Party—first of all, they're grown-ups. The people you were writing about had the excuse that they are 19, 20 years old. You now find these left gestures, styles of thinking, extremism among adults.

KURT ANDERSEN: Absolutely. In fact, I have the narrator of True Believers say at one point she wonders if the Tea Party types, the ones of her age, are in some measure people who didn't go crazy like she and her friends did in 1968 and are just now getting it out before they die.

It is remarkably that way. The other day, I thought of an alternative history. Okay, what if in 1970 and 1972, 39 New Left congress people had been elected and had shut down the government if the war didn't end right then? How would that have worked out?

It is in so many ways that, except, as you say, they're not kids.

JAMES TRAUB: And, to go to your point, the left never had political power. They had all this blackmail power, moral power, etc.

KURT ANDERSEN: Street power.

JAMES TRAUB: But I take it that it says something about this country that at that left moment, it was kind of unimaginable to actually have people like that in a position of formal political power, whereas you now, whether symmetrical or not, people on the far right who have extraordinary formal political power.

KURT ANDERSEN: Correct. What's interesting is that, in succession, I would argue, the left was successful in so many ways. If you took a person from the left in 1970 and said, "Okay, we're going to have an African-American president, Vietnam won the war, marijuana is legal, abortion is legal," and just go down the list, it's like, "Whoa, I guess it worked out okay, 40 years later."

Similarly—or not similarly—weirdly ("somethingly"), now, the right, starting around 1980, was successful. We are all Reaganites now. We are all free-marketers now. Now they are overreaching in a way, arguably, that the remnants of the left overreached during the 1970s—

JAMES TRAUB: A hopeful thought.

KURT ANDERSEN:—before the Democratic Party was Clintonized.

JAMES TRAUB: But aren't conservatives still, to some extent, relitigating the 1960s, the sense of who owns the culture?

KURT ANDERSEN: Yes, that's true.

JAMES TRAUB: So in that sense, because the 1960s, in that cultural sense, did win, that's profoundly, I think, insulting to people—

KURT ANDERSEN: They won in the cultural sense. They lost in the economic sense. Or, as I argued (and made people unhappy) in The New York Times last summer, basically they are flip sides of the same coin.

Extreme liberty won starting in the late 1960s. People who wanted to make money any way they could and as much as they could—they won that right, just as people who wanted to get high and sleep with whomever they wanted won that right.

JAMES TRAUB: It's libertarian on both sides.


JAMES TRAUB: Cultural libertarian versus economic libertarian, and that's the point of fusion, in effect.

KURT ANDERSEN: Yes, and it was a kind of unspoken grand bargain. You get to make a lot of money and increase inequality; we get to live as we want.

JAMES TRAUB: Is the moral one draws from that that the kind of social democrat—if you asked any of us when we were young persons, "What are you?" you would say, "Socialist," up to a certain point, then you got a response like, "I'm a social democrat"—that that's actually a fantasy because this is a country where liberty is so fundamental to the way almost everybody thinks?

KURT ANDERSEN: I think that's arguable. We'll find out. We'll find out soon enough. I have thought now for five or ten years that the financial crisis in 2008-2009 was going to wake people up, that that was close enough to the abyss; that the dysfunctionalism of the health care system, I thought some years ago, was so great that people were going to wake up. Not yet. It may be that liberty and a certain amount of chaos is so part of the American desire that that's where we are.

JAMES TRAUB: How do you think Obama is going to be thought about? Right now, not just the left, but liberals have such an overwhelming sense of disappointment with where we are now. Do you think that's just short-term thinking and people will recognize that this guy actually made a big difference?

KURT ANDERSEN: I don't think he will be thought of in 25 years as one of the greatest presidents of our time. I don't think he will be thought of as one of the worst. Again, depending on your political point of view, you could say, well, he could have been a great president if he didn't have these crazy people running the Republican Party. And there's some truth in that.

JAMES TRAUB: Is that the fundamental question? Would he have been what everybody hoped he would be, but it turned out he ran into an intractable opposition? Or would you say, actually, no, it turns out that he wasn't quite what we thought he was?

KURT ANDERSEN: I don't have that sense of disillusionment and loss. I never thought he was the great left hope. I always thought he was the sensible centrist that I believe he is. So that sense of disillusion I never had.

Again, the idea that the president of the United States, apart from foreign affairs and national security, has much power is a great fallacy of thinking in general. The president doesn't have much power—hasn't, doesn't, period.

JAMES TRAUB: And you would have said that if somebody were asking you about this six or seven years ago, because now that has been brought home so powerfully?

KURT ANDERSEN: It's just true.

JAMES TRAUB: You would have said that in any case.

KURT ANDERSEN: It's just true. The fact that we elected this smart, steady, wise-seeming African American to be president, I believe, will be his greatest—

JAMES TRAUB: The fact of his being elected, the fact of his face, in effect, this black face put on America.

KURT ANDERSEN: Yes. And again, I am still in the tank for Barack Obama. I can give you all the things I believe he has done wrong, tactically, strategically, otherwise. God knows, his stock in the Kurt Andersen quotient the last month has dropped precipitously, as perhaps for all of us, given this health care debacle, as Kathleen Sebelius said today. But, yes, I think he is—to the degree we want a president or a mayor of New York, which we're about to have, who kind of symbolizes a better idea of ourselves—

JAMES TRAUB: An incarnational figure, as opposed to what he does.


JAMES TRAUB: Just like Kennedy in that sense. Kennedy, in the end—how much did he change policy-wise? Not that much. Incarnationally, a hugely important figure.

KURT ANDERSEN: Exactly right.

JAMES TRAUB: Let me ask you one more thing and then I want to turn it over to the audience. Could you talk at all about what you're doing now?

KURT ANDERSEN: Sure. I am doing my radio program. I am working on a nonfiction book about some of what we've talked about. It began as this very specific thing about America's inclination toward various kinds of magical thinking and fantasy thinking, and how has become the shortest history of the United States of America ever. Anyway, I'm working on a nonfiction book about that—

JAMES TRAUB: But it's a historical book?

KURT ANDERSEN: Yes, in the last 20 years, the last 50 years, but as I follow the threads, the last 400 years.

So that, and I have this TV show that I shan't speak on this stage about. It would be a historical drama that I'm trying to get made. But it's show business, so like all show business, I discount it to zero. But I very much would like it to happen.

JAMES TRAUB: Excellent. Kurt, thank you so much. That was just great.


QUESTION: I'm Tom Herman, for The Wall Street Journal Sunday.

Kurt, have you ever had to make any decisions, like the one when Ron Perelman was threatening to remove ads—could you tell us what you have—

KURT ANDERSEN: He wanted to give us ads. Just to be clear, he wanted to give us ads.

QUESTIONER: What happened, then? And have you faced any other ethical decisions where you had to stand firm in the face of business pressures?

KURT ANDERSEN: Yes. One of the reasons I'm happy not to be running anything like Spy or New York magazine or the other things I've run is the absence of exactly those kinds of choices, which, in lesser ways, less spectacular ways than those, come up, I think, often, certainly in the jobs I had, where you're creating a publication and you also have to figure out ways to pay for it. Inevitably, those are—I think inevitably—going to be in tension sometimes.

But they're not even worth mentioning. It's, "Oh, this advertiser wants you not to run this story until they're no longer running their ads." Those kinds of things are what editors, I think, have to deal with all the time.

When I was a writer at Time magazine, a couple of times I faced those. When I made fun of Cadillac once, somebody said, "Cadillac? GM? No, you can't do that." I was young, I had just started, and I said, "Okay."

But then a few years later, when I was older and had my wits about me, and I was then making fun, in a piece I was writing, of Ted Turner—"Ted Turner, he's part of Time-Warner. You can't"—I said, "Yes, I can." They said, "You're really going to?" And I said, "Yes, I am." They were sort of embarrassed to have asked me not to. We went ahead and did it.

Certainly anybody in the position of running a media business faces those kinds of dilemmas, small and large, all the time. I don't think it's just me.

JAMES TRAUB: I guess one of the nice things about your public radio program is that it's not going to filter down to you because, even though it's sponsored, it's not advertising—

KURT ANDERSEN: No. I am more corrupt than they. You want me to show up at your store? Sure. It is one of its beauties.

QUESTION: My name is Eddie Mandhry, with New York University Africa House.

My question is essentially to find out what comes to mind when you hear the name Snowden. Are there certain ethical implications in terms of the media houses that are presiding over the steady drip of intelligence information?

KURT ANDERSEN: That's a great question. First of all, I think Edward Snowden should be Time's Person of the Year. For there to have been an individual to have more ongoing effect of consequence than he, I can't remember when that has taken place—certainly as somebody who isn't a political leader. So that's one thing I think.

Then there are the questions—and I've thought a lot about this—of Snowden versus Bradley Manning and the different ethical matrices in which they respectively existed and did what they did.

I guess the short answer to what I think of Edward Snowden is, I'm glad he did it, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't be prosecuted.

JAMES TRAUB: That's interesting. Do you think what he ought to have done was face the music, basically?

KURT ANDERSEN: Ought to have done? He's dealing with his life. Who am I to say what he ought to have done? I don't know what he ought to have done.

I'm not saying what he should have done. I'm saying that I think the United States government has no choice but to attempt to prosecute him. Do I hope he gets away? Maybe. Do I think he should go to jail for years and years? No. But I think that just because what he has done may be—may be—more good than bad in its effects, that doesn't mean," Okay, fine, you're a hero; we're going to let you go." I think whistleblowers—whatever version of that he is—people who do those things need to understand that a price will be paid.

JAMES TRAUB: But it is interesting how, I think, the opinion on him has shifted. The initial response from the elite class was, this is beyond the pale. The more he has affected the world we live in, the more stuff that has come out, the more invaluable the revelations now feel like.

KURT ANDERSEN: Yes. And again, unlike, say, Bradley Manning, it wasn't this gigantic, indiscriminate dump. He had the wisdom to choose to deal with The Guardian as opposed to WikiLeaks. So there are all kinds of differences.

But the opinion I just said has been my opinion, for better or worse, from the beginning.

QUESTION: Justin Kosllyn.

When you're setting up a magazine or a radio station, you're not just creating an institution; you're creating a whole community. I guess I'm curious how the design of the institution affects the design of the community and essentially the entire culture at large. What are the lessons that you think should be learned as we think about creating a more powerful mainstream pragmatic community in America today?

KURT ANDERSEN: Those are a lot of questions.

JAMES TRAUB: That got big right at the end there. That got really big.

KURT ANDERSEN: I don't know how to make America better. I do think, however, that at least the institutions I have been involved with, when they work best, are benign cults, I would say. I think successful organizations, at least when they're beginning—and I've never been at one longer, as I said, that at this radio show, now 12 years old—need a kind of cultish, missionary zeal.

Now, "cult" has a bad odor. But I think, whether it's Apple computers or the 2008 Obama campaign, they're all cultish, in what I think are important ways, which is to say people understand the mission, they don't backbite very much, it's all for the good of the cause. As creepy as that may sound, I think that's important.

Then, of course, it should be benignly managed and operated.

Actually, one of the conclusions I've come to from things I've managed is—and it connects to what I just said, I guess—don't complain about a thing. Either fix it or your situation within it, or leave. Don't be a whiny complainer within a thing. That I would extend to America at large—not love it or leave it, but enough with pointless whiny complaints just to hear yourself whine and complain.

QUESTION: Anthony Faillace. I'm a Carnegie trustee.

I'm going to ask this question not having had the benefit of having read the article that you wrote in The New York Times about the grand bargain. It's a topic I'm absolutely fascinated by. My friends will tell you I've prattled on about this for about five years.

My question to you is, does that bargain get pulled back in any meaningful way? And if so, what are the events that would lead to people realizing that maybe there is an excess of individualism, both in the social sphere of the 1960s and the economic sphere of the 1980s? How does that get unwound? It has been tremendously beneficial to the top 10 or 15 percent of the population, because they have benefited, not just in the economic sphere, but also in the social sphere, because they have a different set of resources to deal with it.

KURT ANDERSEN: It has been beneficial, however, to gay people and women and all kinds of people.

QUESTIONER: No question. There's a range of things that came from that. But I'm just curious. Does this get peeled back at all or is it so deeply embedded that it would take some kind of crisis?

KURT ANDERSEN: That deserves a whole symposium that you should organize here and we should participate in.

On the one hand, I'm a believer in pendula, that we go so far in one direction, sooner or later we go back. I wonder about this one. I wonder if, instead of being a pendulum that will swing back, it isn't, to pick another cliché metaphor, toothpaste out of a tube. I guess I think, in my lifetime, it's not going to go back, short of dysfunction and/or revolution on the economic side, when inequality becomes so grave and grotesque that people don't take it anymore. That's possible, I suppose.

To the degree that it's this unconscious, unarticulated grand bargain between "we get what we want over here, you get what you want over here"—and I think it does come out of this same libertarian impulse—I don't think there's much going back.

JAMES TRAUB: What about the communitarian—the kind of David Brooks? That is to say, don't think about the left, but rather a very different view of what it means to be conservative, which is a deep vein in this country.

KURT ANDERSEN: Absolutely. My parents were conservative Republicans. Of course, in the 1960s and 1970s, that meant something entirely different, and highly communitarian in exactly that way.

I guess my hopeful idea on the versions of this extreme libertarianism that you and I probably share our dislike of—that could be rolled back, I think, if the overreach of its extremist proponents becomes so great that it becomes politically disastrous. That is to say, if the Republican Party, now dominated by versions of this libertarian/Tea Party wing, continues to lose presidential popular votes—in five out of the last six, which they have done—that will, one presumes, have the effect of turning it back on that electoral/political level.

But the harder question, and I think the question you're probably asking, is, on a basic kind of hearts-and-minds cultural level, can that be rolled back? I don't have great hope for that.

JAMES TRAUB: I have to say, one of the things about the Tea Party folks is that they wear political failure as a badge, a badge of honor.

KURT ANDERSEN: As the left used to do.

JAMES TRAUB: As the left used to do, except the left didn't have 40 people in Congress. So it's remarkable to have these guys in Congress. The point of view is, the fact that we were outnumbered and lost—it's the Alamo.

KURT ANDERSEN: And the other new condition that I just don't know what to say about how this is going to play out and ramify is 24/7 electronic partisan media online and on cable television. Yes, the newspapers used to all be partisan rags, but they would come out once a week or once a day, and people hadn't sorted out into their red states and red counties and blue neighborhoods as much as they have today.

I do wonder if the state of partisan siloed press and news and media isn't—it may be a difference in kind at this point rather than degree.

JAMES TRAUB: Which is self-reinforcing.

KURT ANDERSEN: And unprecedented. Who knows how this will work out?

In fact, I just saw a study today in the Washington Post making exactly this point, in an academic way, about the effect of Fox News, now that we've had 17 years to study its effect, on not just electoral outcomes, on which there had been research before, but on legislators' behavior.

It is a new—where this will all end knows God. I don't know.

QUESTION: I'm Warren Levinson, from the Associated Press.

Where are you in that 24/7 universe as a consumer? Are you glued moment-to-moment? As a corollary, what are your social media habits—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.? Are they very different from your daughter's?

KURT ANDERSEN: They are different. Actually, my youngest daughter just yesterday signed up for Twitter for the first time, my 23-year-old daughter, which is interesting, given that her old man is an old-school tweeter. I watch cable news at lunch, because I'm having lunch with my wife and we turn on MSNBC and Fox. I am not one of those people of more left than right who never watch Fox. I make it a point to watch Fox and to read National Review online. I try to keep other voices coming into my silo and bubble.

But that said, no, I'm not a 24/7 person. It's just yakking. It's just yammering mostly. Again, whether you agree with it or not and whether you're part of the choir it's preaching to, it's just—I've got better things to do with my time.

Social media: I'm a big fan of Twitter. I find articles and videos and things and stories at least, I would say, twice a day that I would not have seen otherwise that I'm linked to. And because I've curated whom I follow carefully, people say interesting and amusing things to me, and I like that—not to me; to the world, and I benefit from reading it. So I am a big Twitter user.

On the other hand, it could go away tomorrow and my life would not be hugely—I once thought, what are the magazines that, if they went away, my life would be worse, civilization would be worse? Let's say The New Yorker. If God said, "Okay, either get rid of The New Yorker or Twitter," I would choose Twitter.

But that said, Twitter has become more important in my life in the last—

JAMES TRAUB: And Twitter is likelier to stay, perhaps, than The New Yorker.

KURT ANDERSEN: That's probably true, although they have to figure out a way to make money.

When I go on vacation or even to Los Angeles to live for a few weeks and my habits are changed, and so I don't watch as much cable news, I feel a little more clear-headed and clean. I feel a little better. But that doesn't stop me from then falling off the wagon and turning it back on.

JAMES TRAUB: In the morning, when you're writing the book, you're living in the historical or highly non-24/7 world. Then in the afternoon, when you're thinking about your show, you're much more tied into the pulse.

KURT ANDERSEN: Yes. Of course, to me, though, when I'm in the middle of writing a book—since I don't, of course, smoke cigarettes anymore like I did when I was young—to me, going on email is the same impulse as "I'm going out for a smoke." Once every hour-and-a-half, I'll look at the email, look at the Twitter feed, for about as long as I used to smoke a cigarette, and then turn it off.

QUESTION: My name is John Mihalec.

Your show, 360, often focuses on cultural aspects of music. We haven't talked about music too much here. Except for folk singers, popular musicians usually don't deal with public ethical issues. Sometimes Bruce Springsteen does. But an exception seems to be Arcade Fire. Have you ever had them on the show? What are they about? What can you say about popular music and ethical issues?

KURT ANDERSEN: Great question. I've never had Arcade Fire on the show. Tried to get them. They're Canadian. What else?

It is interesting about that and how much—Springsteen is really the only example of a person who actually makes his popular art—often freights it with political and social meaning, and gets away with it both on an artistic level, and even people who don't agree with him politically think, "Yeah, I still love Bruce."

It's an interesting question about what—well, it's a larger question about what popular art, art of all kinds, art and entertainment, can do to achieve a political end. I am kind of conservative in the sense that I begin with a skepticism about art that begins with a political idea. It sometimes works, but it often is a means of increasing an artist's sense of self-regard and virtue, I think. I'm not saying anything about Arcade Fire. I'm sure it's all—

JAMES TRAUB: Now they're never coming on the show.

KURT ANDERSEN: I'm sure it's all earnest.

But that said, music is—it is interesting, isn't it, about music? Music when you and I were young, of course, was all bound up in an implicit and explicit political agenda and hasn't so much been, with a few exceptions, like this British guy Billy Bragg, who we've had on the show a couple of times and is just an absolute British hardcore socialist, and his songs are as well. But in the American context, not so much—again, another way in which 1969 is very different than 2013.

JAMES TRAUB: And better.

QUESTION: My name is Pam Kingpetcharat. I'm with the Carnegie New Leaders program.

My question is, given your viewpoint of culture, has the definition of ethics changed over time due to technologies? Let's take music. There's a definite distinction between younger generations about downloading music, changing files, even sharing books. If so, what do we need to do, if anything, about that change?

KURT ANDERSEN: The whole thing of stealing—or sharing—music and books and everything is a really interesting modern example, because—well, because it's wrong. I believe that, for the most part, people, young and otherwise, who do that blithely are exempting themselves from any ethical responsibility to make an artist be able to earn her living and are using the fact of the new technology—"oh, it can't be stopped" and "information wants to be free" and all that stuff—as a way of giving themselves a waiver to whatever ethical obligations to pay for things.

That said, it is, just as the case I spoke about earlier—it's a new condition, this 24/7 political silo electronic media thing—I understand and I recognize that it's new and you don't want to stop the healthy sharing of stuff and hybridization of culture. So it becomes a matter of (a) making it easy to do the right thing, as Apple provided with iTunes, and (b) people and parents with children, in all the ways in which ethics are inculcated, saying, "Don't do that." So I think it's a kind of everyday, real world test of ethical obligations.

As I say, I know there are people with considered and thoughtful arguments—Lawrence Lessig, for instance—about why everything I'm saying is nonsense. But my basic feeling—and I think it would be true even if I weren't somebody who created content for pay—is that to just ignore the ethical aspects of that, which is what most people who do so in the real world are doing, rather than reading Lawrence Lessig and deciding, "This man makes a point; I'm going to steal," I think is unfortunate and wrong and selfish.

JAMES TRAUB: Tangentially to that, would you say that peer culture as opposed to parent culture is way stronger now than it was when we were kids?

KURT ANDERSEN: No. I believe that the efficacy and salience of parents, at least in our caste, is much stronger today than it was when we were young.

JAMES TRAUB: We are just more deeply engaged as parents than our parents were.

KURT ANDERSEN: For better or worse, yes. But there is something—again, if I can make gross generalizations about 20-year-olds—I think there is a differentness about, not peer pressure, which is what we used to call it when we were young, but this kind of will to consensus among a group of friends. Maybe it's not stronger, but it is very definitely there in a way, as I watch my children live their lives.

JAMES TRAUB: I think we're actually done, Kurt.

I think you can all see that Kurt can't say an uninteresting thing, whatever you ask him. It was just great. Thank you so much.

KURT ANDERSEN: My pleasure.

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