In many ways, Robert Scheer’s career encapsulates the long march of progressive journalism in postwar America. After an early stint at Ramparts, he moved from Playboy to the Los Angeles Times (from which he was defenestrated in 2005, after nearly three decades at the paper). More recently, he has co-founded an online magazine, Truthdig.com, and published a collection of interviews, Playing President: My Close Encounters With Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan, and Clinton—and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush (2006), as well as The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America (2008). In a conversation with CJR’s James Marcus, the seventy-two-year-old contrarian mused over good and evil and the Internet, and revealed some surprisingly nonpartisan preferences. Who would have thought that this supposed pinko and hale companion of Eldridge Cleaver would have such a soft spot for Dwight David Eisenhower?
You’ve been associated with print journalism for more than forty years and are surely one of the few reporters to have gotten married in the city room. Yet you’re now editing Truthdig.com, an online magazine. What’s that transition been like?
Let me give you more information than you need. I originally studied engineering, because I had pretty serious dyslexia; until computers came along, I really couldn’t have been a writer. I was always a good reader, but I couldn’t do cursive script, and nobody could read my handwriting.
But you did lots of journalism in the pre-computer era.
That was mostly due to going out with women with good editing skills. But I’ve never had a Luddite mentality, that’s what I’m saying. I’ve always loved computers.
So you go way back with this stuff?
I did my graduate work in nineteen-fifty-nine on one of those big IBM machines, the kind that took up a whole room. And I was using the Internet when it was three-hundred baud, reporting from Moscow and everything. So I love the technology. I find it very liberating—it lets you edit, run long pieces, avoid cutting down trees.
But does the Web dictate any difference in approach for journalists?
No. Ever since I was at Ramparts, where I started, I never really made a decision about whether I
was alternative or mainstream. I assume you’re going to do the same kind of work whether you’re writing for Hustler or Esquire or the L.A. Times. I try to hold on to my own voice, even when I have to lose the first person. I always feel that the readers are getting me. I also try to be fair, to keep an open mind—although not so open, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti says, that your brains fall out.
You’ve worn a lot of hats in your career: reporter, correspondent, columnist, editor. Is there one in particular that you prefer?
I’m not a good editor, I won’t make that claim. My twenty-six-year-old son Peter is running Truthdig, and I don’t tell him what to do. I never wanted it to be my blog or my Web site or something that was particularly identified with me.
But do you set the political tone?
We don’t have a political tone. My only guideline is that we won’t be homophobic or anti-Semitic—beyond that, we’re going to let people have different views. There will always be things in the magazine that I don’t agree with. And look at the irony in The Pornography of Power. In my chapter on the Boeing air-tanker scandal, which I researched pretty well, John McCain is a kind of hero. And Barbara Boxer, who I really like, doesn’t come off so well.
Which brings me to my next question. I think it’s fair to say that you’ve been identified with the left throughout your entire career. But in both The Pornography of Power and Playing President, you’re surprisingly nonpartisan in your appraisal of the players.
Yeah. You know, my mother was an old garment worker who retired and came out from the Bronx to live with me. When I wrote my Nixon profile for the L.A. Times, she sat there for two hours reading it. Finally she finished, and I said, “So, Ma, what do you think?” She looked up at me, this eighty-six-year-old woman with her glasses at the tip of her nose, and said, “He needs you?”