When David Remnick took the job as editor of The New Yorker in 1998, he learned quickly to make firm decisions about contentious stories. Just a few months into the position, Remnick called Si Newhouse, the magazine's owner, to tell him about a piece he was running that was accusing "all kinds of high-level chicanery."
"I knew that there was this thing at The Washington Post called 'the no surprises rule,' which was that [editor] Ben [Bradlee] knew that he should call [publisher] Katharine Graham when there was something really major so she wasn't surprised when she picked up the paper the next morning," Remnick tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
So Remnick says he called Newhouse and told him the story had been "lawyered and checked" and that he felt confident about it. Newhouse replied, in almost a whisper: "That sounds very interesting. I look forward to reading it."
"The message there, to me, was clear: This is your job. You're in charge of this; that's why I made you the editor," Remnick says. "Unspoken was: Don't screw it up or then you won't be the editor. I never called him again."
This week, The New Yorker magazine is celebrating its 90th anniversary with a special edition. The magazine is running nine covers by its most celebrated artists (which you can see in the slideshow above).
Under his tenure, Remnick has guided the magazine — known for its long-form investigative pieces, reviews, cartoons, humor pieces and fiction — through national crises, including Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq. And as major shifts in media have resulted in the demise of other publications, Remnick has moved The New Yorker into the digital sphere.
Remnick started his career at The Washington Post, where he became Moscow correspondent. His book Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. He joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 1992. Since he became editor in 1998, The New Yorker has won 37 National Magazine Awards.
On publishing Lawrence Wright's expose of Scientology and knowing how litigious that church had been in the past
You have to take those things on all the time, not just with Scientology. You should be doing it all the time — otherwise you're not doing your job. Journalism, some huge percentage of it, should be devoted to putting pressure on power, on nonsense, on chicanery of all kinds and if that's going to invite a lawsuit, well, bring it on. The burden on us [is] to be accurate and fair.
So with Scientology, yes, it wasn't lost on me that they had sued any number of people and organizations in the past, but it seemed that their strategy had changed by the time it got to us. The strategy had gone from suing after publication where they inevitably lost — and I think they're not fools, they saw that they were losing — to trying to put as much pressure on the editorial process ahead of time to make the story in their terms less tough or less damaging.
On becoming the editor of The New Yorker
When I started this job I had never been the editor of anything, except for a high school newspaper. I didn't know much about it. I had been a writer at The New Yorker for five or six years and I had been a reporter for The Washington Post and I called Ben Bradlee, who had been my boss at The Washington Post, and I said, "Please give me some advice." ... And he said, "Have the right owner." And I said, "Well thanks a lot."
On deciding to break the story about the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq
It was not a tough decision, ultimately. What happened there was that in my understanding, CBS's program that doesn't exist anymore, 60 Minutes II, had the Abu Ghraib information and was very, very reluctant to run it. And I believe, as a result, a source contacted Seymour Hersh and knew him obviously to be interested in such a story and provided at least part of the story and many, many, many horrendous photographs of sexual abuse and other kinds of abuse in Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.
Then, in addition to that, Sy was able to get something that I don't believe CBS did have, which was something called a "Taguba Report," which was an internal Defense Department investigation into this situation. He got this very quickly and we published very quickly online. CBS certainly knew at that point that The New Yorker had this stuff and rushed up their piece that they had been holding back. I know for a fact that that's the case. So there's a certain simultaneity of CBS and The New Yorker and Sy was completely on it for the next three weeks. We published three pieces in three consecutive weeks about Abu Ghraib. We had pictures; we had documents.
On his biggest regret since becoming editor of The New Yorker
By far the biggest mistake is the fact that with all our investigative rigor and editing rigor and suspicion, even, of the Bush administration, that we didn't put adequate resources into the nonsense story, the fantasy of weapons of mass destruction, which was, at a certain point anyway, the main rationale for the Iraq War. I'm not alone in that. Unlike some other places, we didn't publish pieces that were in the other direction, but I would dearly love to have been able to take another crack at that. McClatchy is one of the rare places that did very good work on that, but it wasn't nearly enough.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The New Yorker magazine is celebrating its 90th anniversary with a special issue this week. My guest, David Remnick, has been the magazine's editor since 1998 and has guided the magazine through many crises that affected our nation, including 9/11 and the war in Iraq, as well as crises in the changing world of media that have resulted in the demise of many publications. The New Yorker still does what it's famous for - elegantly written, longform investigative pieces and profiles, reviews, cartoons, humor pieces, fiction and listings. And under Remnick's tenure, the magazine brought that and more into the digital sphere. Remnick started his career at The Washington Post, where he became a Moscow correspondent. His book, "Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days Of The Soviet Empire," won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. He joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 1992. Since he became editor in '98, The New Yorker has won 37 National Magazine Awards.
David Remnick, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the 90th anniversary. Of all magazines in America, I think The New Yorker is probably the one with the most traditions that are cherished by readers - the cover illustrations, the cartoons, Talk Of The Town, the long profiles and investigative pieces, its listings, its fiction, its humor pieces, movie/theater/music reviews. Readers want those traditions left intact, but on the other hand, I bet that unless you really updated things in some ways, that readers wouldn't really read it (laughter). You know what I mean? I think there's sometimes this disconnect with what people insist that they want and what they'll actually read in changing times.
DAVID REMNICK: I think that's absolutely right. Look, I joined The New Yorker as a writer in 1992 after coming home from Moscow as a newspaper reporter. And I was there, and watched, and was part of, as Tina Brown introduced into the magazine - heaven forfend - photographs. This was a revolution on the par of the Storming of the Bastille in magazine terms. And she introduced photographs by having one photographer, Richard Avedon, who is - both his library and the things that he added to it were immensely beautiful and added to The New Yorker, and it - but there were people that resisted it because it hadn't been there before. People have a conservative instinct sometimes, but it doesn't last long if the new thing is good, if the new thing works.
GROSS: One of the things you've done is bring The New Yorker into the digital age. And one of the things about digital media is that you can actually measure how many people are reading each article, each page of each article. Is that a mixed blessing or is that just, you know, an out-and-out good thing for you? And the reason why I ask is it's sometimes depressing to see what gets the most hits or what gets the most clicks because it's sometimes the thing with the most recipes. Not that there's anything wrong with recipes, but, you know, you'll...
GROSS: ...You'll do like a really important piece about something and that doesn't get nearly amount of attention as the recipes are going to get. And, you know, how much do you let that guide you in terms of what you want, you know, a publication or a radio or a TV show to be? So what are your thoughts about that?
REMNICK: Well, I should say first that sometimes what people are clicking on is enormously gratifying. Very, very often, our readers are reading the absolute thing you're dying for them to read. So today, people are reading - what are they reading most of all in the new issue? It's a 17,000-word profile of Jony Ive, the chief designer at Apple. But you're absolutely right. Sometimes - you know, let's take a piece on - a certain kind of foreign affairs piece that's difficult, maybe even depressing to some readers. The key is, if you're editor, you have to insist upon that being there. I know in my heart, I know in my heart that when The New Yorker is delivered, that the readers first will go to the cartoons. And they're not necessarily - after an exhausting day of work, the kids being aggravating or whatever it is that's causing you to be, you know, distressed or exhausted at the end of the day, probably your first instinct is not going to be, let's read the 7,000-word piece from Libya by Jon Lee Anderson that, you know, Jon Lee only reported it - a danger to his life and one of the rare reporters to get in there. But let's say the weekend comes around, and you're in a better mood, and you're a little bit more forgiving, and you're curious about the world, then you're going to read that piece - or maybe a week from now or two weeks from now because the piece is written in a way that's not disposable. It's a very, very different animal.
GROSS: In 1998, when you became the editor of The New Yorker, you are switched over from reporter to editor. What are some of the things you drew on from how you had been edited at The New Yorker and at The Washington Post?
REMNICK: Well, newspapers are so fast-moving, it's completely different. What I inhaled at The New Yorker was a culture of attention. So for example, there had been - she's no longer with us anymore - there had been a kind of super copy editor named Eleanor Gould. And she would do, at some late stage of a piece's editing - and there are many layers to the editing - what was called a Gould proof. And she had been there for decades and decades. She had been there when Harold Ross was around. And these proofs taught you so much about repetition and indirection and all the muck that can enter bad prose if you aren't careful. This woman could've found a mistake in a stop sign. I have a copy of a proof in which she found four mistakes in a three-word sentence. I'm not kidding around.
GROSS: What was the sentence?
REMNICK: I can't remember. But to inhale this, to pay attention to those proofs - and there were many such people doing that kind of work and still are at The New Yorker - you learned a kind of ethos of high attention, whether it had to do with fact checking, too. You know, it just makes you a better writer, and it - but you have to hold onto who you are. You can't just sort of give yourself over to a purity of grammar. And it makes you more accurate. It makes you pay attention. It makes sure that you're giving adequate credit to other sources and all those things. It makes you fairer with time. And I'm not saying that's restricted to The New Yorker. It can be somewhere else as well, but I learned that there.
GROSS: So editing The New Yorker is a wonderful job, a real privilege that I'm sure comes with an enormous number of real headaches, including legal headaches. So let's look at a couple of legal headaches that you've handled over the years. Scientology - Lawrence Wright wrote a lengthy investigative piece about Scientology. The Scientology organization is famous for being litigious. And so you probably expected that you would be challenged and possibly sued, possibly for a lot of money. So just in saying yes to this piece, you opened the door to a lot of legal headaches. Knowing that, why did you say yes? Like - and I'm not saying you should have said no, but, you know, I'm sure that you have to take that into account, like, what are you exposing the magazine to? What are you exposing yourself to when you take on something like that?
REMNICK: I'm sorry. You have to take those things on all the time, not just with Scientology. You should be doing it all the time, otherwise you're not doing your job. I mean, journalism, some huge percentage of it should be devoted to putting pressure on power, on nonsense, on chicanery of all kinds. And if that's going to invite a lawsuit, well, you know, bring it on. The burden on us is to be accurate and fair. And so with Scientology, yes, you know, it wasn't lost on me that they had sued any number of people, but I - and organizations in the past - but it seemed that their strategy had changed by the time it got to us. The strategy had gone from suing after publication, where they inevitably lost - and I think they're not fools; they saw that they were losing - to trying to put as much pressure on the editorial process ahead of time to make the story, in their terms, less tough or less damaging.
GROSS: So what kind of pressure did they put on you?
REMNICK: Well, when we sent them - I believe it was 900 checking questions, they - let's put it mildly - were alarmed, alarmed. And they asked for a meeting, and they came to New York from California, and we had a meeting that lasted eight hours, I believe. And their team - which I think they brought 7, 8 people. I forget what it was. And they brought - I don't remember how many dozens of binders of material they brought. Now, this all turned into, I should admit, reportorial gold for Larry Wright. It was only more information. And it heightened the level of accuracy, but it also deepened the level of information. And the piece came out. It ran 25,000 words in an anniversary issue, I believe, five years ago. People read it like crazy online, in print. And there was no lawsuit.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Remnick. He's been the editor of The New Yorker since 1998. The New Yorker is celebrating its 90th anniversary with a special anniversary edition this week. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is David Remnick, who's been the editor of The New Yorker since 1998. He first joined the magazine in '92 as a staff writer. The magazine is celebrating its 90th anniversary this week with a special edition.
Let's get to another piece that probably caused its share of headaches and I'm thinking of Seymour Hersh's piece about Abu Ghraib. He broke some of that story about what had been done to prisoners there, what people representing the United States had done to prisoners there. What were some of the toughest decisions you had to make about what to publish with that piece?
REMNICK: I have to say, it was not a tough decision ultimately. What happened there was that, in my understanding, CBS's program - that doesn't exist any more - "60 Minutes" too had the Abu Ghraib information and was very, very reluctant to run it. And I believe as a result, a source contacted Seymour Hersh, and knew him obviously to be interested in such a story, and provided him at least part of the story and many, many, many horrendous photographs of sexual abuse and other kinds of abuse in Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. And then in addition to that, Sy was able to get something that I don't believe CBS did have which was something called a Taguba Report, which was an internal Defense Department investigation into this situation. And he got this very quickly and we published very quickly online. CBS certainly knew at that point that The New Yorker had this stuff and rushed up their piece that they had been holding back and I - you know, I know for a fact that that's the case. And so there was a certain simultaneity of CBS and The New Yorker. And Sy was completely on it for the next three weeks. We published three pieces in three consecutive weeks about Abu Ghraib. We had pictures, we had documents. There really was no legal pressure at all. What there was was the notion - and I think CBS got a lot more of this than we did - that somehow by publishing this, this would cause terrible problems for American soldiers in the field not only in Iraq but in Afghanistan and elsewhere. That was the argument that was made to CBS. I never got a call from the Pentagon making this argument.
GROSS: Why not? Did...
REMNICK: You have to ask them, I...
GROSS: And did you call them? Did you feel like you should consult the White House or the Pentagon before publishing and give them the chance to convince you that this would be damaging to our national security?
REMNICK: Of - we made all of the normal calls that you would make in a situation like that, but we had the story. This was not something that you were teasing out, where you had anonymous sources saying something that was up in the air or controversial. It was - I'm not saying it fell into Sy's lap. You know, it's like, he spent decades becoming who he was and therefore, sources knew to go to him. And then he worked his head off to make the story accurate, balanced. But, you know, look, the situation was what it was and it was horrible. And everything that we published those three weeks held up and was only elaborated in greater detail as time went by.
GROSS: Did you have to decide which photos to publish and which not or did you just publish whatever you had?
REMNICK: I'll be honest with you. My only regret about that story is that we didn't publish the photographs bigger and maybe a few more of them. If anything, I was restrained in the photographs we did run. I mean, they were horrific. It was - it was no question that they were then all going to come out in a rush and the next thing you know there were slideshows all over the web. And so it exploded.
GROSS: What's given you the most sleepless nights?
REMNICK: You mean in terms of regret?
GROSS: No, in terms of like, what should we do? Is it the right thing to publish or not? Will we be sued or not? Do we need to wait longer before going with it?
REMNICK: You know, when I started this job I'd never been the editor of anything, except for a high school newspaper, and I didn't know much about it. I had been a writer at The New Yorker for five or six years and I had been a reporter for The Washington Post. And I called Ben Bradlee, who had been my boss at the Washington Post, and I said, please give me some advice. And I'll spare you the imitation of Ben's gravely voice.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
REMNICK: But he - well, I won't. And he said, (imitating Ben Bradlee) have the right owner.
And I said, well, thanks a lot. And I didn't know much about the owner, Si Newhouse. I really didn't. I mean he was, you know, running not one publication but a couple of dozen, and to say nothing of a larger family business. And I discovered what that was. Only a few months later we had a - some incredibly complicated, hot, investigative piece, again by Sy Hersh. And I knew that there was this thing at The Washington Post called the no surprises rule, which was that Ben knew that he should call Katharine Graham when there was something really major so that she wasn't surprised when she picked up the paper the next morning - say, the Pentagon papers.
And so I figured, OK. And I called Si Newhouse, and the Newhouse family owns the New Yorker and Conde Nast and much else. And I said, we have this story, and it's been lawyered and checked, and I'm confident of this, that and the other thing. And the piece was accusing - I don't know - all kinds of high-level chicanery in international affairs. And there was a long silence at the other end of the phone, and then he said - in almost a whisper he said, that sounds very interesting. I look forward to reading it.
And the message there to me was clear. This is your job. You're in charge of this. That's why I made you the editor. Unspoken was, don't screw it up or then you won't be the editor.
REMNICK: But I never called him again. And God knows we've had enough investigative pieces, controversial pieces, controversial covers. And he learned about it the same time you did. And I've never ever had an executive or anyone in the Newhouse family suggest after the fact, much less beforehand, displeasure at anything that's been published. And I cannot begin to tell you how rare that is. And it's - yeah, it's a big responsibility, but it's also as great a form of freedom as I can imagine.
GROSS: So this is your opportunity to - now that you're a very successful editor of The New Yorker and you've been there for many years - your opportunity to confess to a mistake you made early on while you were editing. And I don't necessarily mean a fact mistake, but just a mistake of judgment or a mistake of something. (Laughter).
REMNICK: By far the biggest mistake...
GROSS: ...You're welcome. Yes.
REMNICK: Yeah, thanks. By far the biggest mistake is the fact that with all our investigative rigor and editing rigor and suspicion even of the Bush administration - that we didn't put adequate resources in to the nonsense story - the fantasy of weapons of mass destruction, which was the - at a certain point, anyway, the main rationale for the Iraq war. And I'm not alone in that, and we - you know, unlike some other places, we didn't publish pieces that were in the other direction. But I would dearly love to have been able to take another crack at that. And McClatchy, I think, is one of the rare places that did very good work on that, but it wasn't nearly enough - wasn't nearly enough.
GROSS: Well, you actually wrote an opinion piece in The New Yorker saying that you supported - this was in the lead up to the war - that you supported the invasion.
REMNICK: What I said was this. I said that the Bush administration has not made an adequate rationale for war. Kenneth Pollack wrote a book making a much more cohesive, coherent argument for war. That was the one - and I said that - and he had made a good one, and that we cannot go on having a containment policy like we have now. That was it. That's what I wrote. I was certainly not a - you know, a tubthumping neocon.
But even that piece - and it was deeply influenced - I have to admit I had been in Prague to interview Havel - Vaclav Havel as he was leaving the presidency, and Havel and Adam Michnik and a number of Eastern European dissidents were in this camp. You know, they felt that Saddam Hussein's crimes were such - his use of weapons of mass destruction - of chemical weapons was such that on balance this should be done. And I was influenced by that, and I wrote that one piece, but that was the limit of it. I don't think it was a good piece and I - anymore than I think that in retrospect Havel and Michnik made the right argument. And the result, we know.
GROSS: My guest is David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker magazine, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary with a special issue this week. After a break, we'll talk about cartoons, covers and the first note he got from The New Yorker, a rejection slip. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with David Remnick, who has been the editor of The New Yorker magazine since 1998. The magazine is celebrating its 90th anniversary with a special issue this week. Remnick joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 1992.
So one of the things The New Yorker is most famous for is its cartoons. So I wanted to ask you your impressions of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. I'm sure you stand by the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish those cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Would you have published them yourself, even as like, these are the cartoons that were behind the murders and the controversy?
REMNICK: You're absolutely right. I defend, absolutely, the right to publish. Do I think they were the greatest cartoons in the world? As such, it seems almost indecent now with so much blood around, with the staff of Charlie Hebdo murdered by really deranged fanatics, it seems indecent to be in the cartoon judging business. But if you're asking me and I'm honest, no I didn't think they were the greatest cartoons in the world, but I know what they were trying to accomplish. It was to lampoon clericalism - and by the way, not just Muslim, but also Christian and Jewish - in a way to deflate it. Now, we try to do similar things with humor, but we publish the images that we publish.
GROSS: Did you have to make a decision about whether to publish them for their news value on the website?
REMNICK: You know, the website - we had covers of Charlie Hebdo, and I saw no reason to emblazon the website with the Prophet Muhammad cartoon. Readers knew what they were. They were all over the place. It's a tough call, but by the way, you're in charge of a lot of people. It's a complicated call. There's no question. You know, I can't pretend that it isn't.
GROSS: The New Yorker has a tradition of kind of, like, respectful pieces, even when it's really a critical piece, and I wasn't sure you would be able to endorse publishing, within The New Yorker brand, a cartoon with a naked Prophet Muhammad bending over.
REMNICK: Yeah, I don't, and I didn't. But the notion that the price to be paid for this is cold-blooded murder with AK-47s in the editorial offices is an obscenity...
REMNICK: ...That is deeply, deeply troubling. Look, during the election campaign of 2008, taking note of the fact that a large percentage of the American public believed that Barack Obama was foreign born, was a Muslim - as if there were anything wrong with that - that Michelle Obama was some kind of crazy '60s Weathermen-type radical, that the Obamas were not patriotic, that they were, quote, unquote, "palling around with terrorists" - a lot of people believed that, and politicians were playing on this kind of crazy imagery. So Barry Blitt, with the cooperation of me and also Francoise Mouly, the covers editor, came up with an image and put all of these things in one image - the famous fist bump cover - and a cover that was not exactly adored by the Obamas, but we're not drawing pictures for the Obamas, quite frankly. A lot of our readers or some of our readers were not happy about it. But that, I thought, was a really effective image.
GROSS: Well, the funny thing is, I think a lot of people took that as - didn't realize that you were satirizing the people who believed that Michelle Obama was a crazy radical with, you know, automatic weapons and that, you know, Obama's a secret Muslim.
GROSS: They thought you were representing him as a secret Muslim, that you - I mean...
REMNICK: You've never quite lived...
REMNICK: You've never quite lived until you've gone on CNN and Wolf Blitzer holds up the magazine and said, this could be on the cover of a KKK or a Nazi magazine.
REMNICK: Oh, my God. Is my mother watching TV now?
GROSS: Well, it's hard to explain satire, too, right? When people don't get, you know, it's a joke. You're satirizing the people who believe these stereotypes that are untrue. Then you have to...
REMNICK: Well, look, the letter that I got most, the email that I got most, the critique that I got most was, of course I understand it. But it's those people out there in the big square states that aren't going to get it, and they're going to use it as a weapon against Obama. And I found this, with respect to them, just wrong. You know, we had published I don't know how many covers mocking the Bush-Cheney presidency up and down, up and down, and the number of complaints that I got from conservatives was, I have to say, pretty modest. But this happened, and it went nuts. But I would publish it again.
GROSS: So you are the fifth editor of The New Yorker - the fifth in 90 years. And I think it's fair to say that the most famous - the most legendary of the editors is William Shawn, who was famous not only for what he did with the magazine, but he was a famous eccentric who had several phobias. I think he was afraid to ride elevators. I don't think he traveled. He had a secret life that was revealed after he left the magazine. He'd had an almost-second wife, Lillian Ross, one of the longtime writers for The New Yorker. And of course, he was also very obsessive about the magazine, you know, to his credit as an editor.
REMNICK: You have to be.
GROSS: Yeah, but anyways because he's such, like, the legendary editor and such - he was such an eccentric, do you ever feel like, well, to measure up, you need to have a secret life, some phobias...
GROSS: ...Be a little bit more eccentric?
REMNICK: Oh, my God, no. Look, we all have something 'cause we're all people, and I think that some...
GROSS: What's your thing (laughter)?
REMNICK: What happens is that people are - they have a cartoon. And Harold Ross, who was no less famous in his time than William Shawn in his time - you know, the cartoon of him was that he was a kind of Western rube and that he didn't know whether Moby Dick was the man or the whale. But in fact, he was a kind of brilliant, original, extremely smart and invented the whole damn thing.
You know, William Shawn's cartoon is that he, you know, wore 16 sweaters in the summertime and that he had a tiny, whispery voice. But in fact, as Harold Brodkey once said, he was a combination of St. Francis of Assisi and Napoleon. You need to have a real core of determination and obsession and attention to do the job.
But all these people have had cartoons of themselves in reality. Bob Gottlieb, who followed Shawn - the cartoon of him was that he was, you know, kind of an eccentric dance - you know, a balletomane. But it was ridiculous. I mean, the core of him was as a brilliant reader, particularly of fiction - a fantastic and pivotal figure in American postwar fiction as an editor.
And the cartoon of Tina was, you know, party-going and interested in only what was hot, hot, hot. And in fact, she modernized the magazine in a very short period of time in a way that was extremely helpful to me when I came along.
GROSS: So what's your cartoon?
REMNICK: Well, the cartoon of me is that somehow, you know, I write 10,000-word pieces, you know, while standing on one foot in five minutes. It's ridiculous.
GROSS: Now, I read that when you were young - a kid - you wrote your own newspaper at home. You wrote all the articles. You had a series of pen names that you used. Tell us a little bit about that newspaper.
REMNICK: Well, I grew up in a pretty ordinary suburban New Jersey town - middle class - and went to a big public high school, and very few people were interested in the idea of a high school newspaper. And I regret to say that it was called The Smoke Signal - the newspaper - because we were the Pascack Valley Indians.
REMNICK: And it's completely wrong, and I apologize for it. And I'm afraid it's still called that, and - certainly the team, not the - I don't know about the newspaper. And so I did it pretty much by myself, and sometimes, we'd use...
GROSS: So this was not just a publication in your home. This was actually the school newspaper?
REMNICK: (Laughter) No, it was the school newspaper, which didn't have a hell of a lot of interest. I don't know why. And so I did it on a - what used to be called a bridge table in my parents' house. It wasn't very good. And you know, you used scissors and paste and all kinds primitive nontechnology to do it. And I think I even had a little job writing stupid articles for one of those community shoppers - you know, those giveaway papers that used to exist about, you know, school board meetings and things like that. I just thought this was the most romantic thing ever.
I was a childhood insomniac, and I would stay up all night and listen to talk radio. There was, sadly, no Terry Gross in those days, but there was Long John Nebel, and there was Barry Gray and the kind of left-wing Alex Bennett. And I would listen to this stuff, and they would talk to these newspaper reporters and magazine writers. And they would talk for hours, and it was absolutely fascinating. They went out into the world and they saw it firsthand, and this seemed so vivid compared to my unbelievably boring suburban upbringing that's - you know, and somehow, like, I knew I couldn't be a novelist.
At a certain point - quite frankly, I - you know, my mother had multiple sclerosis since I was 6, and a bit later on, my father also got ill. And I somehow knew, certainly by college, that I would need to make a living. And this is - I couldn't just sort of declare myself a novelist and - I knew that somehow, I'd have an abnormal amount of responsibility. And I just thought journalist sounded so great. And I grew up in this time of - journalism was becoming something completely new, with Hunter Thompson and Gay Talese and Sara Davidson and James Baldwin and all these things. It just seemed - that's all I ever wanted to do.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Remnick. He's the editor of The New Yorker, and The New Yorker is celebrating its 90th anniversary with a special edition this week. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is David Remnick. He's been the editor of The New Yorker magazine since 1998. He was a staff writer at the magazine before that. The magazine is celebrating its 90th anniversary with a special edition this week - an anniversary edition. One of the serious challenges you faced as a father is that your youngest child - your youngest of three...
GROSS: ...Who's 15 now, has autism. Is it severe on the scale?
REMNICK: Yes, it's quite severe, and my - I have two sons who are in their 20s and who are doing great - Alex and Noah. One's a photographer for the Newark Star-Ledger, and the other is finishing Yale and, you know, absolutely healthy and glorious in, you know - just wonderful kids. And Natasha is wonderful in her way, too, but, you know, she has - is, you know, has very serious autism, and it's a huge challenge for my wife and I and for my sons and for - and above all, for her.
GROSS: How have you structured your life so you have what feels like a satisfactory amount of time to work as an editor on the magazine and the amount of time that you want to have to help raise your daughter?
REMNICK: Well, you know, my wife is an extraordinary person - Esther Fein, who was a reporter at The New York Times for a long time. And in Moscow, when we were there, we were on, you know, The Washington Post versus The New York Times. She was at The Times. And when this happened, she made a decision to stay home. And - but we also have enormous amounts of help from various babysitters and therapists and all the rest, so it structures our life enormously. And you know - look, I was talking before about cartoons of people, a cartoon of me - I don't go on vacation. Instead, I'll, you know, either stay home or I'll go on a reporting trip. You grab the parts of life that you can grab, and you have to make the concessions to the way life is ordered by all kinds of circumstances. And I'm not saying it's easy, but I'm certainly not saying I'm alone and anyone should feel sorry for me because I know how lucky I am. I wish my daughter were a lot luckier.
GROSS: I know you don't have a lot of time to socialize - I'm guessing that - between your family and the magazine, which both are so demanding in their own ways, but you know, when you're an editor, I would imagine it's sometimes hard to socialize because with The New Yorker, probably every writer would like to be in The New Yorker. And probably everybody who is especially accomplished at what they do would like to be profiled in The New Yorker, or they have an aunt, mother, child, grandparent...
GROSS: ...Parent who should be a writer or who should be profiled in The New Yorker. Or they have a suggestion for an article that you really should assign a reporter, or they're going to tell you about the best or the worst thing that you've recently published. And that might not be the way you really want to spend your spare time.
REMNICK: You know what? I am open to it. And the other night, I was up at Columbia and did a conversation with Victor Navasky, who ran The Nation for so many years and is now at the Columbia School of Journalism. And I cut off the discussion by saying, before you ask, here's my email address, and if you want to send me ideas or you want to send me manuscripts, bring it on.
REMNICK: Bring it on. The odds are tough. I remember when I was in my 20s, I sent William Shawn a query letter, and I got an answer. And I never forgot getting an answer.
GROSS: What was the answer?
REMNICK: The answer was no (laughter). But I never forgot the time that was taken to write a cogent, short note about why not. And I also remember when I submitted my first piece to The New Yorker, which was happily accepted by Gottlieb - by Bob Gottlieb - he answered that day - that night. And I'll never forget that. And I know in my heart that I'm falling short all the time in a million different ways, but I try to answer emails, letters, phone calls because I know not only is it the right human thing to do, I think, but also, once in a blue moon, it's going to pay off. Once in a blue moon, you are going to get a short story, a suggestion, an idea that's going to find its way into The New Yorker and be something or someone brilliant. And that's part of the job. And it's a delightful one.
GROSS: Well, David Remnick, it's been a pleasure to have you on the show again. Thank you so much, and congratulations on the anniversary.
REMNICK: Great to talk to you. Thanks so much, Terry.
GROSS: David Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker. The magazine's 90th anniversary issue was published this week. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Robert Earl Keen's new bluegrass album. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.