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Madison-Based The Progressive Magazine Celebrates 100-Year Anniversary

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Democracy Now! broadcasts from Madison, Wisconsin, where The Progressive magazine is celebrating its 100th anniversary. We speak to The Progressive editor Matt Rothschild. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman in Madison, Wisconsin. Juan Gonzalez is in New York. Yes, we’re broadcasting from here, because The Progressive magazine is celebrating 100 years. That’s right. It’s its 100th anniversary. The Progressive is holding a two-day conference here in Madison that includes, oh, Howard Zinn and Naomi Klein, Robert Redford, Senator Russ Feingold, Dolores Huerta, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Ani DiFranco and many more.

I’m joined here in the studios of WYOU, which is public access TV in Madison, Wisconsin, by Matt Rothschild. He’s the editor of The Progressive magazine.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Matt, and happy birthday.

MATT ROTHSCHILD: Hey, thanks, Amy. It’s great to be on again.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about the hundred years of The Progressive. You have a great last issue, The Progressive, “100 Years.” I’m going to — for our TV audience, this is a picture of it. Just go through that — who started it, starting in —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- 1909? Talk about it.

MATT ROTHSCHILD: We were founded by Fighting Bob La Follette, the senator from Wisconsin here, who was one of the leaders of the progressive movement. But unlike Teddy Roosevelt, who was a progressive imperialist, Fighting Bob La Follette was a progressive anti-imperialist. And he used that word, even.

So what I saw and what the other editors saw, as we went through every single issue over the last hundred years, was a lot of continuity, a lot of principles that have stayed the same, against foreign meddling by the US government, against corporate power. Fighting Bob La Follette said that was the central struggle of his day, to take on the special interests, the corporate powers that had so much influence, not only over the economy, but over the political system.

Plus, The Progressive — it was called La Follette’s Weekly early on — it was a suffragist magazine, because Robert La Follette’s wife, Belle Case La Follette, was one of the biggest suffragists here in the Midwest. She’d go around with Jane Addams on the back of trains and give speeches to huge crowds. So we’ve always been committed to equal rights for everybody in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the positions, for example, on the First World War?

MATT ROTHSCHILD: Well, this was one of the defining moments of The Progressive magazine. Fighting Bob La Follette opposed US entry into World War I. He was just one of five or six senators to do so. He was called a traitor. He was hanged in effigy even on the campus right here in Madison, Wisconsin. They tried to kick him out of the US Senate. He managed to stay in the Senate and get reelected. And then he ran for president in 1925. But his speeches from 1917, which we reproduced in The Progressive, and we have in this — snippets of in this anniversary issue, could have been said, you know, any time by, you know, Robert Byrd in the lead-up to the war against Iraq.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Matt Rothschild, back in 1909, it was magazines like The Progressive, McClure’s and others that were publishing writers like Upton Sinclair, Ray Stannard Baker, Ida Tarbell, all the great muckrakers of that era. How do you assess the magazine industry today? And what kind of cutting-edge role does it have in questioning corporate power?

MATT ROTHSCHILD: Well, we’ve been still taking on corporate power a great deal. Right now, I mean, we’ve been writing articles about this ridiculous bank bailout that Ralph Nader was talking about a little bit. We’ve been also covering civil liberties issues under the Bush-Cheney administration and how they were eroded. And we’re looking at Barack Obama, how he’s changing things or not changing things. I mean, he says he can keep people indefinitely in detention at Bagram Air Force Base. What difference is that from Bush and Cheney at Guantanamo? So, you know, we’re still fighting corporate power. We’re still fighting for civil liberties and human rights and against these foreign interventions that just help the corporations. Those are cardinal principles of The Progressive magazine.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, The Progressive certainly is, but how do you assess the rest of the magazine industry in the country right now?

MATT ROTHSCHILD: Well, the magazine industry is in crisis. The newspaper industry is in crisis. A lot of the news weeklies don’t know how to function right now, the idea that you have a Newsweek magazine right now that’s antiquated. That’s a dinosaur. People get the news within minutes or hours; they don’t need to go find it a week later as to what happens. So the intellectual reason for being for these magazines is kind of kaput. And their economic model is kaput, too.

So I think magazines, to the extent that they’re going to be able to survive and The Progressive is going to be able to survive, need to become more like books or need to take a higher altitude look at the news and do investigative reporting and give people analysis that they can’t find anywhere else. But if you just say what did Barack Obama say at his press conference yesterday, newspapers and magazines are going to go.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Rothschild, let’s talk about this body of work of the last a hundred years. Talk about the investigative pieces you’re most proud of over this period. And remember, especially for young people, I mean, the lack of historical context we have today, maybe some of what you’re going to talk about, no one even knows what you’re referring to.

MATT ROTHSCHILD: Well, I hope that’s not the case, but maybe it is. In 1954, The Progressive published a huge exposé of Joe McCarthy. Joe McCarthy was, you know, this red-baiting anti-communist hysterical hunter here from Wisconsin, of all places. And in 1954, at the height of his power, The Progressive magazine published a special issue showing what a fraud he was. And that issue sold 300,000 copies, even though The Progressive only had 30,000 subscribers. So that had a huge influence.

And then, in 1984, The Progressive published what I think was one of the best investigative pieces ever, by Allan Nairn, called “Behind the Death Squads.” Allan Nairn went to Central America, went to El Salvador, and actually talked to some of these death squad leaders, who confessed to him that they were working for the CIA and that the CIA had established these death squads, not just in the Reagan administration, but all the way back to the sainted JFK and the — JFK and Johnson and on up had financed them, trained them and armed them. And as a consequence, you know, 60,000-70,000 people were slaughtered in El Salvador. That’s the kind of intervention that we’ve shed a light on. You know, torture didn’t begin with Bush and Cheney.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about in this quarter of a century now, the kind of work that you’ve been doing?

MATT ROTHSCHILD: Well, our investigative reporter, Anne-Marie Cusac, who is now a professor down in Chicago, she won a George Polk Award for a piece called “Stunning Technology.” This was more than ten years ago, where she showed that these stun belts, these stun guns and all sorts of hideous electronic devices that police forces have all across the country are going to kill people. And sure enough, they’ve killed people.

AMY GOODMAN: You also have a whole section in this latest issue of The Progressive that goes through the hundred years of, well, civil rights moments and writers. You have James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew.

MATT ROTHSCHILD: Yeah, this is probably the best single essay we ever published. This is James Baldwin writing in December 1962. It was an assigned article by him. And he was writing a letter to his nephew who has the same name, and he was telling young James Baldwin, fifteen, that the American society wants him to perish, wants him to totally fail, to be no more than mediocre and to consider himself inferior. But Uncle James Baldwin was telling his nephew, “Don’t believe it. Don’t let them enforce inferiority upon you.” It’s one of the most moving essays I’ve ever read. I’ve read it now about twenty times, and every time I read it, it just grabs me.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Matt Rothschild, obviously The Progressive has been functioning and writing — producing all of these great investigations and stories for years, yet the circulation remains relatively small compared to many other publications. What is the potential in terms of shared resources between other progressive publications that are on the scene, as well as other progressive media, in terms of being able to reach a critical mass to get information needed out to the American people? Have you explored any potentials —-

MATT ROTHSCHILD: Well, Juan, sometimes -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: — for working together with other publications and other progressive media?

MATT ROTHSCHILD: Sure. We work together on something called the Media Consortium, which is a grouping of now, I think, hundreds of organizations in the alternative media. Sometimes we swap our circulation lists, so that other magazines and organizations on the left can grow at little cost on our — at our fault, anyway. And then, you know, we try to work as collaboratively as possible. We throw our stuff up on the web, and we just hope that other people pick it up.

It’s not like we all need to merge into one, The Progressive or In These Times or Mother Jones with The Nation. I think it’s good to have a multiplicity of voices. But certainly, we don’t consider ourselves competitors; we’re all kind of colleagues in the same alternative media role and idea.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Matt Rothschild, about Erwin Knoll, the longtime editor, before you, of The Progressive, and the work he did around nuclear weapons?

MATT ROTHSCHILD: Erwin Knoll, first of all, was an incredible man. He and his family fled the Nazis from Vienna, Austria, in 1938, barely got out. And he was — by the time he was in high school, he was editing the daily newspaper in high school in New York City. So, he was a genius.

He was most proud of this 1979 article, “The H-Bomb Secret: How We Got It, Why We’re Telling It.” And in this case, which is now a landmark First Amendment case, the US government put a gag in the mouths of The Progressive for more than six months. It told us we couldn’t publish the article. It was a prior restraint that was unprecedented. And ultimately, The Progressive prevailed.

And the important part of this article was to say, look at, the government can stamp “secret” on all the documents it wants about nuclear weapons. It’s not going to make it one bit safer. The only thing that’s going to make us safer is getting rid of these nuclear weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: What about that issue of surveillance over the years and how The Progressive has dealt with it right up until today, I mean, right up until the auto — the telecoms, AT&T, Verizon, spying on the American people at the behest of the US government?

MATT ROTHSCHILD: Yeah. We’ve been looking at these civil liberties infringements that were so flagrant during Bush-Cheney, but they didn’t start, again, with Bush-Cheney. And, you know, I did a little column called “McCarthyism Watch,” where every month almost I would write about some person who was getting his or her rights violated, because the government is snooping on them or infiltrating their organization, as you talked at the top of the hour about some of these Muslim groups in California being infiltrated. This has a long and sordid history in the United States, and The Progressive

has always been calling out the US government on it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask, what you said about these “ridiculous” bank bailouts, what is ridiculous about them? And what would you do?

MATT ROTHSCHILD: Well, it’s just outrageous that we have given hundreds of billions of dollars — it’s going to be upwards probably of $2 trillion to these banks. We essentially own Citigroup right now, but we aren’t operating Citigroup. We’re not operating the banks in the people’s interest. We should own these banks, nationalize them, not nationalize them just to give them back to the banks after we scrub their asset seats, nationalize them and run them for the people, give loans to businesses, give loans to homeowners. It’s ridiculous we’ve overbought Citigroup right now, and we don’t even run it.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you explain the very — the differing traditions in Wisconsin? You talked about La Follette. You talked about McCarthy. Explain, right through today, the politics of Wisconsin.

MATT ROTHSCHILD: Well, those are two extremes. And we see those — you know, we see the left with Fighting Bob La Follette and his principles for what are, you know, the best things in this country. I mean, really, he tried to redeem the promise of America. And then, on the right, you have — you have Joe McCarthy, who was — you know, we had McCarthyism in this country before Joe McCarthy, but he is the poster boy of red-baiting and of slander and using the government’s weight to ruin people’s lives.

And so, we have in Wisconsin, as we do across the country, we have people who have an authoritarian mindset, who want to listen to someone who says, you know, we need to be more like a police state. And we even have it today, with people saying we need to torture or we need to spy. Or during the Iraq war, people were — 30 percent of the American people, or some ridiculous number like that, said people shouldn’t be able to protest in the streets against the war. So we have this strain, not only in Wisconsin, but across the country, Amy, of people who don’t really appreciate the essential liberties of this country. And so, we’re fighting against that. And we saw some of that ugliness with some of the “teabagging” that was going on a couple weeks ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Rothschild, finally, this weekend, what you’re doing? Last night was quite a rip-roaring event at the Orpheum here in Madison, Wisconsin, with Dar Williams, with Ani DiFranco, with the Indigo Girls. But now you have two days of — well, explain what’s happening.

MATT ROTHSCHILD: Well, we have a conference going on in about an hour and a half called “The Progressive Movement, Then and Now.” And we’re just flattered and humbled that so many great speakers are coming: Barbara Ehrenreich, Naomi Klein, Katha Pollitt, Howard Zinn. Robert Redford is coming out, and he never comes out to Madison and gives a talk, so a lot of people haven’t seen him. And we are going to go — and also, we’ve got Dennis Kucinich and Russ Feingold and several other members of Congress, Jan Schakowsky and Keith Ellison. We’re going to look at a whole range of issues that have been central to the progressive movement, and we’re going to have a lot of fun doing it, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Matt Rothschild, happy birthday. Or happy 100th anniversary of The Progressive magazine.


AMY GOODMAN: Matt Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive. The latest issue is called “1909-2009: 100 Years.”

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