Katrina vanden Heuvel ’81 is the editor and publisher of the political magazine, “The Nation.” She spoke to The Daily Princetonian about her time at the University, the Nassau Weekly and the future of journalism.
The Daily Princetonian: What was your favorite memory at Princeton?
Katrina vanden Heuvel: It’s less a memory than what I left Princeton with, that has long been a part of my life, and Princeton played a role in it. You know, what I do at “The Nation,” day in and day out, is try to challenge the conventional wisdom, the orthodox consensus. I had the good fortune at Princeton of being friends with, and also studying with people, who had the courage of their convictions and who taught me that it’s better to be critical-minded, than to just follow along, better to challenge, always think of what the alternatives are and not accept what is, not accept the status quo as what should be. That is something Princeton gave me that I continue to cherish.
DP: How many times have you returned to Princeton since graduating?
KVH: Many times. My daughter is at Princeton right now for her reunions, she graduated in 2009. I would go down and see her. My husband taught at Princeton for close on to three decades, and I would often be down at Princeton while he was teaching. He left almost two decades ago. I haven’t been to many reunions. I think I went to my 25th. But I was supposed to be on a panel for my 35th but couldn’t make it. But, Princeton is quite an extraordinary place. Obviously I live pretty close, in New York City, but one of the downsides when I was at Princeton was I didn’t spend too much time in New York City! So I should make up by going back more, but I haven’t.
DP: What was your favorite class at Princeton?
KVH: It was called “Politics and the Press.” It was a course that, again, gave me an understanding of what I wanted to with my life. It was a great seminar; [it] taught one how to avoid media malpractice when it comes to covering politics, and it again challenged me to be a better political thinker, reporter, writer. The seminar leader brought in many interesting people — writers, journalists to talk about history, politics and journalism. So that was my favorite. And it led to an internship at “The Nation.” I believe it’s still being taught, but I think Ferris-Booth seminars [and that is has] many new additions now, from science writing to investigative journalism. I majored in politics, but I also found a way to find a journalism course within the University, even though it wasn’t technically a department.
DP: The most important thing you learned outside the classroom?
KVH: I think what I said earlier was I learned both inside the classroom and outside; it was not just inside the classroom it was being with people, students, professors, who challenged one to think critically.
DP: Is there a story you particularly enjoyed writing with The Nassau Weekly?
KVH: In my freshman year I had an experience that led to one of my first published pieces in The Washington Post. I think I wrote a version of it for The Nassau Weekly. I was hijacked going to see my father who was then Deputy Representative to the UN in Geneva and we sat for eight hours on the tarmac before it was determined to be a hoax. Eight hours after leaving the plane, I wrote a 4,000 word piece for The Washington Post. I wrote that piece four hours after getting off a hijacked plane — I think at that point I realized I not only wanted to be a journalist but I could be one! And I went back to Princeton, and a year later I took that seminar I told you about, “Politics and the Press.” For my thesis, I focused on the role of the press during the McCarthy Era.
DP: What were relations like between The Nassau Weekly and The Daily Princetonian during your time?
KVH: You know, they were not as friendly — listen, where I sit with the news business [which is] under extraordinary stress, in peril in many ways, I think brother and sister publications everywhere should work together in more solidarity. I don’t remember great solidarity and I suspect today it doesn't exist. I will tell you from where I sit, it’s time for journalists of the world [to] unite — it’s tough out there. I will say “The Nation” has 60 correspondents, student journalists around the country, at all kinds of different colleges, and we are having our first student journalism conference June 3 in New York City. So I’m excited. It’s kind of what I would have loved to attend when I was at Princeton — giving people a sense [of] how to cover their campuses, their country and the world.
DP: Were you always interested in pursuing a career in political journalism?
KVH: I think, early on, I was. I was always very interested in politics and history. But, I also loved being able to report and be an observer, not necessarily a full participant, being able to stand back. In that sense, in 1978 I realized at that time that if one could get off a plane like that and do 4,000 words for a newspaper, I had it in me to want to tell other stories and become a journalist. Today, I write a weekly column for the washingtonpost.com. I am an editor and a publisher — so would I call myself a journalist? I work with many journalists — I direct and organize, but I am not on the ground as I wish I could be.
DP: What was / is it like being in a woman in a leadership position in journalism?
KVH: I certainly wasn’t in the first few classes of women, probably five or six years in. I think we have come a long way. But, the critical mass of women needed in real leadership positions is still needed in all areas — we see it whether it’s in the corporate world, the journalist world, even in the political world with the first woman running for president when you look at the percentages in Congress and we lag behind the world. So, we’ve come a long way. Princeton gave me strength. But, one could also see how far we had to come.
DP: What is one piece of advice you would give to students who are thinking about going into political journalism?KVH: Be bold. Have a passion for your work. Find places which will challenge you and where you can challenge the powers that be. Find the place where you can do the kind of writing whether it’s long form narrative or investigative — what we need to do is find ways to support those who want to do that, because I think it’s important for the world. But, it’s tough out there.