Iconic Journalist Nat Hentoff Is Laid Off An 83-year-old icon of American journalism, Hentoff lost his job last Tuesday. Since 1958, he'd been a well-known fixture in New York City's Village Voice, writing about jazz and politics, among other topics.

Iconic Journalist Nat Hentoff Is Laid Off

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/98960029/98977421" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


An icon of American journalism was laid off this week, Nat Hentoff. His most recent job was with the Village Voice newspaper in New York. The 83-year-old Hentoff had been associated with the paper for six decades. When we talked to him, he said the condolences poured in immediately.

NAT HENTOFF: It's like reading one's obituary while you're still alive.

SHAPIRO: Well, how does it feel to have reached this point 60 years after you started writing for the Village Voice?

HENTOFF: Well, I can't say it's exhilarating but I've been through this before. I have been fired from some of the more prestigious publications over the years.

SHAPIRO: (Laughing) Is that so?

HENTOFF: So I can understand this tone of voice when I get the call. One of my favorite ones was I was at the New Yorker magazine for over 25 years under the legendary William Shawn. He left, he was fired. And when Tina Brown came in, it was about 10 days before Christmas, I got a note from her managing editor thanking me for my service now that I had retired. It was very kind of her because I hadn't been aware I'd retired.


SHAPIRO: You are certainly not the only prominent journalist to have been laid off in the last few years, but you are among the most prominent, and I wonder what you think this says about the state of media and newspapers today?

HENTOFF: Well, that's very troubling. Those papers in those small towns, some of them are folding. And that means, of course, the Internet, which is fine, except what you get most of the time is people going to those sites and those blogs with which they already agree.


HENTOFF: So that bothers me in terms of what James Madison said - I'm paraphrasing - if people do not understand the history of the country, the nature of the Constitution, if they're not an informed citizenry - and I'm paraphrasing very badly here - we've blown the gig. That it's hard to keep a republic if the citizens don't know why they are different from other countries, and the I think that's a key problem now.

SHAPIRO: Do you have any advice for young journalists who are starting out their career at this point?

HENTOFF: The main thing is if you're passionately interested in something - and we all are in one or more things - that's something that - that's an area you ought to really get familiar with, and if you can go into interviews to begin with with a real knowledge of what you're asking the interviewee. The other thing that I'd have to tell them is what one of my mentors, Izzy Stone(ph), told me when I was in my 20s. He said, if you think you're in this business to change the world, go get another day job.

Because if you do change anything, it'll be incremental, and you may not even know that it happened. But if you have this insistence once you get a story that has to be told to follow it, that's why you're there. Don't worry about you're becoming part of the story.


SHAPIRO: You know, you joked at the beginning of this conversation that this experience has almost been like reading your obituary. And I wonder, as folks who are now looking back on the last 60 years that you spent at the Village Voice, look at the body of work you've created. Is there any subject you've written about or a column you wrote that you would like people to visit and reread in particular?

HENTOFF: Well, I can tell you - some other way of answering this. It's very hard to know when you write or when you broadcast whether you're really reaching people in a way that makes a real difference to them. And a few years ago, there was big conference in New York of lawyers, and all these lawyers from around the country were there. And I was sitting at the table with them, and three lawyers came over - they looked to be in their 30s or so. And one, speaking for all of them, looked at me and said, I want to tell you why we're here. When we were all in high school, we were reading you in the Voice, and you made the law so exciting that that's why we're here. My goodness, that was a great thing to hear.

SHAPIRO: Well, before you wrote about politics and the law, you wrote about music, and I wonder if there's a song you would like us to go out on that maybe describes your career or that's just a personal favorite?

HENTOFF: One of Duke Ellington's songs, "Things Ain't What They Used To Be." And that is, of course, continually what we are confronted with as journalist, as readers, as citizens. But the other part of that is the roots of jazz go way back to Bark Gospel and all the songs of the field haulers in slavery time. So while things ain't what they used to be, if you're a good reporter, you got to remember what the roots of everything is that you write about because it keeps coming back.

SHAPIRO: Nat Hentoff, it's an honor to talk to you. Thank you very much.

HENTOFF: Well, thank you, sir.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.