Victor Navasky, an award-winning author and journalist who presided over the liberal US weekly the Nation and wrote influential books on the anti-communist blacklist and the justice department under Robert F Kennedy, has died. He was 90.

Navasky’s death was confirmed to the Associated Press by a spokesperson at the Nation. Its publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel, said Navasky changed her life and thousands of others.

“Victor was a true believer in the power of independent media – quietly fierce in his convictions, kind and generous to so very many,” Vanden Heuvel wrote.

Writers Navasky edited included Christopher Hitchens, David Corn, Eric Alterman and Katha Pollitt.

Corn said Navasky “plucked me out of the intern program and was my boss for many years. I learned much from him, as did many others. He was a champion of progressive journalism and had an impish wit. Thank you, Victor.”

The writer Dave Zirin said Navasky “believed in me before I believed in myself. I’ll add that Victor’s book Naming Names is timeless, as he was, is, and always will be.”

Pen America called Navasky “a stalwart defender of the freedom to write”.

Navasky was an editor and columnist for the New York Times, a founder of the satirical magazine Monocle and, from 1978 to 2005, editor then publisher of the Nation.

He wrote books on political and cultural history. Naming Names, winner of a National Book Award in 1982, was an account of the cold war and blacklisting praised as thorough and fair-minded. He called the book a “moral detective story” and drew on interviews with actor Lee J Cobb, screenwriter Budd Schulberg and others who informed on their peers.

A decade earlier, Navasky wrote Kennedy Justice, some of the first sustained liberal analysis of Robert Kennedy’s time as attorney general. Some thought Navasky romanticized Kennedy, though Kennedy was chastised for appointing segregationist judges.

Navasky taught journalism at Columbia University, chaired the Columbia Journalism Review and was on the board of Pen America, the Authors Guild and the Committee to Protect Journalists. A book on political cartoons, The Art of Controversy, came out in 2013.

A native of New York, Navasky attended the Little Red School House, a progressive establishment.

“We had one Marxist history teacher who taught a straight Marxist view of history,” Navasky told the Guardian in 2005. “I remember he once asked where diamonds got their value. Someone said, ‘Because they’re beautiful.’ He said, ‘No, no.’ Someone else said, ‘Supply and demand.’ He said, ‘No.’ Someone else said, ‘From the sweat of the workers in the mines!’ And he said ‘Right!’”

Navasky majored in political science at Swarthmore College, editing the student newspaper, and received a graduate degree from Yale Law. At Yale he helped start Monocle, which ran from 1959 to 1965. A contributor, Nora Ephron, said Navasky “knew important people, and he knew people he made you think were important simply because he knew them”.

Navasky married Anne Strongin in 1966. They had three children.

Navasky also managed an unsuccessful Senate campaign by the former US attorney general Ramsey Clark. In 1977 he was hired to edit the Nation, a century-old publication which had always struggled financially.

“You were walking into history,” Navasky told the Guardian 28 years later. “But history was in jeopardy.”

As Oliver Burkeman wrote, “Navasky felt a weighty burden of responsibility towards a magazine that had published the likes of Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King and Jean-Paul Sartre, and was founded by abolitionists, who, having won their battle against slavery, wanted to continue their philanthropy.

“I was extremely aware that I didn’t want to be the one who brought this great institution down,” Navasky said. “Because of its great heritage, it couldn’t be written off as radical fringe. It had politics that were beyond the mainstream, but it was part of the woodwork of the establishment.”

Columnists included Alexander Cockburn and Hitchens, the latter saying Navasky “invented me, in a way. He gave me a desk and a sponsor and a place to hang my hat, which was what I needed.”.

Navasky was often criticized, whether for being too being cheap (“The wily and parsimonious Victor Navasky,” his friend Calvin Trillin called him) or too nice.

“In fact the only thing I don’t like about Victor is the fact that everybody likes him,” said Hitchens, who quit the Nation in 2002. “I think he should have made some more enemies by now.”

Hitchens did criticise Navasky and his magazine, for its treatment of Russia.

“The Nation was an apologist for the failed so-called Soviet experiment and amazingly enough still is,” Hitchens said, adding: “There’s this instinct to support Moscow.

“And for all Victor’s broad-church stuff, when it comes down to it, he will always take a version of that side. His core is quite hardline, very tenderly presented. Which is to his credit: he’s not going to run from a fight. He will try to come at it crabwise, in his shrugging, charming way, and to leech the anger out of it. But he’s quite a hard leftist.”

Under Navasky, circulation more than tripled. The Nation also made headlines when, in 1979, it obtained an early copy of former president Gerald Ford’s memoir and printed excerpts. The publisher Harper & Row took a case to the supreme court, and won.

Navansky stepped aside in 1994 – but bought the magazine. It was “an offer I should’ve refused”, he said, but investors including the actor Paul Newman kept the Nation afloat.

In 2005, Navasky won the George K Polk Book Award for A Matter of Opinion, a memoir and defense of free expression.

“I was, I guess, what would be called a left liberal, although I never thought of myself as all that left,” Navasky wrote. “I believed in civil rights and civil liberties, I favored racial integration, I thought responsibility for the international tensions of the cold war was equally distributed between the United States and the USSR.”

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