The End of Newsweek

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 02, 2008

It was nice while it lasted. For the past year, I’ve been writing occasional commentaries on items I’ve culled from Newsweek for no other reason than it was the source I had chosen to keep up with what the American mainstream is saying. In addition to its news coverage, the magazine offers a range of columnists; it is often interesting; and it provides plenty of grist for the Catholic mill.

But it is time to move on. The last straw was the November 24th issue in which not only did the incredibly shallow Anna Quindlen (Newsweek’s alternating liberal columnist on the back page) crow about the inevitable acceptance of same-sex marriage in “The Love Decision”, but a Newsweek editor also wrote a feature essay on “How Getting Married Made Me an Activist”—getting gay-married, that is. There is only so much venting of aimless and ill-considered personal desire that one can tolerate in a news magazine.

Did I say news magazine? Actually, I’ve learned a thing or two over the past year of subscribership about what constitutes news in at least part of the mainstream these days. Much of the magazine is devoted to health, celebrities, and the movies. To be sure, this accurately represents the preoccupations of many Americans, but it rankles a thinking man to have to pay for it, even if most of the cost of publishing is covered by advertising. Moreover, even when covering the socio-political stories one associates with hard news, Newsweek has a bad habit of filling its pages with data that has been hastily organized to convey some preconceived (and perhaps largely fanciful) theme.

Thus the cover story for the same issue features “Obama’s Lincoln”, with the blurb “The Strength of Humility: Channeling the 16th President”—a classic example of a (perhaps largely fanciful) Newsweek theme. Similarly, most of the major coverage of the candidates in the last election was devoted to figuring out what makes each candidate tick. In each case there was the obligatory effort to organize everything around a master theme, such as John McCain’s frustration at not yet having risen as high as his father and grandfather, with the implication that this is what drove him to seek the presidency. It is, in fact, extremely unlikely that Newsweek’s writers really ever learn what makes a candidate tick. But their characteristic overarching themes give us the feeling that we’re gaining important insight. Truth to tell, we may just as easily be absorbing nothing but a pre-conceived (and, again, perhaps largely fanciful) story line.

Then there’s the studied inclusion of both liberal and conservative columnists in order to suggest a sort of balance. For example, the magazine alternates Anna Quindlen and George Will on the back page. But the liberal columnists, nine times out of ten, simply write emotively to advance their favorite ideas. They tend to be propagandists and little more. The so-called “conservative” columnists seldom have an overarching idea to press; they aren’t so much “conservative” as simply thoughtful and willing to explore complex subjects in some depth. This is a very strange sort of “balance”. You may think this assessment reveals nothing but my own prejudices, but I assure you that both the style and the substance of these columnists are very different.

Of course, it is only fair to admit that Newsweek represents (and may help to shape) the mainstream, but it doesn’t provide a lot of solid food. So next year I’m trying Time instead. It may be a case of “the more things change, the more they remain the same”, but you can expect to find me picking on Time’s columnists in 2009. Still, I’ll stick with it only if there is enough meat. I don’t expect to agree with everything in the mainstream press; far from it. But if I pay my money, I want something more than ill-considered material to attack. I expect to learn something as well. Sadly, Newsweek tends to impart the illusion of knowledge more than knowledge itself. By the end of its year with me, the magazine had failed not only to persuade, but to teach.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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