NR Digital

Let the Bell Toll

by Jonah Goldberg
Celebrating the demise of Newsweek

There’s a kind of catholicism among journalists. We’re as susceptible as anyone to petty jealousies and hatreds of colleagues, but at the same time, we denizens of the print realm weep for the demise of almost any print publication. For no magazine is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, and should a rag be washed away by the digital sea, journalism is the less for it. Each magazine’s death diminishes me, for I too am involved in this wretched business, and the loss of a potential paycheck down the road hits me hard. So ask not, fellow scribes, who pays the digitization toll; that toll is paid by thee.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Every death may be regrettable, but some are less so than others. Which brings us to the demise of the print edition of Newsweek, that old, if not quite venerable, publication. This December 31, the last issue of it will roll off the presses. The name will live on the Internet with its partner website The Daily Beast, a creation of Tina Brown, the mostly successful and entirely famous magazine editor. This is a notable loss for exactly one constituency: the universe of people who have worked for Newsweek. (And even in this crowd the feelings are hardly universal. Mickey Kaus, the blogger extraordinaire who once wrote from a perch at Newsweek, has fought a losing battle to contain his schadenfreude over what he calls the “fantastic debacle” of Brown’s failed effort to save the magazine.) MSN.com captured the restrained mood well with the headline “Your dentist’s waiting room mourns the end of Newsweek’s print edition.”

In short, outside the ranks of the faithful, no one really cares very much about Newsweek’s fate. And this seems to be lost on those in mourning. Indeed, it seems lost on the Newsweek alumni that the rest of the world never really thought too highly of their magazine in the first place.

For instance, Howard Fineman, a longtime fixture there who is now at The Huffington Post, penned a eulogy that at first struck many observers as a parody. Fineman begins with what he seems to think is a pulse-pounding yarn about landing a Newsweek interview with Bob Dole in 1996. “I couldn’t not get the interview,” Fineman writes, as he prepares the reader for a barrage of name-drops comparable to a C-140’s scattering of candy bars over Berlin. “It was a cover story. One of the best photographers in the world, David Hume Kennerly, was doing the cover shoot. I had a new national affairs editor (a kid named Jon Meacham) and a Washington bureau chief (Evan Thomas) to impress — not to mention the top editor in New York, a swashbuckling character named Maynard Parker whose favorite editorial command was to ‘scramble the jets’ — meaning, scrap everything we had reported so far that week and jump on a story with more ‘news energy.’”

As no doubt everyone — by which I mean about five people who worked at Newsweek at the time — remembers, Fineman landed that interview. “We did the cover, which Dole hated, but which came to define the race. Or so we told ourselves.”

The most revealing tidbit from this yarn: Fineman had to charter a plane on the spot from Minneapolis to Pierre, S.D. It’s the kind of largesse that would be deemed almost indefensible at news organizations today, but at the pre-Internet newsweeklies it was par for the course. John Podhoretz, now the editor of Commentary magazine, tells of his days at Time in the 1980s, when his bosses told him never to submit a reimbursement request less than $300 for fear it would make everyone else look bad, and the editor-in-chief opted to travel by helicopter rather than make a 40-minute trip by car. Time even had an in-house doctor, no doubt to help with such occupational hazards as paper cuts and expense-account-enabled hangovers. Such lavishness helps to explain why so many in the elite mainstream press saw themselves as Olympians who descended from their summits to cover the little people. For the record, at National Review, the in-house doctor is the first person to tell you that you might want to put some ice on a serious head wound.

In the mid-1990s I had a friend, a smart semi-liberal hipster with a good sense of humor, who was hired by Newsweek to work on the “Periscope” section at the front of the magazine. I ran into a Newsweek senior editor and congratulated him on the hire. He responded that they were very excited about the fresh young recruit. They hoped he would make the front of the magazine more “edgy.” After he’d been there six months, I detected no change in the section. The “Conventional Wisdom” feature, which was intended to be a slightly ironic take on the conventional wisdom, was instead a nearly pitch-perfect encapsulation of conventional wisdom among elite liberal journalists. When I broached the awkward subject of the section’s uninterrupted banality, my friend erupted with frustration. “I know!” he exclaimed, adding that the problem was that every small item or joke had to be run through a vast corporate-editorial machinery like dough through a paste maker.

The story stuck with me because it encapsulates so many of the problems with the mainstream media. Newsweek, much like Time, the New York Times, and the broadcast news programs, always suffered from the delusion that it wasn’t liberal. Worse, they didn’t notice that their brand of liberalism itself had become entirely institutionalized. That The New Republic, The Washington Monthly, and the staffs of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mario Cuomo, or this or that Kennedy served as the minor-league talent pool for “straight” news reporters never seemed like a contradiction, never mind an indictment. Nearly the entire universe of the elite media (minus the Washington Post) was headquartered within less than a square mile of midtown Manhattan: Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, ABC, CBS, and NBC (not to mention The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books).

These journalists, many of them dedicated professionals, came of age intellectually at a time when conservatives were at best human-interest stories and, more often, scary creatures to be tagged and studied. Vital distinctions and arguments that were obvious to conservatives and to millions of normal Americans were glossed over or simply invisible to the media elite. So-called vital-center liberalism wasn’t seen as an ideological worldview with its own inherent biases and unproven assumptions. It was the cultural and intellectual norm. Conservatism was an “irritable mental gesture,” in the words of Lionel Trilling. From their Olympian vantage point, America indeed looked a lot like that famous New Yorker cover where America is bracketed by Eleventh Avenue and Los Angeles.

Newsweek and its ilk were outposts of this smug, myopic culture long after it became obvious to everyone else that they were living on borrowed time. In a sense, Jon Meacham, Tina Brown’s immediate predecessor at Newsweek, was the Egon Krenz of the publication. Krenz, you’ll be forgiven for forgetting, was the last leader of East Germany. He was an unremarkable apparatchik who had the bad luck to be in charge when the whole totalitarian glockenspiel went kaput. A product of the institutions he served in, Krenz was incapable of understanding the unsustainability of the system that produced him. Like all such creatures, he believed that the solution to the problem was doubling down on the problem. Meacham, who once said that “an important thing to remember about the press is there is no ideological bias,” had no clue how to fix the magazine.

In 2009 he announced that the magazine would be treated to a makeover, which was exciting to no one not invested in keeping the journalistic jalopy on the road. “There will, for the most part, be two kinds of stories in the new Newsweek,” Meacham wrote. “The first is the reported narrative — a piece, grounded in original observation and freshly discovered fact, that illuminates the important and the interesting. The second is the argued essay — a piece, grounded in reason and supported by evidence, that makes the case for something.” The former was what Newsweek always promised and rarely delivered. The latter was what Newsweek usually delivered under the guise of the former. He then revealed the roster of exciting writers who would produce this reinvigorated Internet-age journalism. It was the same old Egon Krenz doppelgängers who’d been hanging around the magazine for decades, plus a few young liberal writers. Also, there was George Will, a truly gifted holdover who was justifiably popular but also an appealing oddity and ideological ombudsman for the obviously liberal publication.

Of course, Meacham never acknowledged that his crop of apparatchiks were liberal. The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson succinctly summarized the product Meacham had produced. “While flipping the pages of the new Newsweek,” he wrote, “it began to occur to everybody that, hey, this is a pretty stupid idea for a magazine.” And it was. Newsweek’s operating losses in 2009, following the redesign, were $28.1 million — a loss 82.5 percent greater than the previous year’s hemorrhaging of $15.4 million.

Egon Krenz got six and half years for manslaughter in the reunified Germany. And obviously this is where the analogy completely breaks down. Meacham was no criminal and Newsweek no authoritarian prison state. Still, it’s hard not to grumble that Meacham’s award was a stint at — wait for it! — Time and regular spots at MSNBC and, as a supposedly objective journalist, on Meet the Press.

Most of his colleagues followed similar paths. Eleanor Clift was something of a canary in the coal mine, revealing herself on The McLaughlin Group as an unreconstructed liberal. But Jonathan Alter and the others weren’t far behind. Fineman, for instance, remains an utterly unremarkable liberal who suggested that Barack Obama deserved to be placed on Mount Rushmore for his 2010 State of the Union address. It’s hard to think that anybody outside of his bubble would nod along when he says, as he did last August, “I’m pretty well known for keeping an even keel ideologically and for steering clear of partisanship.”

Fineman’s steadfast dedication to the old myths that once sustained Newsweek is remarkable. He continues to maintain an almost studied obliviousness to the reality of his views and his reputation. In his eulogy to Newsweek, at the nakedly liberal and partisan Huffington Post, Fineman declares that Eleanor Clift is “as good a reporter as there has been in Washington, with the indefatigability of a Mike Allen, the discerning eye of a Mo Dowd and the wry humility of, well, no one else I know in the city.” Most revealing, however, is the following reassurance. “Let me start with this: the spirit of Newsweek is alive and well at places such as The Huffington Post, and I’m not just saying that because I work here. It’s alive at Tina Brown’s Daily Beast, too, and elsewhere on the web, in print, and, I hate to say it, at Time.”

Well, yes, just so.

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