I do not believe that Newsweek is the only catcher in the rye between democracy and ignorance, but I think we’re one of them. And I don’t think there are that many on the edge of that cliff.
For years I had subscribed to Newsweek, though I dropped the subscription last year, when I thought the magazine took a dive for the worst. I found the “new” Newsweek to be horrible in layout and in many (though certainly not all) of the writers it regularly featured. Jacob Weisberg and Jonathan Alter are not vital to the success of the American Republic. Trust me.
Regardless of your views about the quality of Newsweek, though, the notion that it is one of the “few catchers in the rye between democracy and ignorance” is risible. It was a liberal-leaning newsmagazine that mirrored almost perfectly the conventional wisdom of the political class. It was not, and never has been, indispensible, close to indispensible, or marginally indispensible. In fact, American democracy and American public discourse will not be one bit worse off when it disappears from the scene.
My three children will do fine growing up in a world without Newsweek.
Meacham also insisted that Newsweek has been “one of the very few common denominators in a fragmented world.” It actually has not been that.
Newsweek represented a point of view that was philosophically liberal. In some years it did that better than in other years. But it was not a “common denominator” for us, as much as Meacham wishes it were. And I, for one, believe the “fragmented” media world we live in is far superior to the one that came before it. The consensus that existed among journalists when their profession was dominated by Time and Newsweek, by ABC, NBC, and CBS, by the New York Times and the Washington Post, was stupefying. The narratives were virtually all the same because the worldviews of reporters were almost all the same. What we had were a “herd of independent minds” trying to tell us how to think, which stories were worthy of our attention, and how to process those stories.
Today we live in a far more interesting, variegated, and informed world. There are now genuine clashes of ideas — and facts can now be checked in a way they never were in the past. (See Dan Rather’s and CBS’s reliance on bogus documents for a “60 Minutes” report charging that President Bush received favorable treatment in the National Guard, something that two decades ago could have cost Bush the presidency instead of Rather his job.)
It isn’t a perfect world by any means. And I’m not in favor of a world in which there are only commentators, only bloggers, only opinion-makers. We still need newspapers and news organizations that report and break news. For example, the New York Times, whatever its drawbacks, still provides excellent coverage of international affairs. During the Iraq war reporters like John Burns, Dexter Filkins, and Michael Gordon provided outstanding coverage.
We still need journalists reporting on oil wells that explode and leak, British elections being held, wars being fought, genocide unfolding, riots occurring in Greece, and all the rest. The good news is that we live in a world that features both “hard news” and informed commentary, to a degree we have never had before.
In that respect, what we have today is a vast improvement over the past. It also means that the truth and reality of the world in which we live has a better chance of being apprehended by the American citizenry.
I can understand on a personal and a professional level why Jon Meacham is shattered by what has happened to his magazine. But it is a tragedy for Newsweek, not for America — and not for American journalism.