Commentary Magazine


Topic: Catcher

RE: Newsweek Squeak

John, I wanted to follow up on your post on Newsweek by linking to this interview between Jon Meacham and Jon Stewart on The Daily Show [it can be found here and here]. During it, Meacham says this:

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.

Ah, no.

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.

John, I wanted to follow up on your post on Newsweek by linking to this interview between Jon Meacham and Jon Stewart on The Daily Show [it can be found here and here]. During it, Meacham says this:

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.

Ah, no.

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.

Read Less

J.D. Salinger, Dead at 91

The news that J.D. Salinger, since Greta Garbo’s passing the world’s most notable silent-by-choice person, has died comes as a bit of a shock even though he has hardly been seen and barely been heard from in 45 years. Perhaps that is because one doesn’t think of Salinger as Salinger, but rather as Holden Caulfield, the most famous fictional American teenager. Catcher in the Rye was published, think of it, 59 years ago. Reading it now, the novel certainly shows its age — what teenage boy would take a teenage girl to have hot chocolate by the Rockefeller Center Skating Rink? — but the brilliant conversational voice with which Salinger imbued Holden can be heard in every single effort by an adult to render the sensibility of adolescence.

But perhaps what is most interesting about the shock of Salinger’s passing is how his very long life reveals the philosophical weakness at the heart of his work. He was concerned almost exclusively with the travails and wounds of the very young, notably the children of the Glass family. And it was clear that his sympathy lay entirely with them, with their moods and despairs and fears and sense of the world’s impurity and falsity. To that end, Salinger was guilty of the worst kind of romanticism, with his idealization of suicide in particular.

To be sure, the wounds of youth are “sensitive as a fresh burn,” to quote the writer Isaac Rosenfeld, and therefore very powerful. But Salinger’s continuing concern with those wounds may well have been the reason he fell silent as a writer when he himself hit middle age. The life of an adult is actually so much more complex and interesting, and so much the better source of material for a writer as supernaturally gifted as Salinger was (as his own masterful youthful story, “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” demonstrates), that his evident refusal to grapple with it and his continued emotional investment in the increasingly distant ways of the not-yet-adult may have been what silenced him.

Perhaps there is gold to be mined in his New Hampshire home in the form of the manuscripts he was said to labor over. Maybe they will reveal the maturity that eluded him, that they will show he was a pure artist who did not need an audience to explore the deeper truths available to those who grow as they age. That would be a wonderful capstone. It’s doubtful, but just think of it — Salinger with a happy ending, at long last.

The news that J.D. Salinger, since Greta Garbo’s passing the world’s most notable silent-by-choice person, has died comes as a bit of a shock even though he has hardly been seen and barely been heard from in 45 years. Perhaps that is because one doesn’t think of Salinger as Salinger, but rather as Holden Caulfield, the most famous fictional American teenager. Catcher in the Rye was published, think of it, 59 years ago. Reading it now, the novel certainly shows its age — what teenage boy would take a teenage girl to have hot chocolate by the Rockefeller Center Skating Rink? — but the brilliant conversational voice with which Salinger imbued Holden can be heard in every single effort by an adult to render the sensibility of adolescence.

But perhaps what is most interesting about the shock of Salinger’s passing is how his very long life reveals the philosophical weakness at the heart of his work. He was concerned almost exclusively with the travails and wounds of the very young, notably the children of the Glass family. And it was clear that his sympathy lay entirely with them, with their moods and despairs and fears and sense of the world’s impurity and falsity. To that end, Salinger was guilty of the worst kind of romanticism, with his idealization of suicide in particular.

To be sure, the wounds of youth are “sensitive as a fresh burn,” to quote the writer Isaac Rosenfeld, and therefore very powerful. But Salinger’s continuing concern with those wounds may well have been the reason he fell silent as a writer when he himself hit middle age. The life of an adult is actually so much more complex and interesting, and so much the better source of material for a writer as supernaturally gifted as Salinger was (as his own masterful youthful story, “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” demonstrates), that his evident refusal to grapple with it and his continued emotional investment in the increasingly distant ways of the not-yet-adult may have been what silenced him.

Perhaps there is gold to be mined in his New Hampshire home in the form of the manuscripts he was said to labor over. Maybe they will reveal the maturity that eluded him, that they will show he was a pure artist who did not need an audience to explore the deeper truths available to those who grow as they age. That would be a wonderful capstone. It’s doubtful, but just think of it — Salinger with a happy ending, at long last.

Read Less




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