A eulogy for Newsweek
December 28, 2012By Dick Polman
At year's end, it is customary in journalism to take note of those notables who have left this world. Norman Schwarzkopf, Daniel Inouye, Robert Bork...the 2012 list is long. But if I had to write only one obituary, it would begin like this:
Newsweek, 79, died on Dec. 31 after a very long illness.
And if I had to deliver only one eulogy, it would be for that magazine - which published in print this week for the last time. It now disappears into the digital maw, just another iPad icon like Flipboard or Zite, devoid of everything that once made it so unique.
I'm probably boring you already. The print death of Newsweek probably means nothing to any news consumer who came of age in the Internet era. But, rest assured, Newsweek in its heyday was hugely consequential, breaking ground on major '60s trends and stories that were virtually ignored by the mainstream press - particularly Vietnam and the civil rights movement - and pioneering narrative forms of journalistic story-telling that we take for granted today. It deserves a few hundred kind words on its way to internment.
Fifty years ago, Newsweek called itself "an indispensible complement to newspaper reading, because it explains, expounds, clarifies." Precisely so. Newspapers back in the '60s were stylistically dull; mostly, they ran daily wire-service stories and eschewed the big picture. Newsweek and its chief rival, Time, had free reign not only to recap the previous week's events, but to put those events in a broader explanatory context and write with an analytical "voice." Newsweek was owned by The Washington Post Company, whose publisher, Phil Graham, famously said that the magazine's ambition was "to provide every week the first rough draft of a history."
But Newsweek did more than that. It anticipated what our history would be. Young people today are (probably) aware that civil rights was a seminal '60s movement, but it's no exaggeration to say that, back in the day, the movement would not have penetrated white mainstream consciousness if not for Newsweek. In terms of covering the movement, of recognizing its significance, the magazine was light years ahead of everyone else, particularly Time.
You've probably never heard of Karl Fleming, who died in August. Fifty years ago, as a Newsweek reporter, he dodged gunfire outside a University of Mississippi building ("four bullets stitched in a white column six inches above my head," he later recalled), while reporting on black student James Meredith's bid to desegregate the all-white school. Fleming's colorful narrative detail fueled the magazine's seven-page account, entitled "The Sound and the Fury." No other national journalistic outlet came close to matching Newsweek on that story; indeed, Newsweek owned the civil rights story for years. Fleming, a Navy vet, did a major share of the grunt work, with the Ku Klux Klan trailing him in pickup trucks.
As a kid, I particularly remember a 1967 cover story, "The Negro in America" (using the polite nomenclature of the era) that sprawled over 20 pages, detailing everything from housing and education to poverty and job discrimination. Again, no competitor had taken on the task of explaining the black world to white readers. My history teacher spent an hour on the story.
But Newsweek was not an altruistic enterprise, of course. It still had to make money. But in the era when print was king, its stylistic trend-spotting was also good for business. Thanks to its coverage of the civil rights movement (and, shortly thereafter, the feminist movement) Newsweek was viewed on Madison Avenue as "a hot book," popular among young readers who had purchasing power.
And its reputation was buttressed by its coverage of Vietnam. It was the first newsmagazine to report skeptically on America's military tactics, particularly the Johnson administration's futile attempts to bomb North Vietnam into submission. It was also the first to raise moral concerns about the war. And in 1967, when rival Time was suppressing the skeptical dispatches of its own war correspondents, and enlisting its New York editors to write hawkish stories that had no relation to reality, Newsweek put out a special edition that detailed and analyzed the war's impact on America at home. That coverage ran for 48 pages.
Last week, I saw the Dec. 24 print edition. The entire magazine was 56 pages.
The reasons for its demise have been well-documented. The '80s advent of cable news accelerated the news cycle; context and analysis became available around the clock, thus making the seven-day recap irrelevent. The late '90s advent of the Internet accelerated the news cycle even further, and it continues to steal advertising. Even the newspapers helped kill Newsweek; during the last 20 years, the best of them have done the kind of stylistic writing and interpretive reporting that was once the province of the magazine. Several years ago, The Washington Post Company, saddled with financial woes of its own, dumped Newsweek for a sale price of one dollar. Ultimately it wound up with Tina Brown, who tried to gin up buzz with sensational covers, but who ultimately gave up, conceding recently that "every piece of the Zeitgeist was against Newsweek."
Howard Fineman, the former Newsweek political writer and an acquaintance of mine, insisted recently that "the spirit of Newsweek is alive and well" on quality Internet news sites, and that "the best way to honor a place such as Newsweek is to seek to match what it did." I hope that happens.
Here's a pithy quote: "The GOP cares, over and above every other item on its political agenda, about the rich contributors who keep them in office. This is why tax increases on the wealthy have become an absolute Republican taboo.... The GOP's mission is to protect and further enrich America's plutocracy. The party's caterwauling about deficits and debt is so much eyewash to blind the public."
So says a Republican staffer who recently quit Capitol Hill after spending 16 years on the Senate and House budget committees. And he's not the only Republican talking that way. See my newspaper column today.
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