The Demise of Newsweek: Good Riddance to Rubbish
Everyone is falling all over themselves crying in their beer about the demise of one of America's most cherished cultural institutions.
The Smithsonian wasn't bombed. The Metropolitan Museum hasn't been ransacked. Nor has the proverbial fat lady finally sung at the Met Opera.
No, we're talking about Newsweek. Yes, I was shocked too; not that it was discontinuing its print edition but that it was still printing every week. And if that's so, is the most recent issue in my dentist's office always at least 1 year old?
To those who believe that a cabal of 1 percenters repressed an eensy-left-of-center newsweekly, the most obvious culprit is the one you're using right now. Even if the Web hadn't made a weekly digest as quaint as receiving news via Pony Express, Newsweek would eventually have fallen victim to the 24-hour-a-day news cycle of cable TV "news' networks (ironic quotes here), daily syndicated entertainment-journalism programs, and all the other blather that fills airtime between ads for treatments of bizarre ailments.
Newsweek actually has existed for two years on life support. In 2010, its parent company, the Washington Post, got tired of subsidizing its losses and couldn't unload it until a retired billionaire, Sydney Harman, bought it for $1, which gives a good indication of how the market valued the magazine.
Even more damaging than the exodus of readers to digital media was its obvious cooking of its circulation figures. By virtually giving subscriptions away, it was able to charge more for ad space. But media buyers knew that most readers were barely glancing at the content -- and at ads not at all.
Harman was briefly lauded as a savior of serious journalism until he revealed that he had teamed up with Tina Brown and would merge his new property with her fledgling all-things-to-all-people website, the Daily Beast.
The British-born-and-bred Brown made her reputation early in her career as the editor of a struggling society glossy magazine called The Tatler. She gussied it up with big-name contributors, and covered more of London's swinging set and less stodgy titled nobility and royals.
Bright, ambitious and ruthless, Brown was the female version of the nasty, brutish Fleet Street reporters satirized in Evelyn Waugh's novel "Scoop." British journalism has always been more rough and tumble than ours. Reporters routinely use blackmail, bribery, payoffs, sexual favors -- anything to get a story, amply demonstrated by the current unfolding of hacking private phone lines, including the immediate family of a brutally murdered young girl.
Brown also spearheaded relentless press coverage of Princess Diana, about whom she much later wrote a thick book that I devoured. It also showed the dogged searcher of hard facts, the shaper of a narrative, the mistress of breezy English. That she and her cohorts hounded Princess Di to her death in Paris is apparently something, however, that has escaped her piercing gaze.
Brown arrived on these shores to revive another dying venerable magazine title, Vanity Fair. Brown transformed it into an upscale, literate version of People. As a reward, the publisher gave her the most prestigious editing job in English-language magazines, The New Yorker.
Some (many, actually) say she dumbed down the magazine, which is probably unfair. Its famous fustiness was out of date; long articles on series on subjects like the history of the potato seemed stale, irrelevant and, in a world less inclined to linger, too damn long.
She made it relevant again, but also introduced photography and brought in writers far from the suede-patch-sleeved norm there. She badly flubbed her next move when she founded Talk, which represents the worst of her editorial instincts. If Vanity Fair was People for the 1 percent, the short-lived glossy Talk came off as their National Enquirer.
She eventually recovered and became a TV talking head, author, and founder, with (barely closeted) media mogul Barry Diller, of the Daily Beast. Now Diller has decided -- very reasonably, in my opinion -- that a publicly traded company can't afford the luxury of subsidizing a money pit.
The Article That Made Newsweek Jump the Shark
Brown immediately brought to Newsweek her trademark brand of flashy headlines, bold graphics, shortened content and lots and lots of photographs. But she also brought to the most sober of the newsweeklies in-your-face articles that screamed "Read me, dammit!"
Longtime editor John Meacham was the epitome of the old WASP Establishment. Sober, responsible, intelligent and industrious, in between editing a weekly he managed to write several nonfiction books and even won a Pulitzer Prize for biography.
Brown was to Meacham as, say, one of Liz Taylor's necklaces was to Barbara Bush's single strand of pearls. To her, buzz was all. It didn't matter if people hated your magazine or thought it ridiculous; they were talking about it. The Harman's family pointedly and publicly stated that they were walking away from the magazine because of her misguided policies favoring sensationalism over sober reporting on important subjects that weren't "sexy."
As it became more apparent that the magazine was on the ropes, Brown sunk ever lower into mire of crappy writing, shoddy reporting and shallow thinking.
Which brings us to Newsweek's own Fonzi moment, when it waterskied over the shark.
The skier was one Ramin Setoodeh, a young gay journalist who has since become a footnote, a has-been. Setoodeh claimed that, after actor Sean Hayes came out as gay, it was impossible to accept him as a leading man. "Most of the critics ignored the real problem -- the big pink elephant in the room," he wrote, about "Promises, Promises," Hayes' first turn as a Broadway musical star.
Actually, every critic ignored it. But that's only the beginning of Setoodeh's lack of intelligent reporting.
He compared Hayes unfavorably to the macho swaggering of Jerry Orbach's original assay of the role, although Sedooteh admits he never saw Orbach perform anywhere but on TV's "Law and Order," which is like judging Sally Field based on "The Flying Nun."
What's so weird about this article is that Setoodeh blithely glides over the careers of closeted actors like Tab Hunter, Rock Hudson and Richard Chamberlain in one sentence. Following his argument, the obvious question is, do we look at their performances differently knowing that? As a lover of old movies, I never thought Hunter's or Hudson's romancing of their leading ladies suddenly became fake because I now knew that they preferred partners with different plumbing.
Setoodeh's twisted logic became the subject of universal ridicule. I can't recall anyone stepping up to defend him, excepting, perhaps, the homophobic Christian Right. The drumbeat of opprobrium culminated in Chenoweth herself called his piece "horrendously homophobic" in a lengthy printed response.
"This article offends me because I am a human being, a woman and a Christian," she wrote. "For example, there was a time when Jewish actors had to change their names because anti-Semites thought no Jew could convincingly play Gentile."
She could have added that this was the Nazis' justification for "de-Jewing" the German performing arts. Setooodeh's argument leads to some odd conclusions. For example, no Gentile should play Shylock. No practicing Jews or Protestants could pull off a convincing performance of the passionately committed Catholic St. Thomas Moore.
Rather than feeling chastised, Brown saw the outcry over such ridiculous articles as a success in her campaign to create the sacred buzz. People were talking about Newsweek! A big Broadway star wrote a lengthy response to one of our articles! We have more Google results for this issue than Time!
Over the next two years, the magazine's cover stories, always a magazine's floating trademark, would descend to nonsense like "Obama: The First Gay President" (with a rainbow halo), followed by a simplistic hatchet job on the president by one of the most notorious Obama bashers, Niall Ferguson. At least the magazine was even-handed: One issue dismissed Romney as a "wimp," while another discussed how well his Mormon religion prepared him to be national leader.
It's not worth going over all the madcap silliness that overshadowed the magazine's proud history like a pig shitting on a truffle it had just found. But attention must be paid to one of the last cover stories -- and the one that took Brown's Newsweek from the merely ridiculous to potentially dangerous. Ayaan Hirsi Ali -- surprise, the wife of the odious Ferguson! -- wrote of how she "survived the Muslim rage."
Publishing this only days after Americans were horrified by a mob's murder of our ambassador to Libya, this exercise in Islam bashing and the ugliest stereotypes made Newsweek the kind of magazine that, if it were being published in Germany in 1938, would have followed Kristallnacht with a story about an Aryan man who escaped rape, poverty and circumcision at the clutches of demonic, sex-crazed, avaricious Jews.
Toward the end, Newsweek's weekly stream of lowest-common denominator crap like "Heaven Is Real," lazy recycled news reports like "America's Obesity Crisis" had reduced it to a punch line. Even Michele Bachmann managed to solicit sympathy from, among others, the National Organization of Women for the infamously Photoshopped "crazy eyes" cover photo of her.
Making Bachmann look even more crazy is merely unprofessional and personally insulting. But to attempt to horn into the national conversation by fanning the already high-level flames of anti-Muslim hatred in this country is the worst kind of advocacy journalism. And to ghettoize gay actors into effeminate or macho-clone stereotypes would be beneath a high school newspaper.
No, I won't miss Newsweek. And my dentist still has lots of old National Geographics.