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Why the Pundits Don't Like the New Newsweek

5 years ago
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"Jon Meacham is clearly an intelligent person and skilled writer, but his judgment about America and what America needs is somewhat inferior to that of my cat Lexie," John B. Judis wrote on the Web site of The New Republic. He was referring to the editor of Newsweek and a column he wrote for the magazine's Dec. 7 issue, boldly headlined "Why Dick Cheney Should Run for President."

Judis is far from the only journalist savaging Meacham's column as well as the revamped Newsweek. In the column, the editor argued that Cheney is a "man of conviction" who would give Americans the chance to vote for "vigorous unilateralism." Amid asides about liberals "spitting out their lattes" at his idea, Meacham suggests that a Cheney vs. Obama contest would be one of clearly drawn lines, where the will of the people could be easily determined and might translate into a "mandate" to govern. "A campaign would also give us an occasion that history denied us in 2008: an opportunity to adjudicate the George W. Bush years in a direct way," Meacham wrote.

Journalists took to their to their blogs and to Twitter to label the piece a desperate attempt to generate buzz for an ailing magazine. "In the dictionary under 'desperately trolling for traffic,' there should be a link to Meacham's column," Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald wrote on his Twitter feed. Political blogger Taylor Marsh introduced his column with the headline, "Jon Meacham Turns Newsweek Into The Onion." New York University professor Jay Rosen, who authors a blog on the future of journalism, tweeted that the column was an example of "where Newsweek's inane formula, 'provocative but not partisan,' gets you. On a tram to ridiculous."

Greg Marx, an assistant editor at Columbia Journalism Review, says that treating Meacham's hypothetical as a serious argument is giving it too much credit, since it's basically a rehash of a recent Ross Douthat column in The New York Times. Matthew Yglesias, a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, agrees, writing that Meacham's column "offers us an example of the problems with a journalism model in which it's more important for pundits to be interesting and buzzworthy than to say something true and informative."

Newsweek has been a favorite punching bag of journalism pundits since it refashioned itself as a higher-end magazine of ideas earlier this year. Rosen has called the magazine "increasingly pathetic" and "ready to keel over." Slate founding editor Michael Kinsley gave the first issue of the redesigned magazine a bleak review, describing Meacham's introduction to a big interview with President Obama as "comically lame." In June, the magazine handed over the reigns to Stephen Colbert to "guest edit" an entire issue.

For its part, Newsweek has been relatively upfront about its efforts to keep readers' attention in an increasingly flooded market. In his column introducing the "new" magazine in May, Meacham said his publication would center its coverage on "original reporting, provocative (but not partisan) arguments and unique voices." He added that all of Newsweek's content would have to get past a single "rigorous" standard: "Are we truly adding to the conversation?"

Beyond that, I don't know Meacham's motivation -- an attempt on Friday to reach him for comment was unsuccessful -- but perhaps he's simply getting into the ring with less formal publications that are owning the market share. Dave Weigel, an associate editor at Reason and a reporter for The Washington Independent, said the column was "a defensible piece of journalism," but was the sort of thing one regularly sees in publications like The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post.

"It was sensational, a traffic-driver," Weigel told me. "It was a signal -- not that we needed one -- that Newsweek is in the snake pit with everyone else."

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