The Magazine

Some Industries Deserve Bankruptcy

'Newsweek' and Katie and Maureen--oh my!

Jun 1, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 35 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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I looked for them--looked hard--but I don't think Jon Meacham or Maureen Dowd made it to the gala dinner last week where Helen Thomas gave Katie Couric the Helen Thomas Award for Excellence in Journalism. They should have been there. Everybody else was, it seemed. And we deserved a gala. Everybody'd had a rough week.

The rough week began when Jon, who as everybody knows is editor of Newsweek, unveiled a redesigned version of his magazine, one of the two newsweeklies that everybody pretends to read. Everybody is crazy about Jon or at least is hoping not to get fired by him. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that everybody has his favorite "Meachamism," a word I just made up to describe a statement so comically banal or transparently untrue that only a man whom everybody is crazy about or hopes not to get fired by would try to put it into print. My own favorite Meachamism is rather obscure. It pops up in a book that nobody has read, even though it's about a president, George H.W. Bush, that everybody pretended to kind of admire once we got a good look at his son. The book is called My Father, My President, by Doro Bush. On page 218, Doro prints this quotation from Jon: "An important thing to remember about the press is there is no ideological bias."

That's Jon! Jon remembers another important thing about the press. If you assert something and keep asserting it, and if you've clawed your way to a certain level of professional eminence, everybody will agree that what you said is true just by virtue of its having been asserted by you. Last week, when Jon unveiled his new magazine, he wrote in the editor's note that the new Newsweek would abandon hard news for opinion essays, featuring "provocative (but not partisan) arguments and unique voices." Then he unrolled his list of contributors. As it happens, they were not provocative (but all Democrats) and not unique, ranging from old newsmagazine writers who are squishy liberals to slightly younger newsmagazine writers who are squishy liberals. (Plus George F. Will.) Then Jon offered another wonderful Meachamism in his own lead essay about President Obama.

"As he turned to make the walk back to Air Force One," Jon wrote, "a breeze blew--and everybody scurried anew, to keep up with him. It was that kind of day--and it has been that kind of presidency: Barack Obama, moving as he wishes to move, and the world bending itself to him."

You could just imagine everybody reading this if anybody read Newsweek. They would admire the rich, fecund gorgeousness of Jon's prose--a breeze blew / scurried anew--and nod and tap their lower lips with their index fingers, because while everybody will say that Jon's point is true, it isn't. What Jon wrote, in fact, is the direct opposite of the truth. Even as the sentence was being written, the president was violating several campaign promises for the simple reason that he has had to bend himself to the world, as presidents usually do. And a good thing, too.

It was that kind of week: While flipping the pages of the new Newsweek, it began to occur to everybody that, hey, this is a pretty stupid idea for a magazine. Are there really 1.5 million magazine readers--the number of subscribers Jon has promised advertisers--who want a liberal opinion magazine written by liberals who don't want to admit they're liberals? Last week everybody looked at one another and pondered a world without Newsweek.

Monday wasn't even over yet before everybody found out that Maureen Dowd, who as everyone knows writes a column for the New York Times, had lifted a paragraph from a popular blog and put it into her column and passed it off as her own work. Everybody loves Maureen. She's everybody's favorite. More important, everybody wants to be Maureen's favorite. So everybody pretended this didn't happen. Instead everybody believed Maureen when she said she'd been "talking to a friend of mine" who made a point in a "cogent--and I assumed spontaneous--way and I wanted to weave the idea into my column." That's why it was woven word for word in her copy.

Her explanation was implausible in every particular, compounding her original offense. Normally everybody loves it when this happens, because everybody gets to say to one another, "In Washington the cover up is often worse than the crime!" But this was Maureen. The unthinkable began to emerge as the implausibility sunk in. Everybody's favorite was not only lazy and unimaginative but dishonest too--a bit of a fraud. Just in time the "media critic" for the Washington Post stepped in to deliver summary judgment. Maureen, he announced, had made an "inadvertent mistake." Relieved, everybody went back to loving Maureen and wanting to be loved by her.