Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Wake of Newsweek

As his magazine goes on the block, editor Jon Meacham calls Newsweek one of the few Catchers in the Rye between democracy and ignorance at the edge of a media cliff, a last bastion of reporting in what Jon Stewart describes as a field of "aggregating, commenting, analyzing."

As at a wake, when the deceased's glory days get more attention than those of terminal illness, Meacham's appearance on the Daily Show last night is in itself evidence of eulogy hyperbole.

His interview was scheduled not to talk about Newsweek but his role as co-anchor of a program that will replace Bill Moyers' Journal on PBS, but happened to coincide with the announcement that the Washington Post Company is putting the magazine up for sale.

In the days when Newsweek really counted, its editors, such as Osborn Elliott and Ed Kosner, did not find the time to double as TV hosts, let alone write Pulitzer-Prize winning biographies as the gifted Meacham has.

In the late 1950s and early 60s, Kosner points out, "It was really important what was on the cover of Newsweek and what was on the cover of Time because it was what passed for the national press." The civil rights movement, for one example, stirred Americans with TV images but had its meaning defined by weekly and monthly magazines.

Those days are long gone and not likely to be lamented by new generations who get their news instantly and make up their own minds about what it means, abetted by a flood of unbridled online and cable TV opinion.

As an editor back then, I saw the essence of that job as not only finding out and telling readers what they wanted to know but what they didn't know they wanted to know until they saw it in a magazine. That work has largely migrated from the printed page, but as Meacham argues, it is still vital to democracy.

Journalistic Catchers in the Rye may be badly outnumbered now by talking heads and tweeters, but we still need them badly to see, tell us and help sort out what is going on in the dangerous world around us if we are not to go over those cliffs.

1 comment:

Fuzzy Slippers said...

I'm always interested in your posts, Mr. Stein, but I do love it when you share your incredible experience and wealth of knowledge with your readers.

Let's not forget, though, that in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, the old media was reporting on it negatively, stirring fears about violence despite MLK's insistence on nonviolence (sound familiar?). It was only after a few intrepid reporters began showing that the violence was coming from the police and people who opposed Civil Rights that the narrative changed. And with it, of course, the opinion and will of the nation. Those were the days when the old media could indeed make a difference, change the course of history.

Those days ended in 2008 (with the election of BO, the final old media made historical moment), and even in, one might argue, the two years leading up to BO's election. They went all-in for BO and ignored so much, buried so much, hid and lied about so much that the American people were, largely, "done" with them. Not getting what they needed (actual news rather than fawning "tingles up the leg"), they sought other venues. This, I believe, is why the new media is burgeoning and why the only cable news outlet with growing viewership is Fox (network news is deader than the dodo).

Sure, there is bias on Fox and around the conservative blogosphere, but most people read and watch both liberal and conservative outlets and realize the truth is somewhere in the middle. This means we all have to do the job of constructing meaning in events, a job once the sole purview of the old media. And naturally it means that we are coming to very different conclusions that the old media desires. We don't really need anyone to tell us what or how to think . . . we never did. What we needed was information and a range of opinions, but we get neither from the old media. It's dying, but it's dying not so much because of the rise of the internet and availability of information but because it lost its way.