Friday, June 24, 2011

News A Week After It Is New: Newsweek Is Hardly A Reader's CNN

The Good: Nice pictures, Occasionally decent articles
The Bad: Not exactly hard-hitting investigative journalism, Biased, Expensive for what one gets, Mediocre
The Basics: Hardly outstanding, Newsweek is on par with other conventional print news magazines, but offers nothing unique or noteworthy to help is stand out.

I am a big picture person and as a result, I tend to have a long memory for when companies do things that I do not approve of. So, yes, I still do not shop at Texaco because of the racism of their board, probably a decade ago now and I don't shop at WalMart because of how it has treated its workers and the environment for decades. So when my mother proudly informed me that she was now subscribing to Newsweek, I suspect she was expecting something other than an indifferent shrug and my facetious reply of "they did some great journalism leading up to the Iraq War." Yes, I remember that.

Newsweek, like many other corporately-owned, glossy magazines written with a vocabulary and diction an American fourth-grade student could read failed utterly to investigate the supposed evidence presented by the Bush Administration in its build-up to war in Iraq. As one of several standard-bearers, Newsweek reported Bush Administration allegations as facts and helped bolster public opinion for the war. And before one chimes in with "We were all swept up in post-9/11 frenzy and NO ONE questioned the Bush Administration allegations!" I'll cut that right down by pointing out that in the United States, several magazines (The Nation, The Progressive, The Washington Spectator), a handful of newspapers (I'm sure more if one counts college publications) and virtually every foreign press publication observed that the Bush Administration was selling the people of the U.S. on shaky evidence. And before one blames the American spies, it was U.S. spies that came forward to say that the Bush Administration was not being truthful BEFORE we became mired in the war.

The point of this, of course, is not to start a political debate, but rather to make the observation that Newsweek is hardly an ambitious reporter of news or events. It is not the deepest publication, not the best-written and certainly not the one that exposes the truths of the world in order to prevent government from abusing its powers, which is supposedly what news organizations are supposed to do.

What Newsweek is, because it is not ambitious, groundbreaking or controversial, is a collection of articles that summarizes the state of the world an average of a week after events happen. It is a glossy, ad-heavy, sixty-four page weekly magazine. The random issue I picked up to review (having read articles in most issues for the past year) had twenty-six pages of advertisements, not counting the inside front and back covers. Most of the ads were placed by pharmaceutical companies. It is also worth noting that that same issue (February 4, 2008 cover date) had no columns on health or pharmaceuticals outside a rather blase article on chemicals people commonly ingest.

In addition to being over 1/3 advertisement space, Newsweek is a fairly well-organized magazine that offers reports on news, U.S. culture and political and business events. After a table of contents (complete with easy to understand pictures), the editor comments on articles within the magazine before gets a page of press with notes on the hottest articles not in this week's magazine, but available on They highlight their bloggers and list the ten most popular articles on the site (ironically, three of the ten have a pharmaceutical bent, which suggests that might be reporting stories that the print magazine's advertisers are not so keen on).

What follows, then, are eight pages of news columns exploring foreign affairs, the state of terrorists and other nations (Israel was given about a column, in which the magazine reported there were problems with the new porous border between Egypt and the Gaza strip). There was a celebrity obituary (of Heath Ledger, written by Christopher Nolan) side by side with a column on a National Book Award winner's favorite book list and a monitoring of current political trends in primary season. Strangely, the meter on the various campaigns was combined with a snippet of highlights from the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City, so it is pretty easy to look at Newsweek as an authority on both politics and culture that takes both seriously. After a column on religion, a guest columnist writing about trusting Evangelicals, there was a column on how the U.S. needs faster internet service and another on the mathematical organizations of elections.

After two pages of letters from readers and corrections to previous issues' errors, there is a single page of political cartoons and quotes and for a magazine from 2008, it seemed odd that both cartoons - which essentially had the same punchline - featured Bill Clinton. No, Newsweek is not part of the alleged liberal media.

One of the two main features begins then with a full two page photograph and ten pages on politics. The issue, written at the start of primary season, focused several pages on Bill Clinton's effect on Hillary Clinton's campaign for president before exploring the Obama and Romney and (finally) Clinton camps. The article, like all of the others, is written simply, broken up by several photographs and explores how angry a man Bill Clinton can be. It is worth noting that by page 37 of Newsweek in the last year of his administration there was not a mention of George W. Bush or any of his current initiatives. So much for a full view of politics!

The other feature (the cover story of the week) was an eight page expose on the economy. While the graphs manage to resist the literal definition of a recession, the magazine reports enough to prove their point, that America was headed for a recession. But the oddity is that in the same article, there is an expose on critics of the Federal Reserve being big business operators. Rather bafflingly, that article does not illustrate how the Fed, which the banks were criticizing, keep banks, money managers, etc. in line and regulated. Instead, the magazine repeats and emphasizes the claims of the money managers that the Fed is behind the times. The economic news is wrapped up with a fairly balanced perspective of the international effect of a U.S. recession on the world.

The two main articles are followed by two interviews, one of Hamid Karzai and another of Ehud Barak. Neither interview is especially revealing and, in fact, interviewer Lally Weymouth steers both interviews by making biased statements instead of asking questions at some points. Most of the questions are leading questions and lead to predictable answers that fit with the questioner's clear bias.

Following that is an opinion column on the war in Afghanistan, followed by a science article repeating information easily available for decades on chemicals that get into foods from our plastic storage containers. Culture is then explored in gushing tones that read like a tabloid. The issue I picked for review had a columnist drooling over the wholesomeness of the Jonas Brothers, another putting in their two cents on a highly criticized book, and a culture page that claimed fashions of the real people are now all the rage, but it was still reporting from SoHo in New York City. I'll believe the fashion world is honestly ready to adopt the common person as their image when they start doing photoshoots at the YMCA in Des Moines, Iowa.

The last pages offer commentary on food and drink, celebrities and the magazine closes with one of Anna Quindlen's wholesome feel-good columns that one supposes senior citizens and middle aged housewives clip and put up on their refrigerator to remind them of something (being neither I have no idea what that would be).

In all, Newsweek is behind the times, biased and in no way exceptional. With the old phrase, "once you've had X, you can never go back . . ." if X are magazines that actually investigate and report the news, do not fill up space with advertisements and actually have wit and character to them, then I can never go back to Newsweek. The magazine is self-censoring (in one article I read an economist was quoted as using the phrase "s--t storm" and that's not for the blog that I type it that way; that's how it appeared in Newsweek.) and if the magazine is truly intended for an adult audience, then it is falling severely flat.

I want current (the internet has it), I want insightful (The Nation has that) and I want direct (magazines without extensive ads have that). Newsweek does not. It is biased, looks good, but lacks real substance and depth. And yes, it fell down with actual reporting during the Bush Administration. Some of us won't forget that.

For other magazines reviewed by me, please check out my take on:
The Progressive Populist
Star Trek Magazine
Clipper Regional Magazine


For other book or magazine reviews, please check out my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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