09 July 2009

Newsweek vs.

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

In the July/August 2009 issue of The Atlantic, Michael Hirshorn presents a compelling analysis (“The Newsweekly’s Last Stand”) of why a weekly magazine like The Economist is succeeding just as others, notably Newsweek, face increasing difficulties. His essential argument—that The Economist offers a glimpse of the broader world, consistently every week, and that in doing so has defined a niche that the other magazines do not have—rings generally true. Indeed, one reason why I remain a dedicated subscriber is precisely because of The Economist’s wide scope.

However, Hirshorn overlooked another big reason why some folks (like me) appreciate The Economist: intellectual and reportorial honesty. Not objectivity, but honesty. A couple of years ago, CNN news anchor Campbell Brown was on The Daily Show. At one point during the interview, Brown commented to Stewart on one of the problematic aspects of American journalism, noting that a reporter should be able to take two contradictory comments and then report on what s/he sees as the one most connected to reality. But (as she noted) most American news outlets don’t practice journalism in that mold. In addition to the (theoretical) firewall between the publisher and the editors and reporters, American news media have long held that the editorial opinion of a news outlet should be expressed primarily through editorials, or through the voices of those labeled “critics.” The actual perspective in any reporting function is intended to be weak-to-non-existent. News should be “objective,” but not expressly honest. So, in Brown’s example, confirming that it is raining—when someone tells you it isn’t—falls out of normal journalistic scope.

The problem, for me anyway, is that such objectivity cannot exist; instead what happens is an adoption of perspective through subtler and more damaging means, even if inadvertent. News media become identified with one side of the political spectrum or the other, inevitably, and based upon inferences drawn from things like words used (e.g., “terrorist” vs. “freedom fighter”), how information is presented (since context can make a fact seem less factual), or the identities and perspectives of sources interviewed for stories. Where editors seem to consider this “objective”—letting the news outlet be, in effect, an amanuensis for the information coming from different sources—it is impossible to make such information work in a way that doesn’t do a disservice to the underlying news, or to the news consumer. It is a problem as much with television and radio news as with newspapers and news weeklies.


Such is the environment in which I read The Economist’s story about drug policy (“At last, a debate”) in the 25 June 2009 issue, which struck me as the perfect example to illustrate the opposite of this hidden American journalistic perspective. The article says (in part): “But he also implies that proponents of drug legalisation—who include The Economist—are really seeking fresh sources of tax revenue to rescue failed banks. (No, Mr Costa, to pay for drug treatment and education.) Grotesquely, he equates legalising drugs and human trafficking. (Drugs primarily harm the user whereas trafficking harms others.) He claims legalisation would “unleash a drug epidemic in the developing world”. (That is what prohibition is achieving, because the criminal gangs it generates in developing countries have started supplying their local markets.) He smears his critics as “pro-drug” (as absurd as suggesting he is “pro-crime”). This kind of hysteria smacks of an organisation that is not just losing an unwinnable war but losing the argument.”

Thus, in the article it is clear that The Economist has a perspective on the issue (it is for legalization); that it believes it has thought through the ramifications of this perspective; and that it sees a particular kind of weakness in how one international organization has been managing and responding to the issue. Just as importantly: as a reader, one understands the intellectual terrain in which such reporting takes place. This piece was also related to a story about coca eradication and the cocaine trade in South America, and here too the direct approach holds: as (for example) the writer notes that programs to spray coca to eliminate it have a negative effect on Colombian’s ability to grow food, too. These aren’t editorials, or bylined critiques of drug policy issues; this is normal reporting.

Often, the way this plays out in The Economist is on a very small, simple scale: the use of direct language that addresses the implications of the information just delivered. No attempt is made to hide the impact of the absurd inflation rate in Zimbabwe; a reference to it is likely to speak directly either to its mathematical absurdity or its impact on average people. A story about global warming takes for granted the value of environmental conservation—which means that individual stories about everything from policy discussions to new scientific discoveries can be understood as coming from a specific perspective. And so on.

No American media outlet can turn itself into a version of The Economist until it is willing to see that even reporting must speak truth to power and to readers—and do so directly, not obliquely and not “objectively.” The growth of published opinion pieces, in one form or another (in print, online, or as a mainstay of cable news), mirrors the exponential rise of “user-generated” content, most of it highly opinionated, through a range of sites and blogs (like this one). Indeed, news outlets like Newsweek are increasingly relying on their own blogs as a means of providing faster content than a print edition can deliver, and with a specific slant, as in this piece about drug policy issues. Still, what is missing from all of these is the combination of the essential elements that makes The Economist work: on the ground reporting mixed with interpretation of the report, delivered in direct and unambiguous language. Say what you mean, and know why you mean it—because with that as a motto, it’s much harder to go wrong than just including “all the news that’s fit to print.”


An ironic coda to all this: as I was researching this piece and combing through Newsweek’s web site, one advertisement in particular kept catching my attention: subscription ads for The Economist.

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25 May 2009

Preventing Obama

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

If I was in the message management business (and I am), and I had a client with terrible, horrible news to release to the world or a potentially disastrous idea to float, well heck: the days before a long, holiday weekend might be perfect. Few people are paying attention to the news as it is; even fewer when focused on sunny weather and beach blanket bingo in the days ahead.

However, I do not know whether I would be clever enough (or Machiavellian enough) to coordinate the release of this terrible, horrible news with a speech timed as a counter-point to a speech given by one of my client's biggest critics. Seriously, it's hard to get one’s critics to cooperate! It takes tremendous resources and planning, and a stealthy streak worthy of a come-from-behind presidential candidate.

Therefore, it should be no surprise to anyone reading this that the person who released the terrible, horrible news was President Barack Obama, and the clever (or Machiavellian) maneuver was to share the information alongside a critical speech given by former Vice President Dick Cheney.

And the news that was released?

That President Obama favors a program of "preventive detention," sort of like what repressive, authoritarian, mock-democratic regimes (c.f., China, Egypt, Iran) use to reign in people and perspectives they don't like. Rather than worry about having to try suspects after they have committed a crime, Obama’s proposal would allow for indefinite detention without a trial where evidence is presented that suggests someone was planning a crime. The New York Times ran two articles about this, the first on 21 May (“Obama Is Said to Consider Preventive Detention Plan”), the second on 23 May (“President’s Detention Plan Tests American Legal Tradition”). There are plenty of others, too.

Thankfully, I am not alone when I say—loudly and unambiguously—this is bullshit. I will dispense with reciting chapter and verse on why such a “preventive detention” plan is unconstitutional. Senator Russ Feingold has done this eloquently enough for anyone interested, while underscoring that Congress (or at least one Senator) is watching and intends to stand guard on this issue. Senator Feingold: thank you!

What I will say is: this entire episode represents a huge political and philosophical disappointment. First, the point/counter-point construct of the speeches was both an obvious and unnecessary distraction. As president, Obama has his choice of speaking moments; he can only have agreed to this because he believed that the media’s (and public’s) focus on the “Thrilla Near the Hilla” (as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank dubbed it) would distract from the substance of the issues and his articulation of an unsatisfactory policy plan. Otherwise, he would have given his policy address when he knew (as with many others) that it, and he, would be the sole focus of attention.

Second, it is disappointing because a politician as smart as Obama, in an environment as politically charged as this one, should know that it is hard to embrace the ideas of one’s opponent without losing credibility—unless you do so (as Bill Clinton did with policy issues like welfare reform and debt reduction) by embracing the political substance, the underlying logic, and even the fallout. President Obama has not done that; he has not suddenly started talking like Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. Indeed, quite the opposite.

Which leads to the third disappointment: the lingering suspicion that President Obama wants to have it both ways. He seems to want to be respected for charting a course that is not that of the Bush/Cheney years—e.g., one that places diplomacy, not force, at the center of our global leadership—while at the same time being given permission to pursue the same nasty, off-the-books habits, tactics, and policies, but in a manner that is more effectively off-book.

The world is a nasty place, and President Obama’s original, campaign-era formulation that faux-righteous might will not protect us remains as true now as it was then. Hidden righteousness, in the form of “preventive detention,” is unlikely to protect us, either. It only degrades our democracy, our society, and the quality of both our government and our moral judgment. On this issue, President Obama should be stopped.

UPDATE: In his 31 May column for the New York Times, Frank Rich dissects Dick Cheney's speech and the way it was reported in the news - and, very helpfully, points to an article by Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel, writing for McClatchy, that points out 10 "inconvenient truths" that Cheney overlooked. That article is worth reading.

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14 January 2009

With God On Our Side

Two news items worthy of attention:

1. Gershon Baskin had an excellent column in yesterday's Jerusalem Post, titled "Encountering Peace: The sun will come out tomorrow - or maybe not", and it's well worth reading.

2. On NPR's Morning Edition today, reporter Greg Allen had a good story about Jews and Muslims in Florida trying to "seek common ground." Some of the dilemmas sounded similar to the rally I attended on Sunday.

Coming soon: I'll recap and catalog my Israel- and Palestine- related articles from the start of this site back in 2000.

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19 December 2008

Every Vote Counts

This morning, WNYC radio ran a great segment (reported by Siddhartha Mitter) about some young, first-time voters in New York - students at the Boroigh of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) - and their experience and written recollections of the process.

It's worth a listen if, like me, you believe strongly in the importance of voting. It's also worth a listen if, like me, you believe that finding ways to express clearly one's ideas is critically important - which is what Professor Suzanne Guillette's English class seems to be about.

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