Thought Experiment

Every time I pass a magazine stand now, it's impossible not to try to imagine the dynamics of the editorial meeting where this seemed like a good idea:


As noted before, there was a time when the cultural coverage and middlebrow thumbsuckery of the major newsmagazines played a part in my own education. That period is long since over -- for me, of course, but even more dramatically for them. Both Time and Newsweek long ago gave up being anything except television minus the electricity. They exist as the farm leagues for the talk shows, mostly.

Any sense that they ought to pay any attention to books qua books barely exists. I imagine the top editors having jacks at the back of their heads so that the cable TV feeds can be plugged right in. As far as I can tell, the brain death started at some point in the 1980s -- not so coincidentally, as CSPAN was coming into prominence.

In July 1970, Newsweek ran a cover story on how various historians diagnosed "what ails the American spirit." A year or two back, I tracked this down and was impressed by the quality of it. I forget who else was interviewed, but one of the historians was Richard Hofstadter. A fair bit of space was given to his answers, and the result is a document that still bears reading by anyone interested in how Hofstadter understood the period.

Fast forward 38 years and you have this thing, which barely qualifies as a special on the History Channel. And not one necessarily more insightful than Was Hitler a Crankhead? (or whatever the documentary in heavy rotation about the Fuhrer's drug use is called).

That, at least, required some archival digging for film footage that showed the dictator looking jittery. The Darwin-Lincoln cover story reads like something from a college literary magazine of no particular distinction.

POSTSCRIPT: A hunch, just now: It will in short order become a book. Or rather one of those network-special tie-in commodities disguised as a book. It's all starting to make sense actually.
July 6, 2008 6:37 PM | | Comments (5)



As a teenager, I read Time magazine avidly. Then I distinctly remember, sometime around 1973 or so, the editorial policies started to change, entirely for the worse, and the articles became more and more superficial and identical in style - so much so that even a naive 18-year-old could see the difference. One thing I noticed was that every single Time article was now required to end with a sentence that suddenly whipped around and contradicted what it led you to think it was going to say. Every single article had to have that same damn catchy closing sentence. And before I finished college ('77) I realized that Time was no longer a safe place to get my news from. I always wondered what happened, and how those mandates got passed down to the writers. As a writer myself now, I still wonder.

There were always problems with the magazine -- see Dwight Macdonald's parody of "Timestyle" from seventy years ago.

But at least through the 1970s and perhaps a little beyond, there did seem to be some sense of obligation to cover aspects of the culture apart from "entertainment and lifestyle" matters. It was there to some degree with both Time and Newsweek. Now it is dead. Compare the extent of book review coverage of issues from 1968 to that in 2008 and it's quite obvious.

I'm afraid "Darwin/Lincoln: Que Es Mas Macho?" is about as substantial as it gets

You have diagnosed the disease well, Dr. McLemee. And let us not ignore the bloggers/columnists who write for these magazines. I opened TIME to see Andrew Klein* bloviating on the treacherous "dual loyalty" of American Jews. If the prosecutor of Alfred Dreyfus had been a sub-literate shock jock, he might have conjured up something like this.

But yes, the cultural writing produces the strongest stench.

And then there's the annual "religion issue," which attempts to be profound but leaves both fanatic and skeptic saying, "What the @#$% was that?"

Too, too, sick-making.

[ * I think he means Joe Klein. -- Scott ]

But Scott, the modern age allows you to live in the past. Why, Newsweek, July 6, 1970 can be had for just three dollars, right here:
If you work at it hard the 1980s may be deferred indefinitely.

From some low-level googling I'm able to determine that five of the historians in that issue were: Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Staughton Lynd, Daniel Boorstin, Richard Hofstadter, and (I think) Andrew Hacker. Let's suppose Newsweek was willing to do a "flashback to quality" issue. What historians fill those men's (and I'm guessing the sixth was a man) shoes today? (And yes, I know Hacker and Lynd are still alive and kicking.)


Thank you for posting this. I'm not sure I've ever bought a Newsweek in my life, but I stop in my tracks by the magazine stand whenever I see this. I couldn't bear to read more than the first few paragraphs when I found it online; it looked like someone was copying and pasting paragraphs from dumbed-down encyclopedia entries.

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