Indeed, in light of The Atlantic‘s rising profitability, Mr. Meacham’s vision for Newsweek now seems prescient. The Atlantic, borrowing in part from The Economist, has turned itself into exactly the right blend of long-form and short-burst journalism that Mr. Meacham seemed to want. And Mr. Meacham once had more resources than The Atlantic. He hit the ground with overseas bureaus, and seasoned Washington reporters like Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, and established commentators like Jonathan Alter and Fareed Zakaria. For a while, even Mr. Meacham’s boyish poise on camera seemed to bode well; his self-effacing thoughtfulness fit the anti-intellectual atmosphere even as it seemed to elevate the discourse. The guffaws that greeted him when he threw down the gauntlet to the new-media age struck me as automatic responses to a successful media personality and a Pulitzer Prize winner.
But Mr. Meacham proceeded to hamstring his own vision and create the magazine in his own image. He hobbled Newsweek with star-struck careerism on the one hand and self-congratulatory pseudo-intellectuality on the other. In his lead essays, Mr. Meacham babbled inexplicably on about religion while the world burned and churned around him, or flaunted “contrarian” positions-e.g., America is essentially a conservative country-that had been tested countless times before and were uncontroversial in the extreme. (His most recent adventure in thinking: “America’s failure to commemorate the war dead has a corrosive effect on our country.” Wild.)
At the same time, Mr. Meacham was dropping names left and right. You scratched your head when Mr. Meacham informed readers in the Newsweek issue guest-edited by Stephen Colbert that he knew Mr. Colbert’s in-laws in South Carolina. If there is anything that puts off the contemporary reader, it is the feeling that rather than being invited into something, he is being waved at from an exclusive cocktail party on the other side of a wall. By the time you read Mr. Meacham’s fawning review of Christopher Buckley’s latest book, in which Mr. Meacham proclaimed his intimate friendship with Mr. Buckley, you began to fear that Newsweek was disappearing into its editor in chief’s head. He seemed to be running his own private dinner party, publishing only his famous pals. What James Baker was doing in the magazine was anybody’s guess. Mr. Meacham even commissioned an essay from his friend Barbara Bush extolling the movie Precious. Yes, Barbara Bush. She loved Precious.
IT TURNED OUT that the slower, more reflective pace of the magazine actually just gave Mr. Meacham more time to spend trimming his sails outside the office. You began to see that the boyish poise on camera was actually an opportunistic blankness, interrupted by “thoughtful” pauses and punctuated by an occasional smug smack of the lips, as though he could not resist planting one on himself in gratitude for being … himself. And that earnest cock of the head! It recalled a seabird listening for the next half-eaten loaf of bread to fall off the media garbage barge. Such eager intellectual servility is no doubt why Jon Stewart enjoys having Mr. Meacham on his show. Mr. Meacham performs seriousness the way Mr. Stewart performs a pundit performing seriousness. And why in heaven’s name did Mr. Meacham think that allowing Mr. Stewart to mock his magazine when it was on its knees was going to help it? The truth was that allowing Newsweek to be mocked was Mr. Meacham’s ticket to The Daily Show.
In his Monday Times column, David Carr presented the conventional wisdom about Newsweek, which is that time has passed it by. The very idea of a news “weekly” is obsolete, people want instantaneous news, etc. (On its Tumblr account, Newsweek misread Mr. Carr’s article as an attack on Mr. Meacham and defended him, in the process endorsing Mr. Carr’s argument that Newsweek is fated to fail.) The fact is that in the midst of the worst advertising recession in perhaps 80 years, and the worst general economic circumstances in about as long a time, any kind of prediction about where any type of business is going is irresponsible. In the case of The New York Times, I would pay several hundred dollars a year to read it, but one aspect of the paper that I cannot take seriously is its reporting on other news entities. At a time when The Times is nearly hysterical over The Wall Street Journal‘s competition, when the paper has anxiously postponed the implementation of a paywall again and again, when panicking editors are driving their reporters crazy, the expectation that The Times can report objectively on the economic side of the news business is irrational. On the unconscious level, The Times wants every competing news organization to fail. And by this point, even the smallest news Web site is The Times‘ rival.
So much proclamation of print media’s imminent doom is driven by self-interest, whether on the part of rival news organizations, threatened establishment journalists, established journalists who just want to stay in the game or jealous bloggers. What is truly happening is much less certain. Almost two years ago, the banks were sinking, the automakers were sinking, the country was sliding into a second Great Depression. Well, the banks are flourishing, the automakers are doing fine, more and more people are managing to get by. One man’s hysteria, it seems, is another man’s stock option.
But the Grahams, like just about everyone else in journalism, have succumbed to the loudest voices. Never mind that Newsweek still has the vast resources of a storied magazine that has operated effectively for nearly a century on several continents. David Carr, The Times‘ very own Oswald Spengler, says that according to history, the magazine is dead. Therefore, it is dead. Would it have made a difference if the Grahams had, for example, not bought Slate and then proceeded to blur Slate into Newsweek by blending the tone of the two magazines and sharing writers between them? Or if they had had the cojones to beg Tina Brown to take over Newsweek? (She would’ve doubled its paid circulation in six months.) It doesn’t matter. Don’t ask questions.
Strange how the mainstream news business is the only realm in American life where the Calvinist doctrine of predestination is alive and flourishing. That must be the secret of Arianna Huffington’s success. She believes in free will! On the other hand, a neighborhood candy store makes more money than the HuffPo. In love and business, the fundamentals still apply. What a world-historical shame. By the time the media moguls realize that they have been listening to Chicken Littles driven by ulterior motives, there will be nothing left in the media world worth either buying or selling.