Several prominent former Newsweek journalists criticized the error-ridden recent cover story by playwright David Mamet that sought to discredit attempts to strengthen gun laws.
Some former staffers point to the Mamet piece as evidence that the magazine, which recently ceased print publication, isn't what it used to be, noting it seems to be seeking more readers through provocative pieces rather than in-depth journalism.
A Media Matters review of the piece found glaring factual mistakes related to background checks, assault weapons, and U.S. Secret Service protection for President Obama's family.
Michael Tomasky and Andrew Sullivan, both of whom write for The Daily Beast, Newsweek's online sibling, also found fault with the article. Tomasky called Mamet's piece a "bizarre rant" while Sullivan stated "Mamet's broad generalizations are empirically wrong and need to be corrected."
In comments to Media Matters, former Newsweek scribes were strongly critical of the poor reporting and accuracy of the piece.
Howard Fineman, who spent three decades at Newsweek covering politics and national issues and is now editorial director of the AOL Huffington Post Media Group, said the piece does not reflect the Newsweek he once knew.
"I don't think it's what the Newsweek that I knew would have done with its cover space or its cover story, on many levels," Fineman said after reviewing the material involved. "But if they want to go that direction with it, that's up to them...So of course they should stick to basic journalistic rules when they do. Is it the Newsweek that I worked for? No."
He later stressed the need for accuracy and fact-checking, especially when outsiders are writing for the publication.
"Any news operation should stick to the facts and if they haven't in this case, they should explain why they didn't, or correct the record if they need to," he said. "There probably were times when we invited outsiders to write and put outsiders on the cover, I think, I doubt that Newsweek, just politically in the old days, Newsweek would have invited an outsider to denounce gun control. But again, somebody else bought the name and they can do whatever they want with under its banner, but they need to stick to basic journalistic principles when they do, it seems to me."
Asked about the impact such uncorrected stories can have on future research when the magazine is used as source material, Fineman said that should be taken into consideration.
"I think you raise a very good point, let's hope that they honor the fact that Newsweek has been a source for research and information and credible reporting for almost 80 years and they should keep it that way, they should respect that history," he said. "And I'm sure they should and I am sure they will because I think Tina is a very good journalist. I think Tina Brown is very creative and very good and I am sure she doesn't like to get things wrong."
Newsweek has published a bizarre rant on guns by playwright David Mamet as the cover story of its latest issue. Riddled with falsehoods, the piece alleges that efforts to strengthen gun laws -- many of which are supported by a majority of Americans -- are actually a Marxist plot.
Over the course of his hysterical rant, Mamet offers up several false or illogical claims. Notably, it is puzzling that Newsweek would turn to a writer for a major story on guns who is apparently wholly unfamiliar with the existence of the federal background check system or the definition of assault weapons during the current political debate -- especially after the publication acknowledged that they have no fact-checking department but instead "rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material."
In an attempt to distract from an emerging debate over how much to strengthen gun laws, Newsweek and Daily Beast special correspondent Megan McArdle called for people, even children, to be trained to "gang rush" active shooters. The Department of Homeland Security, however, recommends that people evacuate or hide in response to an active shooter, and to take direct action only as a last resort and when your life is in "imminent" danger.
McArdle's essay on how to prevent mass shootings in the wake of the tragedy in Newton, Connecticut, begins with a libertarian defense of congressional inaction on gun issues, even sneering that it is "easy and satisfying to be for 'gun control' in the abstract, but we cannot pass gun control, in the abstract." You might well have seen most of this essay after any mass shooting in recent decades.
McArdle is so resigned to any gun laws failing to prevent gun violence that she concludes that people should be encouraged to "gang rush" shooters rather than hide:
I'd also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once. Would it work? Would people do it? I have no idea; all I can say is that both these things would be more effective than banning rifles with pistol grips.
So, in sum: the chances of achieving anything with any gun legislation are so low that in these circumstances, people should resign themselves to probable death by running at the person firing a gun in the hope that enough people will follow that their likely death will not be in vain.
As Jonathan Chait points out at NY Magazine, this is an absurd proposition:
Are you kidding me? You think gun control is impractical, so your plan is to turn the entire national population, including young children, into a standby suicide squad? Through private initiative, of course. It's way more feasible than gun control!
Unless I am missing a very subtle parody of libertarianism, McArdle's plan to teach children to launch banzai charges against mass murderers is the single worst solution to any problem I have ever seen offered in a major publication. Newsweek, I award this essay no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.
Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security has specific guidelines on how to act when one's life is threatened in a shooting situation. Objective 1 is to evacuate, and if you cannot evacuate, objective 2 is find a hiding place: "If evacuation is not possible, find a place to hide where the active shooter is less likely to find you." DHS recommends that people take action against an active shooter only as a last resort and when your life is in imminent danger.
Media figures have used the recent attacks on the U.S. embassy in Egypt and consulate in Libya to make Islamophobic comments, from claiming that "they hate us because they hate us" to asking guests if they think "there is a Muslim problem in the world."
The most recent issue of Newsweek features on the cover stereotypically angry Arab men, presumably from inside a recent anti-American protest, with the headline "MUSLIM RAGE." The pushback against the cover was immediate and strong. Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the Jerusalem Fund, described the cover in an interview with Politico as "extremely unhelpful" and "playing to Islamophobic stereotypes."
Want to discuss our latest cover? Let's hear it with the hashtag: #MuslimRage.-- Newsweek (@Newsweek) September 17, 2012
This has led to some genuinely humorous responses that effectively illuminate the problem with Newsweek's cover story on their own, but the situation is deeper than that.
Niall Ferguson's Newsweek cover story on President Obama exemplifies a deficiency in today's media. As criticism of Ferguson's shoddy work mounted -- both from outside and inside of Newsweek/The Daily Beast -- Newsweek explained to Politico's Dylan Byers that Newsweek "rel[ies] on our writers to submit factually accurate material." Indeed, Byers also noted that Newsweek does not even have a fact-checking department.
This admission is disturbing on face. Newsweek wants to sell you stories and news about the world but can't even be bothered to check the claims it publishes. Even worse, they didn't seem all that uncomfortable with the admission. Newsweek's defense is that others are this lackadaisical at journalism, which is to say Newsweek has no defense. In a media environment without fact-checkers, it's no wonder we have fabulists and problems with facts and the media. But there's a more pernicious ramification of Newsweek's abdication of journalistic practices: This is what the predatory conservative echo-chamber and Fox News count on.
Fox and the right-wing echo chamber exploit these vulnerabilities in the media. When the media process seems shoddy (regardless of whether it actually is) and the result produces news that is inconsistent with conservative ideology, right-wing media pounce and attack the outlet as part of some left-wing media cabal. We've seen Fox do this from Dan Rather to Politico to ABC News to MSNBC and more. On the other hand, when they find the argument useful, the right-wing echo chamber can herald the piece and ignore inaccuracies within.
It's no surprise that while discussing Ferguson's article across multiple programs, Fox never discussed the myriad factual problems in Ferguson's piece that one could find with a rudimentary Google search. This is even as Ferguson's self-professed friend who writes for the same outlet called the piece "absurd propaganda."
The Prius is now the world's third best-selling car line, but before it became a clear success story, it was the target of attacks from conservative media similar to those now being leveled against electric vehicles.
In 2000, the year the Prius was released in the U.S., Diane Katz and Henry Payne wrote at the Wall Street Journal that hybrid cars are not "what the public wants." The next year, the Cato Institute's Patrick Michaels declared the Prius would "never" deliver a profit for Toyota and hyped how "demand has been weak" for hybrids. That these conservative pundits have clearly been proven wrong with time is a lesson for today's pundits who suggest that current electric car sales mean that electric cars will never be successful. As Bloomberg reporter Jamie Butters noted in a video report, "a lot of people will criticize the sales of the Chevy Volt by GM or the Nissan Leaf, but when you really look back they're selling at significantly higher opening volumes than the Prius when it came out 15 years ago."
Even after Prius sales had significantly ramped up, conservative media were still downplaying the market for hybrids in the U.S. In 2004, a Fox News guest declared that "Americans don't want hybrids":
During the week of September 12, Fox's "straight news" division launched a weeklong attack on government regulations, including child labor, workplace safety, and civil rights laws. Fox's war on regulation, which mirrors Republican talking points, has now been revealed to be the brainchild of Fox News president Roger Ailes.
The latest issue of Newsweek claims that "a new study suggests" offshore wind farms cause whales to beach themselves. In fact, the authors of the study said their research did not establish such a link, and the UK newspaper that reported the claim pulled the story from its website and issued a correction.
In support of the premise that as Speaker of the House, John Boehner might prove willing and able to work with President Obama and Democrats, Newsweek offers several examples of Boehner's preference for getting things done in a bipartisan fashion -- every one of which consists of Boehner working to enact George W. Bush's agenda.
To substantiate its picture of Boehner as "businesslike" pragmatist, Newsweek touts the "revealing … transformation Boehner underwent between 1991, when he arrived on the Hill, and 2001, when he helped pass No Child Left Behind. … The early Boehner was a small-government bomb thrower, not unlike today's Tea Partiers."
If Newsweek wants people to believe that Boehner underwent a 1990s transformation into a bipartisan pragmatist, it probably should have included an example of two of Boehner working with the Democrat who was president for the last eight years of the decade. But Newsweek doesn't do that. Instead, Newsweek's evidence that Boehner has mellowed is that he worked to enact George W. Bush's agenda. Because if there's anything that says "bipartisan pragmatist," it's a Republican congressional leader working to do George W. Bush's bidding.
And that's the entirety of Newsweek's evidence that Boehner will work with a Democratic president: The fact that he worked with a Republican president. Hilariously, Newsweek eventually acknowledges this disconnect and tries to spin it away:
Yes, Bush was a Republican and Obama is a Democrat—meaning that Boehner will be far less acquiescent than he was the last time Republicans ruled the House. But GOP speakers have worked with Democratic presidents before and gotten results. In the mid-1990s, for example, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich ...
So, as evidence that Boehner will work with Obama, Newsweek points to examples of Newt Gingrich working with Bill Clinton. Not John Boehner -- Newt Gingrich. If Boehner really underwent a transformation in the 1990s, Newsweek should have been able to provide some late-1990s examples of Boehner working with Clinton. In fact, if such a transformation really occurred, Newsweek should be able to provide some recent examples of Boehner working with President Obama.
I'll give Newsweek this much: it takes an impressive level of confidence to try to convince readers that because a Republican congressional leader cooperated with a Republican president, that means he has transformed from bomb-throwing ideologue into bipartisan pragmatist. It might have worked, too, if only Newsweek had been able to come up with a single example of Boehner working with either of the Democratic presidents who have held office during his time in Congress.
George Will's current Newsweek column begins:
As Ronald Reagan prepared for his presidential debate with Jimmy Carter in October 1980, some Reagan aides pondered how their candidate should respond if Carter unearthed some of the at-times-too-colorful things Reagan had said over the years. For example, when in 1974 Patty Hearst's kidnappers demanded the distribution of free canned goods, Reagan reportedly quipped that this would be a good time for an outbreak of botulism. What, an aide wondered, should Reagan say about that? After a long pause, a wit suggested: "He should say it was taken out of context."
If I was George Will, I don't think I would be so quick to bring up Ronald Reagan's 1980 debate preparations. FAIR's Steve Rendell explained 2003:
Will's approach has been questioned in a few exceptional cases. During the 1980 campaign, he drew fire when it was learned he'd secretly coached Republican candidate Ronald Reagan for a debate with President Jimmy Carter using a debate briefing book stolen from the Carter campaign. Immediately following the debate, Will appeared on Nightline (10/28/80) to praise Reagan's "thoroughbred performance," never disclosing his role in rehearsing that performance (New York Times, 7/9/83).
It says something about the elite media culture that George Will apparently doesn't feel any shame about his unethical behavior. And it's a useful reminder that the liberals on Journolist didn't come anywhere near matching the improprieties of a conservative columnist who has for decades enjoyed a prime seat at the center of the media establishment, with a column that runs in the Washington Post and Newsweek as well as a regular spot on ABC's This Week.
Right-wingers love to claim that troubles in the print-media world can be chalked up to news consumers rejecting "liberal media bias." As Media Matters' Terry Krepel noted a few weeks ago, the decision by Washington Post Co. to sell Newsweek was no different:
At NewsBusters, the Media Research Center's Brent Baker claimed that Newsweek "repeatedly showcased their favorite candidate, Barack Obama, on the cover" and asked, "Might such obvious blatant liberal advocacy, which anyone could see in the grocery store checkout line, help explain its decline in fortunes -- in credibility followed by finances?"
He was joined by fellow MRC employee Clay Waters, who complained that a New York Times article on the sale failed to mention "Newsweek's purposeful shift toward liberal opinion over news-gathering."
At Fox News on May 8, contributor Liz Trotta highlighted John Podhoretz's claim that Newsweek is "a liberal journal of opinion masquerading as a news publication," added that "even The Washington Post" called it left-leaning, and posited that Newsweek's strategy of "shoving liberal opinion down [people's] throats" failed because it "colossally ... misjudged what the American public and the American readership is. It's not a bunch of lefties from New York."
Of course, this is the same right-wing media establishment that ignored the also-up-for-sale conservative Washington Times' lack of profits.
Now, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Newsmax publisher Christopher Ruddy is interested in purchasing the faltering news weekly (emphasis added):
OpenGate Capital, the investment firm that owns TV Guide, plans to formally declare its interest in acquiring Newsweek before Wednesday's deadline for nonbinding bids, according to managing partner Andrew Nikou. Christopher Ruddy, publisher of the conservative monthly magazine Newsmax, said he also plans to bid.
A right-wing "news" outlet is now interested in picking up a magazine that media conservatives claim failed because of "liberal bias." It would be funny if it weren't so delusional.
So, who exactly is Christopher Ruddy? For starters, Ruddy was a bit too nutty even for Rupert Murdoch's New York Post. As the New York Times reported in 1997:
...Chris Ruddy, a ferociously dogged reporter who says he lost a job at The New York Post partly because he would not let go of the Vince Foster story. Ruddy now works for The Tribune-Review, a right-wing Pittsburgh paper, and his stories are reprinted in newspaper advertisements around the country, paid for by the Western Journalism Center in Sacramento, Calif. Richard M. Scaife, an angel of the far right, owns The Tribune-Review and contributes money to the center.
The "Vince Foster story" to which the Times refers would be the crazy right-wing conspiracy theory that Foster didn't commit suicide and was instead killed.
As for Newsmax, it's a rabidly conservative "news" outlet that traffics in just the sort of right-wing Obama conspiracy theories and misinformation that Ruddy cut his teeth on during the Clinton years.
The most hilarious right-wing claim of liberal media bias to surface this week has to be Rush Limbaugh-biographer Zev Chafets' suggestion that Newsweek was in the tank for Bill Clinton in the 1990s and tried to bury the Lewinsky story:
The mainstream media was with the Clintons; Newsweek had refrained from even publishing the Lewinsky story, which it had before Drudge, evidently out of a misguided belief that it could keep the story from going public.
As Media Matters has explained, that isn't why Newsweek held the story -- it held the story because it hadn't nailed it down yet.
But even absent that explanation, no fair-minded person who was paying attention at the time could possibly believe Newsweek was "with the Clintons" or that it wanted to downplay Clinton controversies.
A quick search of the Nexis database of Newsweek archives finds 304 articles that mentioned Lewinsky in 1998 alone. 304. That's not exactly a sign of a news organization that was trying to suppress the story.
Then there's the fact that when Washington Post reporter Michael Isikoff's overzealous obsession with the Paula Jones "story" led to the Post (which was eagerly pushing more than its share of trumped up non-scandals) tiring of his act, Newsweek snatched him right up. Michael Duffy, who was Time's Washington bureau chief at the time, said in 1998 that "Paula Jones was practically a subsidiary of Newsweek's." Hiring Mike Isikoff is certainly not something a magazine would do if it was in the tank for Bill Clinton.
Nor would a magazine that was in the tank for Bill Clinton do the bidding of Ken Starr's office, as Newsweek acknowledged it did. Newsweek assistant managing editor Ann McDaniel said in 1998 that "The independent counsel's office pleaded with us not to make calls that would interfere with the investigation … In an effort to find out more about the story, we complied." American Journalism Review added some detail:
January 17: Four p.m. came and went, but Starr's people weren't ready. They still wanted more time, Isikoff says, because they hoped to "flip" Lewinsky, to get her to cooperate with the investigation. Starr had tapes of conversations in which Lewinsky intimated that the president and Jordan encouraged her to lie in her sworn affidavit in the Jones case, as well as other evidence. But he wanted more.
"At that point the prosecutors had said to Mike: 'If you call anybody for a comment, it's going to blow our case. We haven't had a chance to interrogate Monica,' " says Mark Whitaker, Newsweek's managing editor.
In other words, Ken Starr's office asked Newsweek not to make phone calls that could tip Clinton off to the investigation -- and Newsweek agreed, in effect becoming an ally of Starr's investigation rather than an observer of it. Had Newsweek been in the tank for Clinton, as Chafets absurdly claims, it would certainly have behaved differently.
And, of course, a magazine eager to cover for the Clintons probably wouldn't have published the (Isikoff-penned) 1997 article detailing allegations against Clinton by the breathtakingly unreliable Kathleen Willey.
You get the point: Newsweek's coverage of Bill Clinton was downright nasty; the magazine hyped Paula Jones' lawsuit though it was obvious she simply didn't have a case; it peddled Kathleen Willey's claims dispute her absolutely astounding lack of credibility; and it ran enough Lewinsky articles to fill a book. And yet Zev Chafets insists Newsweek was in the tank for Clinton. That belongs in the "nutty right-wing media criticism" hall of fame, alongside Brent Bozell's complaint that the media, at 500 news reports a day, wasn't paying enough attention to the Lewinsky story in 1998.
Perhaps he's just to busy waging war on the New York Times, but News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch made it clear this week that his media empire has no interest in purchasing Washington Post Co.'s Newsweek.
Yahoo! News' Michael Calderone reports (emphasis added):
It's an interesting idea, but don't bet on it. A News Corp. spokesperson tells Yahoo! News that there are "no plans to bid" on Newsweek.
It's not too surprising that Murdoch isn't kicking the tires this time around, given that now he's dumping millions into the Journal, and last year unloaded a weekly magazine, The Weekly Standard, to fellow billionaire publisher Philip Anschutz. A source close to Anschutz tells Yahoo! News that the sports, entertainment, and media mogul isn't planning to bid on the beleaguered newsweekly, either.
This after AOL News contributor Paul Wachter suggested Murdoch bundle Newsweek with the Wall Street Journal:
If you're comparing the Times and the Journal, one significant advantage of the Times is its Sunday magazine supplement, offering longer, in-depth articles on a wide variety of subjects, stories akin to what you might find in The New Yorker or The Atlantic. In contrast, the Journal's WSJ Magazine offers fluffy stories on travel and fashion; it's completely dispensable. But if Murdoch bought Newsweek, he could tweak it into a hefty weekend magazine, one that would come with a recognizable brand. Plus, since the Weekend Journal is delivered on Saturdays, the reworked magazine would have the potential to scoop the Times'.
Perhaps rather than bundling Newsweek with the Journal, News Corp might be interested in bundling a detailed fact-check of the Journal.
While Newsweek's fate is far from clear, we can all breath a sigh of relief that Murdoch shows no interest in ruining yet another publication. After all, it's probably better to die a respectable death than it is to be propped up -- Weekend at Bernie's style -- by Murdoch's News Corp.
Continuing his pattern of pushing environmental misinformation, Washington Post columnist George Will downplayed the potential long-term impact of the oil spill on bird populations and the environment in general, saying on ABC's This Week that "wind farms kill a lot more birds daily than are probably going to be killed in this oil spill." In fact, the number of birds killed by wind farms is relatively small compared to other causes.