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.”
Tina Brown, Newsweek's editor-in-chief, did not respond to several Media Matters requests for comment.
Richard M. Smith, former Newsweek editor-in-chief and CEO, echoed Fineman's concerns about accuracy in light of the Mamet piece.
“One of the things that has been lost in the cash-strapped media world these days are the sense of the importance of accuracy and the necessary resources to make sure that the reporting turns out to be factually correct,” he said in an interview. "When you reach out to independent authors, particularly authors who are trying to make a provocative point, accuracy is not always the highest priority and I think that's a loss in the world of modern journalism.
He later stated, “In the modern world there seems to be no great institutional penalty for getting something wrong. While it's wonderful to have this vast proliferation of independent voices there is something very important about having media institutions that have a vested reputational and economic interest in getting things right.”
Fred Guterl, a former deputy editor at Newsweek International from 2000 to 2010, and now at Scientific American, questioned Mamet's assertions.
“The Mamet piece -- obviously he is a big name, it is provocative -- it didn't seem evidence-based to me,” he said in an interview, later noting. “What Mamet didn't mention was this business about gun groups, NRA and such, lobbying to have research suppressed, gun safety research suppressed, that is an interesting thing to know.”
Steve Strasser, a Newsweek staffer from 1977 to 2002 who now teaches at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, described Mamet's piece as “a pretty loose, sloppy collection of musings.”
"Newsweek is not what it used to be, even editorially the whole idea is completely different, it exists to create sensation and not grapple with the news and analyze it," he stated. "This is fairly typical of the long pieces they have been running. It is not edited, it does not come to the point.
“Something like David Mamet's story would have been fact-checked,” he said about his time at Newsweek. “There was accountability for that stuff. There is obviously no accountability here, none whatsoever.”
Several of those who spoke with Media Matters cited a similarly misleading article Newsweek published in August 2012 from Niall Ferguson, which criticized President Obama with numerous inaccurate claims.
At the time, Politico quoted a Newsweek spokesman as revealing it did not have fact-checkers, stating, “We, like other news organizations today, rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material."