Newsweek-Daily Beast has been worse than usual lately. It’s no secret the news magazine and Web site tandem has been struggling, but its decline under Editor-in-Chief Tina Brown has become startlingly steep.
Empty commentary. For a national news organization, Newsweek-Daily Beast has amateurish standards for its opinion pieces. One recent article in particular, Robert Shrum’s “The Right-Wing Backlash Against John Roberts,” was so lacking in meaningful commentary about the Affordable Care Act ruling that my roommates and I had to spend a few minutes gawking at its claims.
Ironically, in arguing “that the GOP is morphing into the Monster Raving Loony Party,” a “party that can’t govern its own feral instincts” and “has lost its head,” Shrum makes the following extremist, inflammatory statements:
“House Majority Leader Eric Cantor denounced the ‘black robes’ for what they had done to America. One is tempted to respond: better that than the white robes who once gathered at night in Cantor’s Virginia.”
“Mitt Romney, who apparently learned constitutional law at the Harvard Business School, or studied it in-between job destruction and offshoring deals, confidently proclaimed that health-care reform should have been thrown out . . . .” [Presumably, Romney actually learned constitutional law while at Harvard Law School].
“The resulting backlash to this, the grievance and paranoia, have been harnessed to the self-interest of plutocrats like the Koch brothers, the supermen of the super PACs. They don’t share or care about the Snopesian reflex against diversity and equality, except as it suits their own ends. They play on it to trick people into voting against themselves, against their own economic prospects, in order to restore the era of the robber barons.”
The article was featured prominently at The Daily Beast.
Now, taking extreme outliers and using them to characterize an entire group or organization is unfair and something Robert Shrum is guilty of. But at Newsweek-Daily Beast, low standards pervade. On this point, special correspondent Michael Tomasky doesn’t disappoint. Mulling Sarah Palin’s receptiveness to a VP nod for pro-choice Condoleezza Rice, Tomasky writes:
“Do we think Palin would forgive baby-killing in any other political figure in the country? Highly doubtful. But Condi is black. This is their concept of race. Put a Negro up there just to mess with Obama and black peopl [sic], to try and ignite some sense of conflict within the souls of black folk.”
The quote, complete with a typo, basically encapsulates the editorial sloppiness and lack of seriousness at The Daily Beast. It’s like a sixth grade version of The Atlantic. And there’s more.
Psuedo-commentary. Consider Newsweek-Daily Beast contributor Paul Begala, who is actively involved in the Obama re-election effort as a “senior advisor to Priorities USA Action,” a pro-Obama super PAC.
There’s a difference between a political pundit, who is supposed to advance a viewpoint, and a campaign operative, and Begala is certainly the latter. In Tina Brown’s publications, Begala gets free reign to publish stories like “Blame the Right,” in which he informs us, “it is time to speak a simple truth: conservatives are to blame.”
The New York Times recently published an account of Begala at work on a potential donor: “Defining the opponent early was crucial, Begala pointed out. ‘That’s what we did to Bob Dole in 1996,’ he said. ‘It’s what the Bush campaign did to John Kerry in 2004.’” Priorities USA Action and the Obama campaign no doubt appreciate The Daily Beast’s willingness to let Begala “define” Mitt Romney on its site with stories like “Once a Bully, Always a Bully.”
Tina Brown & company only bother to note his affiliation with the Obama re-election effort with an opaque reference to his involvement with the “progressive PAC” Priorities USA Action in a short blurb, buried in a longer personal description, at the end of his essays. Robert Shrum’s commentary might be meaningless, but Paul Begala’s is artificial and agenda-driven. Newsweek-Daily Beast is apparently happy to publish both.
Tabloid tactics, namely sensationalist covers, seem to be Brown’s solution to the problem of subpar content. The Michelle Bachmann cover, the Princess Diana cover, and, most recently, “The First Gay President” cover. The Daily Beast itself reported:
“Time magazine’s cover, featuring a mother breastfeeding her 3-year-old, stirred speculation over what Newsweek, having presumably cornered the market on controversial magazine covers, would do to one-up its competitor. A Newsweek spokesman even confirmed that after editor Tina Brown saw the Time cover, she laughed and said, ‘Let the games begin.’”
This kind of attention-obsessed amateurishness seems to bother many, but it evidently gets to Aaron Sorkin more than most. Sorkin’s critically-panned new show, The Newsroom, might fail in its attempt to show what an honest cable news show, driven by a search for the truth instead of ratings, would look like, but many viewers will likely still identify with his unmistakable concerns about the direction of cable news, and news in general.
Sorkin, though, can relax a little. The problems at Newsweek-Daily Beast, a near caricature of what he bemoans, should provide some relief. Shallow, sensationalist news doesn’t always prevail.
It’s true that CNN, arguably the most balanced of the cable news channels (though also a periodic solicitor of Begala’s opinions), has suffered mightily while its more partisan competitors Fox News and MSNBC have done comparatively well, but the hardships at Newsweek-Daily Beast prove abandoning sober, thoughtful news and commentary isn’t a totally reliable business model.
Journalist Glynnis MacNicol points out, “In the case of Newsweek, Tina Brown’s most controversial covers, Michele Bachmann and Princess Diana, haven’t resulted in long-term upticks in subscriptions or ad sales.” And earlier this year, on ABC’s Nightline, Tina Brown admitted, “we aren’t making money yet and we won’t make money for another couple of years, but we will as long as we can build the brand back up again.”
Unless that brand changes course, here’s to hoping Newsweek-Daily Beast completes its descent into irrelevance.
UPDATE: Mark McKinnon, a Daily Beast contributor himself, criticized Tomasky on Saturday. McKinnon wrote of Tomasky’s charge that Mitt Romney is a “a spineless, disingenuous, supercilious, race-mongering pyromaniac”: “It is designed to be sensational for the sake of being sensational and it is highly irresponsible.” Even one of The Daily Beast’s own writers has picked up on the publication’s shortcomings.
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