A Trip into The Political Desert

Harper’s Magazine/ May 2012 Issue

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That the U.S. is ideologically divided should surprise no one – in fact, it may not be of as much concern as the political pundits would have us believe. What does concern this reader is that political talking points are pushing everything else aside in magazines such as Harper’s.

In this issue, Thomas Frank weighs in on the late Andrew Breitbart as if Andy’s posturing, yelling, and righteous indignation were of significance in these United States. Only at essay’s end does common sense begin to reign. Frank’s realization here is that old A.B. was just a personality, not a voice compelling us from our political wasteland.

And Lewis Lapham’s signature essay on the consequences of forgetting the lessons of history leaves us wallowing in political mud without any view – from above or from the past – to render perspective. Even Ben Austen’s piece of reportage on the demise of public housing leaves us with only crumbling, existential fossils of the Great Society, without an insightful explanation of cause and effect.

With such posturing – and without incisive examinations (which remains the responsibility of media) – we'll remain a divided country. 

Fortunately, fiction gives us a moment of relief. Paul Theroux’s story, “Our Raccoon Year,” clever juxtaposed a season of fending off raccoons against a father, frustrated by a mother’s absence from the family. It’s a clever piece that leaves much to the reader to discern. Too bad the rest of this issue didn’t lead me to that point in assaying this the second decade of the twenty-first century.

 

Not rated

 

 

 

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Digging Deep with NEWSWEEK

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Note: I first feel obliged to give my sketchy view on the metamorphosis of popular media. To skip to my bottom line, scroll down to the picture of Tina Brown, NEWSWEEK's editor. 

I've subscribed to several news weeklies over the years, but the one I've held onto the longest is NEWSWEEK. Since something like 1968, I've seen the magazine morph to fit the times. Back in the day, i.e., the 'sixties, NEWSWEEK – as with other such weeklies – maintained a stable of reporters searching out the stories of the day, gathering information on them, analyzing their data, and then reporting. Back then, we trusted the veracity of such reportage, much as we trusted Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, and others on TV.

Then, as life became more global, hence complex, readers seemed to ask for escape – hence a preoccupation with disco, Dennis Rodman, Donald Trump, and, even later, American Idol. NEWSWEEK and the other mags began to suffer losses in readership as magazine prices went up, corporate bean-counters ruled over journalism, and finally, the digital world of blogs and e-books began to threaten. For a while it became hard to tell NEWSWEEK from People or US.

By then, television had exploded from the three primary networks of the 'sixties to hundreds. That made it possible for news and politics junkies to select channels that fit their own biases, without much in the way of rational debate and analysis. NEWSWEEK had floundered into the world of FOX, MSNBC, CSPAN, Huffington Post, and CNN – and their separate variations on reality.

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So where does this leave news weeklies – and news reportage in general? For the conscientious news consumer, it's possible now to graze from magazine to magazine, from channel to channel, blog to blog, sampling opinions. Now, it seems, readers and viewers must make up their own minds as to the truth of events – and that requires digging.

NEWSWEEK recently went through a radical change of structure and heart in order to escape going under financially. The magazine hired Tina Brown as its editor and merged with the blog-news entity, The Daily Beast. What has this meant to their reportage? They are now a microcosm of FOX, MSNBC, CSPAN, CNN, et. al. For example:

In the mag's March 28, 2011, issue, we have a personal essay on Japan and its recent catastrophe by Paul Theroux. Niall Ferguson is carving out the same sort of irascible territory as George Will, his essays lightly populated with facts obfuscated by opinion – the sort of column you read because you hate the man's playing fast and loose with facts.  An op-ed piece on Obama and No Child Left Behind. Perhaps the most incisive piece is on NPR's lack of political savvy in rescuing itself from congressional budget cuts. It's most intriguing piece is on a possible discovery on the ancient city of Atlantis. These, and a double handful of blog-like snippets, along with enough pop culture to hold the trendiest of us faithful, and NEWSWEEK is back in the game.

The common thread through these pieces is a marked lack of analysis. NEWSWEEK is now giving its readers a mosaic of the world, much as TV does. But unlike TV, where you can opt to say glued to FOX or MSNBC, a session with an issue of NEWSWEEK now requires the thoughtful reader to dig into these sometimes cranky, myopic pieces – and then to pan outward until the mosaic makes sense with the multitude of detail. 

This then is modern culture in a nutshell: seeing the big picture in the details. NEWSWEEK apparently understands this dynamic and, as such, has forced itself to be reborn from the ashes of the 'sixties.