Steve August 18, 2020
newsweek-and-the-rise-of-the-zombie-magazine

Writing in The Columbia Journalism Review last year, Daniel Tovrov depicted Newsweek, once one of America’s most distinguished magazines, as a shell of its former self. All that was left was clickbait, op-eds from the likes of Nigel Farage and Newt Gingrich, and a general sense of drift. “Nobody I spoke to for this article had a sense of why Newsweek exists,” Tovrov wrote. “While the name Newsweek still carries a certain authority—remnants of its status as a legacy outlet—and the magazine can still bag an impressive interview now and then, it serves an opaque purpose in the media landscape.”

Last week, Newsweek suggested one possible purpose: The legitimization of narratives straight out of the right-wing fever swamps. An op-ed written by John Eastman, a conservative lawyer and founding director of the Claremont Institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, coyly suggested that Kamala Harris, who was born in California, may not be eligible to serve as vice president because her parents were immigrants. It was, as many pointed out, a racist attack with no constitutional merit, on par with the birther conspiracy theory that claimed Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Within a few hours, Eastman’s op-ed was being brandished by Tweety McTreason, who told reporters he had “heard” Harris may not be eligible to serve.

Three days after the op-ed was published, Newsweek apologized, sort of. In an editor’s note signed by global Editor-in-Chief Nancy Cooper and opinion editor Josh Hammer, the magazine acknowledged, “We entirely failed to anticipate the ways in which the essay would be interpreted, distorted, and weaponized…. This op-ed is being used by some as a tool to perpetuate racism and xenophobia. We apologize.” Still, the magazine refused to recognize what was obvious—that the op-ed was intended to spark questions about the eligibility of a Black woman running for high office. Newsweek’s editors merely feigned horror that the op-ed was taken in the only possible way it could have been taken.

The publication of Eastman’s op-ed says a great deal about the state of Newsweek’s opinion section, which has become a clearinghouse for right-wing nonsense. But it also points to a larger crisis in journalism itself: The rise of the zombie publication, whose former legitimacy is used to launder extreme and conspiratorial ideas.

Even by the volatile standards of journalism in the twenty-first century, Newsweek’s recent problems are extraordinary. There are the usual issues: a sharp decline in print subscribers, Google and Facebook, the difficulty of running a mass-market general interest news magazine in an age of hyperpartisanship. But Newsweek has also been raided by the Manhattan district attorney’s office (a former owner and chief executive pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering charges in February) and has been accused of deep ties to a shadowy Christian cult, amid many other scandals.

These controversies hollowed out Newsweek’s staff and its brand. Its clickbait-heavy approach, aimed at gaming search engines, has declined since it was spun off from parent company IBT Media in 2018. But it remains a publication that privileges the interests of Google over those of its hypothetical readers. While other publications are abandoning the “scale” model pioneered by BuzzFeed and others in favor of building a loyal audience and raking in subscriptions, Newsweek is something of a throwback. It has attempted to rebuild some of its credibility post-IBT by partnering with the Poynter Institute, but it still has a distinctly seamy vibe. Earlier this month, the magazine’s cover story was a glowing profile of Jared Kushner of all people, which dropped right before a raft of more critical coverage, including the revelation that the president’s son-in-law had secretly met with potential spoiler candidate Kanye West.

Meanwhile, the opinion section is brimming with right-wing columnists, who range from the barely credible to the foaming at the mouth. Farage and Gingrich are regulars, as is Alan Dershowitz. Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf took to Newsweek to attack the American Civil Liberties Union for standing up for peaceful protesters. Hammer, the op-ed editor, has a resume that is littered with stints in right-wing politics and advocacy organizations: He has worked for Ted Cruz, the Federalist Society, and the Claremont Institute as well as Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire. (Shapiro, last seen humiliating himself and his wife on Twitter, regularly contributed op-eds to Newsweek until February of last year.)

Amid a larger reckoning about the role of journalism in legitimizing anti-democratic ideas, Newsweek had largely stayed out of notice until Eastman’s op-ed. Newsweek claims that it is just asking questions, but its faux innocence is undercut by Hammer’s credentials and the ideological tilt of most of its contributors. Newsweek, the magazine you once read at the dentist, is like a batshit crazy version of the opinion section of The Wall Street Journal.

Newsweek brass wrote a lengthy response to Tovrov’s story in Columbia Journalism Review, insisting that the magazine had turned a corner under Cooper’s leadership. But while Newsweek’s journalism hasn’t made much of a mark, the response to the Eastman op-ed suggests that its opinion coverage still does. What’s left of the magazine’s credibility is being used to bolster fringe views, amplified by the disinformation machine that is the president of the United States.

In recent years there has been a rise in “pink slime journalism”: outlets that pose as local news outlets but rely on algorithms. These outlets manipulate readers’ trust in local news as a means of delivering right-wing talking points. Something similar is happening at Newsweek. The response to the Eastman op-ed suggests that many still see the magazine as the middlebrow, general-interest publication it was in the not-that-distant past—evidence that pink slime has entered the sphere of national publications as well.

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