GetReligion turns nine; Newsweek sort of vanishes

So once again, with feeling.

Nine years ago today, the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc clicked a mouse and GetReligion went live. As I have noted before, I actually wrote the “What we do, why we do it” post on Feb. 1, 2004, but the site opened its cyber-doors the next day, on Feb. 2, 2004.

This kind of anniversary landmark tends to inspire meditations on the passage of time (and a GetReligionista or two will jump in with anniversary thoughts in the next few days). So what is on my mind this year?

Well, how about this: Newsweek, Newsweek, Newsweek, wherefore art thou Newsweek?

Let’s start with a confession or two.

I was a loyal Newsweek (and Time, as well) subscriber for several decades, until theologian-in-chief Jon Meacham openly and honestly decided to run off a million or more of his readers in order to re-brand his struggling magazine as a more elite and openly progressive advocacy operation. At the time, I observed that this mystified me. I mean, I already subscribed to The New Republic. Why would I want Newsweek to take the same approach to the news?

It was pretty obvious that issues linked to religion and faith were at the heart of this Newsweek lunge to the journalistic left. I wondered, out loud, if Newsweek was simply trying to become the World Magazine of the religious left.

Whatever. It didn’t work. Meacham left and Newsweek drifted into another brief era, one in which editor Tina Brown tried to keep the advocacy thing going, while featuring voices on the right as well as the left. The key, however, was that opinion and heat was more important than journalism, more important than reporting and clearly attributed information.

All I knew was that, with the magazine’s ties to The Daily Beast, I needed to start paying attention to Newsweek once again — because that was where I would find the religion, politics and culture reportage of one of the best journalists on the planet, Peter Boyer (best known for his years of work at The New Yorker). So I bought another subscription.

Well, that didn’t last long.

For me, the key was that Newsweek — along with most of the work published at another Meacham-DNA platform, “On Faith” at The Washington Post — came to symbolize the belief that the best way for journalists to handle religion coverage was to baptize it in emotions, feelings and opinions, as opposed to striving for a journalistic blend of history, factual material and clearly attributed quotations from qualified people on both sides of hot-button issues.

Religion, in other words, was not real.

Religion was not worthy of real journalism. Religion was interesting and powerful, but there was no need to think of it as an issue linked to real life in the real world. It was sort of, well, hazy, vague and foggy. In a GetReligion post about “On Faith” (“On Fog” — A Meditation), I noted:

There are facts that matter here. Facts about history, doctrine and courtesy. Facts matter when you are covering religion news and trends. Facts matter when you are interviewing religious people — left and right, members of major world religions and members of lesser known bodies that some would be tempted to call “fringe.” Facts and doctrine matter to religious people, even to people who are very specific and highly creedal about the doctrines that they reject. I have interviewed many an atheist who had more doctrines in his anti-creed than I recite in the Nicene Creed.

This isn’t about emotions and feelings. It’s about getting the facts right and showing respect for the people for whom those facts, doctrines and rituals are a matter of eternal life and death. Facts matter in journalism, religion and journalism about religion. Amen.

And “amen,” once again.

So why does this post open with that last dead-tree-pulp cover of Newsweek?

I don’t know about you, but I have a ton of mail that stacks up during the Christmas season. Plus, my family tends to run around the Southeastern quarter of the nation quite a bit during those weeks. Then, when I get back to Beltway territory, I dive right into the new semester at the Washington Journalism Center.

All of this is to say that my final copy of Newsweek stayed in my rail-commuter shoulder bag for quite some time before I dug into it.

Lo and behold, despite all of those famous or infamous Newsweek cover stories about religion through the years, the farewell issue was a dry bone on which to chew, in terms of religion-news coverage.

So what made it into the last issue?

Real stuff. Let’s look at what made the cut.

We’re talking about things like “Portraits of Power: Chronicling 80 years at the pinnacle of American Politics,” by, yes, Jon Meacham.

How about the politics and people behind Newsweek, President John F. Kennedy, The Washington Post, etc., etc.? Check.

Another story about battles between Newsweek and Time, covering politics? Check.

Massive (and interesting) oral history piece on Newsweek as a place in which giant cultural trends were explored (with zero mention of religion, to speak of)? Check.

Thoughts on coverage of Civil Rights Movement (with little or no attention to faith issues)? Check.

How about feminism, as seen in events at Newsweek?

War coverage? Check.

The era of AIDS? Check.

The. Story. Monica. The famous “I have sinned” headline, but no examination of religious issues in Bill Clinton era? Check.

An amazingly religion-free look at Sept. 11, 2001? Check.

Lots of hip popular culture photography? Check.

And that’s it. That, in the end, would be life as the principalities and powers of Newsweek life knew it.

This is the stuff that mattered the most at Newsweek. You know, this is the real stuff, the issues of real life in the real world.

GetReligion has, meanwhile, always argued that if journalists must strive to understand the importance of religion, if they want to understand real events in the real lives of real people living in the real world. That’s our bottom line and we will carry on.

We will see you right here in year 10.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia

    You nailed Meacham’s angle. I never could quite pinpoint why he irritated me – even in his TV appearances he talked about people who take religion seriously as if he was an anthropologist. That’s what is behind putting religion in the Lifestyle pages, along with what kind of movies people like.
    Thanks.

  • Martha

    Slightly off-topic but I wonder if one of the reasons “Newsweek” lost subscribers was anything similar to the one that annoyed me: you start an interesting story. To continue it, you have to go to page 35. In the meanwhile, you are paging through about fifteen pages of pure advertisements, and by the time you get to page 35, you’ve forgotten the start of what you read.

    I know that print media rely very heavily on advertising to survive. But I am never, ever going to buy a Rolex or Patek Philippe, no matter whether it’s Pierce Brosnan, Tiger Woods, or Kevin Costner staring moodily out at me from the page.

    • Darren Blair

      Fast Company was worse in that regards: instead of 15+ pages of ads, it’d be 15+ pages of *entirely unrelated articles.* If you didn’t skip around to go and finish that one article, then the other articles might make you forget *entirely* about the one that you just read.

      Making matters worse, the editors apparently forgot that it was supposed to be a business magazine and so began to devote space to things like “Bono does more charity work!” and “Celebrities imagine technology of the future, no matter how useless!”.

      The final straw for me came when one of their writers fired off a nasty response to someone who had written in questioning some of the details of an article the writer did; the tone was essentially “I’m the writer; you’re the peon.”

      Yeah – I dropped it like a rock after that one.

  • Martha

    And of course, congratulations on the anniversary and may you have many more! :-)

  • Ben

    Terry, I wish you wouldn’t connect news organizations’ demise to political slant without mentioning the disruptive changes in publishing brought on by the Internet. For starters, the lack of context makes it deceptive. Furthermore, it leads to misguided cheerleading for collapse from some on the right who may not see how the underlying factors also spell trouble for any any conceivable right-leaning journalism outfits, current or potential.

    • Darren Blair

      I’m actually going to defend him on this point.

      While the internet *has* disrupted the way traditional print outlets are doing the media, a lot of companies are doing what they can to adapt and change accordingly. For example, the editor of the newspaper I deliver for added a proper “entertainment” section to the Friday issue of the paper, complete with a full page of syndicated comic strips. You’d be surprised how many heads I’ve turned just by mentioning that we now carry “Popeye” every week.

      In that sense, just saying “a traditional print outlet is going down because of the internet” in and of itself doesn’t IMHO offer a full explanation as to what’s going on here.

  • Jerry

    For me, the key was that Newsweek — along with most of the work published at another Meacham-DNA platform, “On Faith” at The Washington Post — came to symbolize the belief that the best way for journalists to handle religion coverage was to baptize it in emotions, feelings and opinions, as opposed to striving for a journalistic blend of history, factual material and clearly attributed quotations from qualified people on both sides of hot-button issues.

    Religion, in other words, was not real.

    I’m going to “yes but” you here. There are absolutely stories where there are two (or more) sides separated by doctrine and where history and facts truly matter. And too often those stories get the short shrift you rightly complain about. These include abortion, gay bishops, priestly celibacy and women priests.

    The “but” is that there are stories where emotion can and should drive the coverage. Those also are real stories. For example, the Megan Fox story you commented on a while ago would suffer if you applied your doctrine strictly. It’s a story that includes her emotional connection to religion. Where she goes to church is not to me an important or interesting fact and would distract from the story.

    And, of course, there are stories where both matter and thus where in consequence both facts and emotions should be part of the coverage.

    One final point: sometimes I find the language too extreme. For example, your “on faith” attack. I just went over there and looked at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/under-god/post/four-things-to-know-about-catholics-hhs-and-contraception/2013/02/01/238d5b7a-6c97-11e2-bd36-c0fe61a205f6_blog.html which to me is fact full and describes four important points to know about the Catholic church and President Obama’s offer on contraception and health care. There was plenty of detail there including an interesting section:

    But in a “fallen world,” to use the church’s language, how much cooperation between the church and immorality is okay? It’s a question of intense debate among Catholics themselves — for a primer read Gibson’s explainer on moral theology and Michael Gorman at First Things.

  • Bob Smietana

    Meacham got it half right. Religion is about experience – emotions, relationships, practice – as well as “factual material and clearly attributed quotations from qualified people on both sides of hot-button issues.” It’s about doctrine and lived experience and both are real.

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