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Newsweek: The Whiff Factor

(Newsweek)

August 20, 2012

Once upon a time Newsweek magazine had, arguably, the best political coverage in the business (full disclosure: I'm a former staffer). Stocked with star reporters, columnists and writers, it blanketed the presidential races, often set the tone for other journalists and produced a closely read election book every four years. So when Newsweek turned out a cover like "Fighting the 'Wimp Factor'" in 1987, raising questions about whether George H.W. Bush was tough enough to be president, stuff happened: pundits went into overdrive, campaign flunkies got angry, and the magazine had impact. But when Newsweek tried to do a "Wimp Factor" cover again a few weeks ago -- this time about Mitt Romney -- no one seemed to care very much.

And this week, when enfant terrible historian Niall Ferguson published another over-the-top screed headlined, "Obama's Gotta Go," much talk ensued, but it wasn't about the political race. Mainly it was a lot of lamentation about how far off the mark Ferguson was, and about how far a once-great magazine, Newsweek, has fallen under the overrated and apparently overwhelmed Tina Brown, who thinks nothing of handing over a formerly coveted cover to anyone with a rant in hand.

Others have dealt amply with all the factual misrepresentations in the article; note, in particular, James Fallows in The Atlantic and Dylan Byers in Politico. I would just like to point out how much Ferguson has gotten wrong since he appointed himself keeper of America's imperial flame and began desperately playing for public attention. In his books The Cash Nexus (2001) and then Colossus (2004), he urged Americans to fulfill their obvious destiny as the next "liberal" empire spreading democracy and Anglo-Saxon legalism across the globe. "The greatest disappointment facing the world in the twenty-first century," Ferguson wrote in The Cash Nexus, is that "the leaders of the one state with the economic resources to make the world a better place lack the guts to do it." When President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, Ferguson eagerly supported the war as evidence that Washington had finally shown some guts and was acting like the empire it ought to be; he also advocated a long-term occupation. But then, in later books and articles, Ferguson began to argue that the United States was succumbing to financial overstretch, having gotten deeply in debt to the rest of the world, especially China. All without any sense of irony. 

(RELATED: Obama Has Significantly Less Money On Hand Than Romney)

Yet Ferguson has also been wrong in sounding alarms about the latter point. In 2009, Ferguson argued that more debt issuance would lead to higher interest rates and fiscal disaster; he was wrong. Again in 2011, Ferguson argued that inflation was coming back, leading the charge for those much-feared bond market vigilantes. He was wrong again.

Barry Diller, the money man keeping Newsweek afloat, has hinted recently that its days as a print publication are numbered. It's sad to say this, but perhaps he's got it right. Conjoined to Brown's Daily Beast, Newsweek is a wounded animal, and maybe it ought to be put out of its misery. That way, maybe, those who remember the magazine at all will remember the years when it was great. And we can all get back to real journalism.

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