Media Matters

Newsweek: The Canary In The Liberal Coal Mine

Sale of liberal media star a symbol of looming election verdict on Obama.

By 5.18.10

They are clueless. Baffled. Stunned.

In the early days of coal mining, there were no ventilation systems. Methane and carbon gas could easily gather in dangerous amounts and explode, killing the miners. So the time-tested way to provide advance warning of danger was to bring in a caged canary. Canaries, like miners, not doing well breathing methane and carbon gas either. When the canary -- whose primary occupation was singing -- stopped singing, there was only one reason. The little fellow, clueless as to what was really going on around him, would brightly warble away until -- baffled, stunned, wobbling -- he began to notice that not only was he increasingly unable to sing, the breathing thing wasn't going so well either. In short order, Tweetie was a goner, a sure signal to the miners to run for their lives because the mine was about to explode.

Over at Newsweek, the liberal newsweekly magazine owned by the Washington Post Co., the warbling of the liberal line is getting difficult. In fact, the gasping for financial breath has become so serious, the Post has decided to put the staggering magazine up for sale.

On a human level, one can take no delight here. The men and women who produce this magazine, in existence since 1933, doubtless have families to feed, kids to educate, lives to live. We wish them well.

But the failure of Newsweek is a significant moment in American culture that should not go unnoticed. It is the journalistic equivalent of the canary, a sign that that the coal mine that is liberal beliefs, assumptions, and ways of looking at the world is about to explode. With real life consequences for those who have endlessly mined this seam of American politics to a steadily shrinking customer base.

First, the magazine itself.

Let's take a look at the statement announcing the sale by Washington Post Company Chairman Donald E. Graham.

Newsweek, comes the story, "has struggled in recent years." Says Mr. Graham:

We have reported losses in the tens of millions for the last two years. Outstanding work by Newsweek's people has significantly narrowed the losses in the last year and particularly in the last few months. But we do not see a path to continuing profitability under our management. 

What kind of work has the magazine been serving up to what it obviously thought was its customer base, the American reading public? Let's wander through some Newsweek stories recent and not-so-recent and take a look at what passes as accepted publishable wisdom over there:

 May 10, 2010 -- Reporter Andrew Romano in a piece titled Even Reagan Wasn't a Reagan Republican smartly assures readers that the GOP "seemed to have given up on the whole governing thing" during the Obama presidency. Romanoff laments the fall of Utah's Republican Senator Bob Bennett, whom Romanoff breathlessly notes had an 84 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union. As if that wasn't a sign Reagan couldn't win in the GOP, Romanoff mourns the passing of Florida's "moderate" Republican Charlie Crist from the GOP. Conclusion: the GOP is now so dogmatic even Reagan couldn't win.

 September 12, 2009 -- Longtime editor Evan Thomas, (perhaps its worth noting here that Mr. Thomas is the grandson of famed 20th century socialist Norman Thomas) has the cover story during the height of the furious debate over ObamaCare. Title? "The Case For Killing Granny." In which Thomas begins by describing the insistence of doctors trying to keep his dying mother alive against her wishes. Then Thomas segues from self-determination into arguing for the need of government or someone to pull the plug on seniors.

 November 14, 2009 -- Thomas again, this time with a cover story featuring a photo borrowed from Runners World that depicts former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in short running shorts. "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sarah? She's Bad News for The GOP -- And Everybody Else, Too." Thomas bemoans Palin's rise as a sign of "the death of the center" in American politics. In the Reagan-Bush era, he notes loftily, the Bushes went out of their way to get along with the Reagans. Clearly, he preferred the latter over the former. Unmentioned is that Reagan won, the Bush approach losing to Bill Clinton.

 February 7, 2009 – "We're All Socialists Now" crowed the cover that showed a red hand shaking a blue hand. The point: America will become France. Fighting against big government will be a relic of the 20th century. And there was this zinger: "Remember Joe the Plumber? Sadly, so do we." Was that line crafted over drinks at the Yale Club?

Then there was the retracted story about Guantanamo officials flushing Korans down the toilet (2005) that set off riots in the Islamic world. The 2009 cover story by David Frum attacking Rush Limbaugh. To go back in time, there was the March, 1992 story with a turtle-necked Bill Clinton gazing dreamily from the cover, the question asked: "Can He Beat Bush?" Not should he, mind you, but can he. Sympathy for the Bushes, as later expressed when discussing Palin, was noticeably if predictably absent. And on…and on.

Perhaps more telling are the stories Newsweek didn't get the scoop on. In this decade it was the National Enquirer, not Newsweek, that revealed liberal hero and presidential candidate former senator John Edwards was having an affair with Rielle Hunter. Where was Newsweek's head? Into earnestly publishing Edward's musings (2006) on how America needed "real moral leadership." Really. No kidding.

Then there was the 1998 Clinton-Lewinsky story, developed by reporter Michael Isikoff -- and spiked by editors. Were it not for the then-new on the scene conservative founder Matt Drudge of The Drudge Report, the entire incident could have remained hidden from the American people. 

In 1978 Newsweek was busy pushing President Jimmy Carter with stories from reporter Eleanor Clift like "Carter's Momentum" (October 9, 1978) and "Carter's Upswing," while reporter Susan Fraker got the October 2, 1978 cover with a smiling cartoon of Mr. Jimmy beneath the exuberantly hopeful headline "Born Again!" All this, mind you, when Carter's liberal policies were sending the American people into such fury they gave Ronald Reagan a 44-state victory two years later.

To go even further back in the magazine's history, to the 1960s, there was the complete silence by then Washington Bureau Chief Ben Bradlee on the discovery that his own sister-in-law, Mary Meyer, had left behind after her murder a diary detailing an affair with Bradlee friend, the then-late President John F. Kennedy. The story emerged in the National Enquirer (where else? Not Newsweek) in the 1970s, with Bradlee finally 'fessing up that the story was true, he had read the diary, it was destroyed, and he had no intention of ever publishing the story -- and was indeed angry that the Enquirer had unearthed it.

Why bring up all of this now?

Because what was really going on here over all this time was the increasingly strained song of the canary in the coal mine of liberalism -- in this case the mine tunnel that housed the credibility of the mainstream media. Newsweek itself will one day make a fascinating case study of how a magazine that so shamelessly pumped out PR for the failed liberal agenda under the guise of straight news began itself to fail as the agenda's results failed.

Rupert Murdoch was still in Adelaide, Roger Ailes learning TV in Cleveland. Rush was Jeff Christie the disk jockey in Pittsburgh, and Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and even this magazine were barely known outside a few small circles of family and friends.

But Newsweek was big time, prosperous, fat, so totally convinced in the success of liberalism's world view that it was unable or unwilling to understand that pushing a liberal agenda while proclaiming non-partisan straight-news credibility was in fact pumping a steady flow of political methane and carbon gas into the liberal media mine shaft. The poisonous gas coming directly from the real-world explosions of the liberal agenda itself.

Only last year, Newsweek's managing editor Jon Meacham appeared on The O'Reilly Factor to insist to an astonished O'Reilly that Newsweek was nothing more than just a non-partisan news magazine.

By 2009, with the canary ominously gasping in desperation, the conversation went like this, as reported by Newsbusters:

Bill O'Reilly: "What, you're a not a left-wing magazine?"

Meacham denied any liberal agenda….

"No, I don't -- We're not a partisan magazine. We're just not."

A skeptical O'Reilly replied: "Come on."

Meacham defended his assertion: "We're not. We try to be provocative. We try to break news. We try to contribute to the conversation. You can decide whether we do or not."

Now, what does this say? Either Mr. Meacham, surely a fine guy and writer of interesting books on subjects like the relationship between FDR and Churchill and, recently, a biography of Andrew Jackson, honestly doesn't get it. Or, as millions of Americans believe in general about the Bernard Goldberg-dubbed "lamestream media" -- he does, and simply chose to be less than forthcoming to O'Reilly about Newsweek's real agenda.

In any event, Americans have long since decided they know the real answer whether Mr. Meacham chooses to admit it or not. So -- they have over time stopped reading Newsweek. Just as they have long ago stopped believing in the liberal agenda, this time from the failed stimulus to ObamaCare.

Let's go back to the statement announcing Newsweek's sale from Donald Graham. He also said this:

We're a public company and we have to consider the price offered. But we'll have a second and third criteria: the future of Newsweek and the future of those who work here. 

Let's focus on number two, the future of Newsweek.

When CBS premiered Katie Couric as its new anchor, one of Couric's first moves was to invite Rush Limbaugh to tape a piece of commentary. He did, and CBS enjoyed huge ratings as a result. But here in this space we predicted a steady downward drift for Couric. Why? Because the CBS news team had no intention of absorbing the lessons Rush Limbaugh, his talk radio friends, Fox News and others on the Internet have been delivering to greater and greater success. To wit: CBS had no intention of presenting the news as a straight, fair-and-balanced event. They would sooner, I said, ingest cyanide before making Mr. Limbaugh their anchor, not to mention treat a conservative fairly. They were and are, just as was true of Newsweek, possessed about reporting the news not as it happened but rather with a politically leftward slant to it. Move the clock ahead and sure enough -- Katie was out there gunning for Sarah Palin, hoping to paint her as a fool and an idiot when not mumbling right-wing extremities. This was precisely the same treatment endured over the years by every conservative or Republican of note (even the moderate Republicans) from Goldwater to Nixon to Ford to Reagan to the Bushes, Bob Dole, Dan Quayle, John McCain and now Palin. So CBS drifts, Couric frequently rumored for replacement in some sort of mythical search for restored glory days. Days when the news was slanted and everybody believed what they heard.

In fact, if one presents oneself as a moderate Republican, one will find quicker than you can say "John McCain" that your image in the liberal media will be trashed in a nano-second if you are standing between liberal X and control of the White House. George H. W. Bush was saluted respectfully by liberals as long as he could be used to portray his president-son George W. as wild and reckless in comparison. But back in 1992, Newsweek demanded to know if Bill Clinton had what it took to defeat George H.W.


Contrary to what the Newsweek editors and reporters believe, the American people do not believe we're all socialists now. They want to be Americans, not Europeans. They like Sarah Palin. They love Rush Limbaugh. And in spite of reporter Romano's fantasy, Reagan Reaganized the Republican Party over the objections of reporters of the day like Romano. Becoming in the process not dogmatic but winners. The American people want more of this, not less. They want their borders protected and their grannies safe from death-dealing government bureaucrats. They see Reagan's creation of 21 million jobs and Obama's near 10% unemployment and know exactly what they do not want. They understand full well what they were really reading in the pages of Newsweek, and they were smart enough to understand that putting George Will at the end of the magazine wasn't anywhere near enough to get them to read the rest. Why? Because "the rest" -- the so-called "news" -- was as O'Reilly accurately it summed up to managing editor Meacham: it was the news as carefully presented by "a left-wing magazine."

Newsweek is, as readers have come to understand, not about the news. It's about the Left. The glories of liberalism and its practitioners as lovingly and carefully presented by liberal writers from Eleanor Clift to Jon Meacham to Evan Thomas and on back to Ben Bradlee and surely others. As long as Newsweek's future looks like its past, the results will be some version of the same-old, same-old. And the same old in 2009 was a loss of $28 million.

And so?

So Newsweek is for sale, not coincidentally as liberalism itself continues its decades-long fall from grace in the polls.

That sound you don't hear? The sound an increasingly panicked Obama White House and its liberal media allies can't hear?

The canary in the liberal coal mine has stopped singing.

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About the Author

 Jeffrey Lord, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is a former aide to Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan. An author and CNN commentator, he writes from Pennsylvania at and @JeffJlpa1. His new book, What America Needs: The Case for Trump, is now out from Regnery Publishing.