Media Matters

Hard to Digest

The decline of Reader's Digest is an outrage.

By 5.30.06

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I hope you are somewhat familiar with Ralph Kinney Bennett, who writes for TCSDaily? Yes? Well, Bennett wrote a great longish piece on the decline of the United Nations that you might have missed. He recounts a story I hadn't heard of: the discovery in Lebanon of a terrorist-training complex run out of a U.N. backed school near Sidon that was

stocked with assault rifles, bazookas, crates of grenade launchers, machine guns, explosives, and assorted other weapons. U.N. officials admitted the school had been "misused," but did not explain how terrorist training had gone on for years while escaping their notice.

The piece goes on to describe at great length espionage, anti-Semitism, and incompetence running rampant at U.N.H.Q. Let me quote some more highlights:
...the U.N. itself has become:

An organization that sanctions the violent overthrow of sovereign governments;...

A political base, a source of funds, and a propaganda organ for terrorist organizations;

The advocate of a new "world order" amounting to global socialism;

A forum for anti-American, anti-Western, anti-free-enterprise activity.


There's also a sidebar written by our straight-talking U.N. Ambassador from which I'll pluck this paragraph:
We believe good relations among nations, as among people, are based on mutual respect. We are ready to stand by our friends and we expect the same from them. We have to let other nations know they can no longer denounce us on Monday, vote against us on an important issue of principle on Wednesday, and pick up assurances of our assistance on Thursday. If we are attacked, we defend ourselves.

Bennett concludes:
If the United States and the other nations that sincerely believe in peace and freedom will not now join vigorously in upholding those goals, then the organization that was meant to be a beacon of hope and security will remain what it has tragically become: an enemy of peace and a promoter of conflict.

Classic piece; let's see if I can find a link...

Oh, wait a minute, I don't think the Reader's Digest archives go back to October, 1983, when a spry young Bennett penned that piece, and a no-nonsense U.N. Permanent Representative named Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote the sidebar.

Twenty-three years ago and the problems with the U.N. were every bit as bad as they are today, and oddly similar to boot. Granted, the terrorists in those days were the PLO, who seem almost quaint by today's standards. And while there was no oil-for-food or pederasty-for-peacekeepers scandal being ignored by the mainstream press, much of the article deals with blatant Soviet espionage and skullduggery within the institution being ignored by the mainstream press.

This is the point at which I offer a conservative bromide about how the more things change, the more they stay the same, or how those who forget the past are doomed. But let's just nod sagely and skip that, because while the U.N. hasn't changed at all, and never will, another institution has.

I ran across this Reader's Digest piece in the library while doing a bit of research for my dissertation on narcotics traffic. It was in a bound volume, one issue over from the November 1983 issue which contained a great investigative piece on Bulgarian state-sponsored heroin and weapons trafficking, one of very few reports written on that situation.

The discovery brought back memories of visits to my grandparents' house, where issues of RD accumulated on bookshelves since the mid-fifties until my grandfather's death in 2000. When I would visit them as a youngster for a week or two, I would quickly tear through whatever books I brought along with me and then, desperate for new reading material, pull down an old Reader's Digest or five to occupy my mind until my granddad took me fishing.

I mainly went through looking for the corny jokes, but pretty soon I started reading the articles as well -- with more emphasis, of course, on the Bulgarian-drug-trafficker stories than on the "Five Quiche Recipes for a Healthy Prostate" pieces. Even back then, I could tell I was not the target audience, but I still found something to read in every issue -- often, something exciting hidden behind a ho-hum title like "Trapped at 8,000 Feet--On A Blazing Blimp!"

Curious about how RD was holding up, I went over to their site and glanced through a few issues. It hasn't held up well at all. Hollow celebrities have replaced those Bulgarian smugglers. Oh, the "Blazing Blimp!" pieces are still there, along with some reporting from Iraq, and there is even more of an emphasis on Healthy Eating and Surviving Diseases. But there are a couple of things missing. One is the tradition of dogged investigative reporting. The other is a forthright pro-freedom, pro-Western, pro-traditional-morality outlook. Those two qualities were at their best in September 1982, when Reader's Digest broke the (recently confirmed) story of the KGB involvement in Mehmet Ali Agca's attempt to assassinate the Pope.

In an article introducing the Bulgarian story, RD bragged about its scoop, and quoted William Safire asking in the New York Times why, of all places, this story was broken by Reader's Digest. In part, their answer to Safire's question was that "we unashamedly stand for the traditional values of self-reliance, dignity of the individual, an appreciation of democratic government. This ethos helps us to probe where other publications might not."

In other words, Reader's Digest was a conservative magazine back in the days when the national media outside the Wall Street Journal were not, and therefore they overlooked the story of the decade. The author of the Agca piece, Claire Sterling, said much of the key information was revealed in public documents -- she was just the first to try piecing it together.

In trying to figure out what had happened to Reader's Digest, I ran across an account by National Review's John J. Miller of the magazine's long slide into mediocrity. It was nice to see my assessment confirmed by someone who is so knowledgeable about publishing, but I wish he'd proven me wrong. We need the old RD back.

It's a real shame Reader's Digest isn't still doing its old sort of world-changing journalism. I bet if they gave the Pulitzer-worthy Claudia Rosett the same sort of budget and support today that they did to Claire Sterling, we would soon be seeing U.N. bureaucrats by the dozen led from the edifice in shackles.

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