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If Newsweek Dies, So Does a Vivid Chapter in American Journalism – Daily Beast

When Bruce Springsteen received cover-story treatment in both Time and Newsweek on the same day, Oct. 27, 1975—“Rock’s New Sensation,” claimed Time, while Newsweek’s cover blazoned: “Making of a Rock Star”—it was a seismic event in the popular culture and a tad awkward for both newsmagazines.

It was especially jarring for Newsweek, whose editors had believed they were alone on the Springsteen story, something of a conceptual scoop, until Time’s Jay Cocks got wind of Newsweek writer Maureen Orth’s reporting the week before publication and persuaded his bosses to pounce.

It was also a moment that Springsteen himself might have called the “Glory Days” of the newsmags—especially for Newsweek, which had been launched as “News-Week” in 1933 by a consortium of blue-blooded plutocrats, including John Hay Whitney and Paul Mellon, while Time had been founded a decade earlier by Henry Luce and his fellow Yale Daily News editor Briton Hadden.

At the time of the dueling Springsteen covers, both publications prided themselves on providing their readers (a paid circulation of more than 4 million for Time, a million or so less for Newsweek, not counting the weekly tens of millions of Americans who managed to get their hands on shared copies of each) with their own distinctive yet definitive take on the world at large.

And yet—went the question in journalism circles of the day—how could these two savvy and supremely influential media powerhouses have let themselves be conned by cunning record industry publicists (in the same week!) into lionizing a little-known New Jersey rock musician who was probably a flash in the pan?

HuffPost global editorial director Howard Fineman, Newsweek’s chief political correspondent for most of his 30 years in the magazine’s Washington bureau, conceded both Time and Newsweek had been played—“It was one of the great heists in the history of press-agentry”—but added: “I think it also showed that Springsteen was really a break-out thing and it validated the role that both newsmagazines played.” 

The irony, of course, is that nearly 43 years later, Springsteen is still The Boss, as significant as ever, while Time and especially Newsweek are waging a death-struggle in a Darwinian media environment that threatens not just their relevance but their chances of survival.

Time, Henry Luce’s once-commanding creation—almost an afterthought in the November 2017 purchase of Time Inc.’s titles by the Meredith Corp., a Des Moines, Iowa-based lifestyle publisher—could ultimately end up in the portfolio of National Enquirer owner and Donald Trump friend David Pecker.

Pecker has mused about the possibility, with the 45th president’s enthusiastic encouragement, of someday running the iconic newsmag.

A recent New Yorker investigation by Ronan Farrow details how Pecker deployed the financial resources of the Enquirer’s parent company, AMI, to cover up Trump’s extramarital fling with a Playboy model in 2006 and 2007.

Even more troubling, the chronically money-losing Newsweek is embroiled in a criminal investigation of alleged financial misdeeds by its current proprietors, who are linked to a mysterious Korean-American religious leader whose followers claim he’s the second coming of Jesus Christ. (The newsmagazine was unloaded in a fire sale by its owner of five decades, the Washington Post Co., in 2010, to electronics entrepreneur and philanthropist Sidney Harman, and then briefly merged with The Daily Beast, under the leadership of Tina Brown, until parent company IAC sold it off in August 2013.)

In recent days, a dozen of Newsweek’s respected journalists have quit their jobs after a series of outrages—including the abrupt sackings of top editors Bob Roe and Ken Li, and reporter Celeste Katz, who were aggressively and admirably covering the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation into their own parent company.

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Meanwhile, Newsweek’s remaining journalists—including reporters Josh Keefe and Josh Saul—have been fighting a pitched battle with their corporate masters over the magazine’s coverage, and managed to publish a tough investigative story this past week only after threatening to quit over unethical executive attempts to water it down or spike it.

It’s an absolute shit show and no one has any idea what’s going on.

There were also the revelations that the Newsweek Media Group (formerly IBT) had been allegedly defrauding advertisers with ginned-up traffic stats, and that the company’s chief content officer, Dayan Candappa had been fired by Reuters amid sexual harassment allegations mere months before being hired in 2016 to oversee Newsweek and International Business Times. (Candappa has since been restored to his job after being placed on leave.) 

“It’s an absolute shit show and no one has any idea what’s going on,” a staffer told The Daily Beast.

“I’ve never seen more reckless leadership,” senior writer Matthew Cooper wrote in his open letter of resignation.

Cooper, an alum not only of Newsweek but also of Time and the third-place newsweekly U.S. News & World Report (these days a digital operation focused on service journalism), followed up with a piece in Politico—subhead: “I Watched the Newsweekly Die From the Inside”—that celebrated happier days but also amounted to a despondent obituary.

Similarly, Daily Beast columnist Jonathan Alter—who toiled at Newsweek for 28 years until The Washington Post’s storied Graham family sold it to Harman for $1 plus the assumption of millions of dollars in liabilities—penned an essay in The Atlantic titled “The Death of Newsweek.” 

“In the last five years,” Alter argued, “Newsweek produced some strong journalism and plenty of clickbait before becoming a painful embarrassment to anyone who toiled there in its golden age.”

That golden age encapsulated 50 years of groundbreaking Newsweek journalism, exciting adventures, near-unlimited expense accounts, free-flowing booze, and office sexcapades (and a patriarchal culture that fostered gender discrimination and prompted two lawsuits in the early 1970s from underpaid, under-promoted female staffers during the magazine’s unlamented “Mad Men” phase).

Time was stately and imperial and elegant, and Newsweek was a little quicker and slightly more error-prone and a little more irreverent,” longtime Newsweek writer and senior editor Evan Thomas (who had also worked for Time) told The Daily Beast about those glory days of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, when the magazine was owned by the Washington Post Co. “These are not huge differences. To the outside world, there wasn’t much difference. But internally we felt it.”

For Fineman, “Newsweek was way early, ahead of Time on civil rights, women’s rights, and the youth movement, especially as it related to the Vietnam War, and I think that’s important. Time was first on the death of God [with its famous ‘Is God Dead?’ cover of April 1966]. The people at Newsweek assumed that there was no God.”

Back then, there was a genuine sense of mission, and a couple of notable missteps. Newsweek lost its editorial nerve and let Matt Drudge break investigative reporter Michael Isikoff’s Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scoop in January 1998, and then there was Newsweek’s infamous foray into fake news, the April 1983 cover story touting what turned out to be the bogus “Hitler Diaries.”

Newsweek’s golden age still reigned when Fineman, who had been a star political reporter in the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Washington bureau, joined Newsweek in 1980.

He had also considered taking a job with Time, visiting the magazine’s baronial headquarters in the Time-Life Building on Sixth Avenue, and—in a scene that reminded him of a James Bond movie—he recalled being led up a spiral staircase to the somber inner sanctum of chief of correspondents Murray Gart, ensconced, like “M,” amid décor at once gloomy and majestic.

“Howard, are you ready to devote your life to an institution?” Gart gravely intoned.

“I wish I’d been able to put my hand up and say, ‘You know what? I’ll think about it,’” Fineman recalled. “Instead, I looked down at the floor and may have mumbled something he may have taken as assent.”

The next morning, Fineman had a more congenial job interview at the Newsweek Building at 444 Madison Ave. (a few years before the move to West 57th Street). He met with the magazine’s chief of correspondents, a compact former Hamilton College hockey goalie named Rod Gander, who greeted him in his modest office while sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup and nibbling a jelly doughnut, which he set down on a sheet of greasy wax paper.

Unlike Time’s Gart, who was soon to become top editor of the Washington Star during its brief existence and hasty death as a Time Inc. property, Gander had actually read Fineman’s clips and critiqued several of his stories.

“That did it for me,” Fineman recalled. “He was unassuming and collegial, like he decided I was already part of the team.”

The thing about Newsweek is we were always kicking everybody’s shins—that’s the key to the concept here, and why Newsweek was great.

For Fineman, his contrasting encounters with Gart and Gander defined the differences between the rival newsmags.

“The thing about Newsweek is we were always kicking everybody’s shins—that’s the key to the concept here, and why Newsweek was great,” Fineman told The Daily Beast. “Time magazine invented the form, but invented it for the purpose of puffing up great men, in our view, to suit Henry Luce’s ‘great man theory of history.’ We at Newsweek were more the Lenny Bruce-Mort Sahl skeptics.”

Edward Kosner, in 1963 a young veteran of the then-liberal-leaning New York Post owned by Dorothy Schiff, came to Newsweek that year as a junior writer—two years after The Washington Post’s brilliant and mercurial publisher Phil Graham (who committed suicide in August 1963) purchased the threadbare magazine from the Vincent Astor Foundation.

Kosner spent 16 years there, his last four as executive editor, as Newsweek was becoming one of magazine world’s “hot books” along with Clay Felker’s New York and Harold Hayes’ Esquire. He left in 1979 after being fired by Phil Graham’s widow, Katharine, who went through nearly half a dozen top editors from the early 1970s through the mid-1980s.

“Oh Ed, it’s not working,” Kosner recalled Katharine Graham’s terse and inscrutable explanation—“even though it was,” he added.

Every sentence had a fact in it, and every paragraph had a good quote. Even if stories were three paragraphs long, they were full of information, and everything ideally was a narrative.

“There was no editorial pressure from Kay Graham—she just wanted the magazine to be excellent,” said Kosner, who went on to run New York, Esquire, and the New York Daily News (where I briefly worked for him). “The whole idea was to get the stuff, and get it right and produce it in an intelligent, sophisticated, readable way… and we really felt we were almost performing a public service. You have to remember, the newsmagazines were very influential in those days.”

Kosner described a condensed and disciplined newsmagazine writing style in which “every sentence had a fact in it, and every paragraph had a good quote,” and “even if stories were three paragraphs long, they were full of information, and everything ideally was a narrative.”

Newsweek’s stories—usually synthesized from disparate files from far-flung reporters and stringers, and delivered toward the end of the week, in the nick of time for the Saturday-night closing—were subjected to an army of fact-checkers, mostly young women from good colleges, and multiple layers of editing before they saw print.

It was a byzantine process that would be deemed impossibly expensive today—and generously lubricated by wine-soaked expense-account dinners and lunches at nearby haunts featuring what star Newsweek writer Peter Goldman once described as martinis “the size of birdbaths.”

Speaking of expenses, it’s unlikely these days that any journalistic outlet would give its reporters (as Fineman recalls receiving) special air-travel credit cards that would permit them to fly anywhere in the world, at a moment’s notice, without prior approval, and bill it directly back to the company.

Nor would a Newsweek writer, as Fineman did during 1996 presidential campaign, be encouraged to charter an eight-seater plane through foul weather from St. Cloud, Minnesota, to Pierre, South Dakota, in order to snag an interview with Republican frontrunner Bob Dole.

During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Christopher Dickey—then Newsweek’s longtime Paris and Middle East bureau chief, now The Daily Beast’s world news editor—used thousands of dollars stuffed in his pockets to hire a large oil-rig workboat from Dubai to cruise into maritime combat through mine-infested waters.

Back in the day, the Newsweek machine was also fueled by high-octane libido.

In a rollicking oral history by Andrew Romano, published in what was billed as Newsweek’s “#LAST PRINT ISSUE” in December 2012—shortly before IAC sold the mag to the current owners—Goldman is quoted: “When [Nation reporter] Tony Fuller moved to the back of the book as a senior editor, he called me one day and said, “Peter, you wouldn’t believe this. It’s a sexual rodeo up here.”

Romano also quoted ’70s-era researcher Betsy Carter: “You would open the door sometimes, and there were these two heavy bodies against the door. And they would both be on the floor drinking Jack Daniel’s or having sex under the desk.”

Lynn Povich, a Vassar grad who joined Newsweek in 1965 as a secretary in the Paris bureau and left in 1991 as a senior editor (and later wrote The Good Girls Revolt, a book about the sexual discrimination lawsuits she led at the mag, on which the Amazon television series was based), told The Daily Beast that the inter-office sex was largely uncoerced.

There were instances of sexual harassment. We didn’t even really know what that was. If you were a researcher and you dated a writer or an editor you worked for, was that sexual harassment or was it consensual?

“We were much younger than the people at Time, and the women were younger than the men,” Povich said. “It was a much more democratic place and a lot of fun and very collegial. Everybody first-named ‘Oz’”—that is Osborn Elliott, a veteran of the Astor Foundation Newsweek who, after the Post Co. purchase, greatly improved the magazine’s quality during his more than a decade as top editor.

“There was a lot of consensual sex going on. It was the ’60s. It was after The Pill, and it was in the middle of the sexual revolution, and it was a staff of young women and slightly older guys, some of them married guys.

“There were instances of sexual harassment,” Povich continued. “We didn’t even really know what that was. If you were a researcher and you dated a writer or an editor you worked for, was that sexual harassment or was it consensual? 

“Women were touched inappropriately from time to time, and there were instances of stalking, of course. I remember a female colleague who was sitting at the makeup desk [where the magazine’s pages were laid out] and a guy would come up and kiss her on the back of the neck without her permission.”

When Povich joined Newsweek and well into the ’70s, the career horizons for female staffers were woefully limited. They could be secretaries, they could sort and deliver the mail, and if they excelled at those duties and showed up on time, they could be promoted to researcher and, in rare cases, to reporter.

But until Povich was named an editor in 1975—the result of class-action lawsuits filed by Povich and some 50 other female Newsweek employees with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—no woman had previously held such a high position at the magazine.

“In that era, the women at Newsweek were for the most part daughters of the well connected, and had graduated from the finest women’s colleges,” The Daily Beast’s Eleanor Clift, wrote in her review of the Amazon series. Clift herself was a college dropout and “Eleanor Roeloffs from Queens,” as she still sometimes calls herself, when she stumbled into a Newsweek secretarial job in February 1963 and ended up staying for the next five decades.

She was promoted to researcher in New York, and later a part-time reporter in Atlanta, where she’d moved with her then-husband, an advertising  executive, and covered herself with laurels as Newsweek’s beat reporter on Jimmy Carter’s successful 1976 presidential campaign, which ultimately brought her to Washington and political-junkie celebrity as a regular panelist on The McLaughlin Group.

“The late, great Nora Ephron, fresh out of Wellesley, was a researcher at Newsweek before the suit was filed,” Clift wrote. “Ephron didn’t lack confidence, and she didn’t last long at Newsweek, where the female researchers were handmaidens to the male writers, functioning much like office wives, getting the men their coffee, sharpening their pencils, and bolstering their egos when deadlines loomed.”

What I mourn most of all is that Newsweek and Time once really brought America together; they crossed the partisan divide and the urban-rural divide, and were part of a kind of national middle-class that was so important to American democracy. Nothing like that exists anymore.

Like Clift and Alter, former Newsweek columnist Fareed Zarakia, who was editor of the magazine’s influential international edition, dates Newsweek’s ultimate decline to the Great Recession of 2008 and the judgment of Post Co. Chairman Don Graham, Katharine’s eldest son, that he could no longer subsidize the money-losing business.

This preceded his even more agonizing decision in August 2013 to sell The Washington Post to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

“It’s sad what’s happened, but this is part of capitalism,” said Zakaria, who jumped to Time after the Newsweek sale and hosts a Sunday show on CNN. “What I mourn most of all is that Newsweek and Time once really brought America together; they crossed the partisan divide and the urban-rural divide, and were part of a kind of national middle-class that was so important to American democracy. Nothing like that exists anymore.”

Clift, however, said: “I loved every minute. It was a great bunch of people, there was always excitement, and a feeling we were being good journalists and doing good journalism. I love Newsweek. But I’m not mourning it  anymore, because for me Newsweek died a long time ago.”

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