10:58 am Aug. 21, 20125
Yesterday, my colleague Joe Pompeo called up Newsweek to ask whether the company was planning to issue any corrections or clarifications of Niall Ferguson's cover story, "Hit the Road Barack," in which countless manipulations and outright misrepresentations are marshaled in favor of an argument against Barack Obama's reelection.
Newsweek issued him the same statement they've been issuing everyone, without elaboration: "Niall Ferguson has responded to Paul Krugman’s critique. Newsweek continues to monitor the debate."
Make no mistake about what is happening here. Tina Brown is dressing up Ferguson's failure as a provocation and conversation-starter. The problem is that this is not the kind of conversation Brown means to start.
Brown's theory of buzz has been expounded at such length over the years that to hear it again or describe it again would just feel like a PCP hangover. The point is that Brown wants her magazine to be talked about.
But "roundly ridiculed" is a better description of the wide reaction to the magazine yesterday. And that, whatever positioning Brown may attempt, is bad for her and worse for Newsweek.
This morning, Newsweek "monitors the debate" with a long post written by a Daily Beast reporter and fact-checker that congratulates itself for rounding up "the best—and even the most blistering and critical" reactions to the piece.
In fact the reactions are, in the majority, blistering and critical. Some words in the headlines responding to Ferguson's piece, and his later, pissy defense of it: "unethical," "lies," "embarrassing," "ridiculous," "absurd," "very bad."
Here is a digression that won't take long.
Tom Scocca wrote a brilliant piece for Slate a year and a half ago that was a reaction to a new practice at The New York Times Magazine by which they publish information about the editor of the article in addition to the writer.
"[As] anyone who has been an editor can testify—and especially as anyone who has been both editor and editee can testify—adding one more name to a story doesn't even begin to illuminate the mysteries of the editorial process," Scocca writes, before producing some samples of potentially illuminating editors' notes.
One of my favorites:
[EDITOR F] hated this piece the minute she saw it. Boring, self-indulgent, and almost indistinguishable from the last two pieces by the same writer. But the writer in question was a senior writer, with a famous name and a big contract—and, moreover, was a social acquaintance of both the editor in chief and the publisher. And [EDITOR F] knew from long experience that he would yell and fuss about any revisions to his copy. This piece makes him look like an asshole, she thought, because he is an asshole. She changed a few common words to fit the house style (he had been writing for them for 20 years, and refused to learn the house style) and gave it to the copy desk with a shrug and a roll of her eyes.
The real question here is who is minding the store at Newsweek. If Niall Ferguson wants to persist in claiming the essay is intellectually honest and not a scam on the public, then the only conclusion is that his editors at Newsweek didn't care enough to contradict him.
Recently, when Barry Diller seemed to be saying that the Harman family's withdrawal of financial support for the magazine meant that he would likely drop the print edition, he was quick to correct us: Anything's possible, but he was just talking about the future of print magazines in general.
Maybe he should go back to the first version. If Newsweek's editor doesn't take it seriously, why should anybody?