Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Newsweek, at War with Itself

All last week, I kept meaning to write a post on the spat between Newsweek columnist Robert Samuelson and the magazine for which he writes, but I put it off. Eventually, Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler posted his analysis of Samuelson’s column, which would irk me if not for the fact that Somerby is a much better writer than I am, and he saved me some work.

To summarize, Newsweek’s cover story two weeks ago was about the global warming denial machine. Samuelson then complained that the story was simplistic, since it reduced the issue to an "us vs. them" conflict, and because current proposals to combat global warming are unlikely to be effective.

Samuelson writes, "Global warming has clearly occurred; the hard question is what to do about it." True enough. But the Newsweek story to which he objects so much was focused on the fact that there are a number of groups that exist to cast doubt on that statement which he so heartily endorses. This is not the last instance of shaky logic in the column. Later, Samuelson cites polls showing that the number of people who are concerned about global warming has only increased 2% in the past 18 years. Bizarrely, he does not see this as evidence of a mythical denial machine.

As for the second point, he may be right that global warming will be impossible to counteract, but it hardly matters since the point of the original article was not to propose any kind of action. In fact, as Somerby pointed out, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham went out of his way to point out that the magazine wasn’t endorsing we actually do anything about this problem, and by the way, they think Al Gore is a big fat phony too.

Meacham addresses Samuelson’s column in his editor’s letter, and basically points out that the whole argument is a non sequitor. So if the editor of the magazine acknowledges that his columnist is spouting nonsense, why did the column make it to print? The obvious answer is for the sake of “balance:” both Meacham and Samuelson close with the usual boilerplate about dissent being essential to a free society (regardless of whether that dissent has any internal logic or basis in fact).

I can’t help but wonder if any regular columnist for a major publication has ever had a column turned down by his or her editor. A few weeks ago, Samuelson’s column was on the subject of (I kid you not) commas, and how people don’t use them as much anymore, and how isn’t that, like, a symptom of our fast-paced society? He closed the column with (what else?) a line of commas. It was an utterly vapid piece which was the symptom of a man with nothing worthwhile to say that week, but what was Newsweek going to do? Put his picture at the top of a blank page? In cases like that, it’s mostly harmless, but when editors see fit to print essays that they themselves acknowledge are bunk, it’s a sad testament to current journalistic standards.

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