This post is not about Gov. Sarah Palin, even though it's about the latest Newsweek cover story about her role in the current White House race and, should she be elected, the fall of Western Civilization. When I first saw editor Jon Meacham's essay about Palin, the one entitled "The Palin Problem," I thought to myself: "Wow. That is a really, really long editorial sidebar. I wonder what's on the cover and who wrote it." You see, someone had sent me the plain text for the piece with a URL.
I assumed that, in a news weekly, an essay this opinionated would be running next to a piece of actual journalism. You know, there would be the cover story and then there would be a pair of sidebars -- one on the left from Meacham (the editor of the magazine and, thus, a high authority figure) and then one on the right by some utterly predictable strawman like, well, Karl Rove.
What do you know, I was half right. They did roll out Rove in defense of the GOP.
Then, when my actual copy of the magazine arrived, I was stunned to discover that Meacham's essay was not a sidebar to a piece of journalism. It was, itself, the cover story.
Let me say right up front: This would be a great, great cover story for The New Republic.
It's a bit too bland for The Nation.
It lacks the edgy, celebrity-tinged, sarcastic bite you would need in Rolling Stone. It isn't nasty enough for Mother Jones (although it has its moments).
But this is a cover story in Newsweek? This is a piece of journalism that is supposed to appeal to a broadly defined slice of America in both political parties, in a wide variety of pews?
Your GetReligionistas have made this complaint before, of course. Meacham really isn't a journalist, these days. He has become a house theologian for the old world of mainline Protestantism. That is an important, crucial voice in the public square. Ask Sen. Barack Obama, of the United Church of Christ. I read lots of people in that camp and enjoy what I read. This weblog has often called for more coverage of the religious left.
But I digress. The heart of Meacham's sermon is this statement, one that does not directly mention religion, but that is part of the Palin firestorm and everyone knows it:
Do we want leaders who are everyday folks, or do we want leaders who understand everyday folks? Therein lies an enormous difference, one that could decide the presidential election and, if McCain and Palin were to win, shape the governance of the nation.
Yes, America needs leaders who understand everyday folks, in everyday homes and pews. People like, well, Meacham.
Again, my argument is not, essentially, about Meacham's view of Palin or the information in his piece (what little new information there is). I agree, to be honest, with many of his concerns about Palin's level of experience. As a Democrat, I have some similar concerns -- on the experience question -- with Obama. I would vote for Sen. Joe Biden for president much quicker than I would vote for Obama.
But this post is about Newsweek. It's about journalism. What IS this cover story? Is Newsweek declaring itself a niche, advocacy journalism magazine?
To be blunt about it, is this now the World magazine for oldline Protestants and progressive Catholics, Jews, secularists and all others who believe that red-zip-code America is, deep down, not worthy of balanced, fair, traditional American journalism? Is there much of a difference, in journalism theory, between the Meacham Newsweek cover on Palin and this World magazine story on Obama?
I mean, after all, this is the theologian-historian-editor who decided that wise, elderly Billy Graham has matured so much, has become so nuanced, that when he prays the Psalms in the middle of the night the scene goes something like this.
On this particular night, Graham lay in the darkness, trying to recite the 23rd Psalm from memory. He begins: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want ..." Then, for a moment, he loses the thread. "I missed a sequence, and that disturbed me," Graham recalls. It was frustrating -- the man who has preached the Gospel to more human beings than anyone in history does not like to forget critical verses of the Bible -- but in the end the last line comes back to him: "Surely thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." Relieved, he drifts back to sleep.
Yes, in the new Newsweek, the world's most famous evangelical prays the Psalms according to the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, not the King James Bible of his youth. Those were his exact words, of course. This is journalism, after all.