Time for a confession: I am not so bothered, as a matter of journalism, by Jon Meacham's two recent cover essays for Newsweek. Terry critiqued Meacham's previous essay, and I'll reflect more on this week's essay, "It's Not Easy Bein' Blue." On the recurring question of whether Meacham's writing represents reporting or opinion, I believe it is reporting in the service of opinion. In reading Meacham I see new details, quotes from key players and resonant examples from history.
This is not the more detached reporting encouraged by daily newspapers, but it is hardly unusual in the history of Newsweek or Time. As Donald E. Graham mentioned in his farewell tribute to former Newsweek editor Osborn Elliott, that legendary editor pioneered onsite, bylined reporting by newsweekly editors, but that reporting led readers to conclusions, such as the righteousness of the civil rights movement.
If Meacham wants to place a strongly personal editorial stamp on Newsweek, I think that's largely his prerogative as its editor, so long as he respects standards of fairness and accuracy. Sometimes I do find Meacham's tone too above it all, as if the political culture waits on him to sort through ludicrous stereotypes and identify the middle way.
Consider the way Meacham describes the United States as a center-right nation, and quickly seeks to dispel readers' fears about the meaning of conservatism:
From the Adam Smith-inverting bailout of the financial system to evidence of slightly less religious intensity, there are signs that the Americans of 2008 are far from the crusading townspeople of "Inherit the Wind." Context is all, however. Yes, the country may show signs of a receptivity to more-activist government and to a gentler tone on social issues involving religion and sexuality, but when we compare ourselves with, say, Europe -- which the left loves to do, especially when assessing our foreign policy -- we remain strikingly conservative.
Contrary to caricature, to be conservative is not necessarily to be racist, or retrograde, or close-minded. It is, rather, to be driven by a fundamental human impulse to preserve what one has and loves. Liberals and moderates share this impulse, of course; and many conservatives, like many liberals and moderates, are generous, future-oriented and interested in reform.
You have to love that qualifier of necessarily before such scary words as racist, retrograde and close-minded. Thanks for the generous assumptions!
Still, Meacham is the heart of good will when compared to his Newsweek associate Jonathan Alter, whom Meacham invited to challenge his argument. Alter makes his argument, in part, with this rhetorical flourish:
When the GOP finally did get full control of Capitol Hill in 1994, what did they do with it? The reign of Tom DeLay was not conservative in any way that Edmund Burke would recognize. He led a band of radical Republicans who actually shut down the Congress to intervene in the case of a brain-dead woman in Florida -- a move that will likely be remembered as the high-water mark of theocratic power in the United States.
That's some theocratic power, considering that the embattled woman was nevertheless sent to her grave -- denied necessary hydration and nutrients -- by court order. She had a name, too: Terry Schiavo.
If journalism is truly the first draft of history, Meacham is applying his skills as the author of several books of history to help make sense of our times. He is trying to look past headlines and describe a bigger picture. I often disagree with his conclusions, but I have come to enjoy watching him argue the case.