For several years now (click here for an early post) I have been asking a rather basic journalistic question: "What is Newsweek?" By which I mean, of course, "What has Newsweek become?"
It used to be a standard weekly magazine that contained a mixture of hard news and commentary. Readers knew when they were reading news, for the most part, and they knew when they were reading commentary, in part because commentary pieces featured column logos or an "analysis" or "commentary" alert.
It was all so quaint and old-fashioned.
It also seems that fewer and fewer Americans -- in the age of Fox and MSNBC -- are interested in that kind of publication. Thus, former non-Newsweek editor and theologian-in-chief Jon Meacham announced that he was going to try to clear as many religious traditionalists as possible from the subscriber list and market his publication as an elite, openly liberal, forward-pushing advocacy publication. At the time, I noted that his goal was to create the World magazine for the religious left.
So what is Newsweek today? As a rule, under super-editor Tina Brown, it has been an at times lively but ultimately confusing mixture of commentary, commentary and more commentary. Some of the commentary comes in the form of regular columns by open partisans (surprise, Paul Begala thinks conservatives are mean, stupid or shallow and Andrew Sullivan also thinks they are evil) and somewhat newsy essays by celebrities ("My life with Trigg," by Sarah Palin).
And the NEWS in Newsweek? That's the strange part. The goal of the magazine seems to be to handle serious news topics (mixed with entertainment topics, of course) but in a way that it is impossible to take seriously as journalism. Newsweek is becoming the land of the unattributed fact.
To see this process at work, please read the Ayaan Hirsi Ali cover story discussing "The War on Christians in the Muslim World." In this case, the cover's zinger quality is provided by the author's identity as a Muslim apostate, atheist, militant secularist and defender of old-fashioned human rights -- such as religious liberty and free speech. Ali is so liberal that she is now considered, by many, to be a conservative.
The result looks like this:
... (A) fair-minded assessment of recent events and trends leads to the conclusion that the scale and severity of Islamophobia pales in comparison with the bloody Christophobia currently coursing through Muslim-majority nations from one end of the globe to the other. The conspiracy of silence surrounding this violent expression of religious intolerance has to stop. Nothing less than the fate of Christianity -- and ultimately of all religious minorities -- in the Islamic world is at stake.
At this point, Hirsi Ali is offering a pretty straight-forward piece of journalistic analysis. The key, in newsmagazine journalism, is that she is going to have to provide a mountain of evidence to back her blunt conclusions.
Thus, the next two paragraphs state:
From blasphemy laws to brutal murders to bombings to mutilations and the burning of holy sites, Christians in so many nations live in fear. In Nigeria many have suffered all of these forms of persecution. The nation has the largest Christian minority (40 percent) in proportion to its population (160 million) of any majority-Muslim country. For years, Muslims and Christians in Nigeria have lived on the edge of civil war. Islamist radicals provoke much if not most of the tension. The newest such organization is an outfit that calls itself Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sacrilege.” Its aim is to establish Sharia in Nigeria. To this end it has stated that it will kill all Christians in the country.
In the month of January 2012 alone, Boko Haram was responsible for 54 deaths. In 2011 its members killed at least 510 people and burned down or destroyed more than 350 churches in 10 northern states. They use guns, gasoline bombs, and even machetes, shouting “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”) while launching attacks on unsuspecting citizens. They have attacked churches, a Christmas Day gathering (killing 42 Catholics), beer parlors, a town hall, beauty salons, and banks. They have so far focused on killing Christian clerics, politicians, students, policemen, and soldiers, as well as Muslim clerics who condemn their mayhem.
Hirsi Ali goes on to provide similar content and analysis about Sudan, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other lands in which persecution of Christians, moderate Muslims and other religious minorities is on the rise.
So what is the problem?
First let me state the obvious. I am, of course, a reader who tries to pay close attention to the United States Commission on Religious Freedom, U.S. State Department reports on human rights and other organizations that work in this area. Few of the facts collected by Hirsi Ali surprise me or shock me. Why? Because I know where most of her facts are coming from.
The problem is that the editors at new Newsweek -- with its emphasis on opinion over reporting -- print this kind of material week after week with little or no attribution that points readers toward the sources of the facts that supposedly support the analysis. This methodology is especially shaky when dealing with this kind of controversy that is rooted in religion as well as politics.
With a few more lines of type, readers would be able to evaluate Hirsi Ali's statistics, anecdotes and evidence for themselves. It's called journalism.
These kinds of topics -- on left and right -- need the kind of intellectual muscle that is provided by solid sourcing and attributions. I have no doubt that Hirsi Ali could have buried the reader in source material, with footnotes, endnotes, attribution clauses, etc. Readers would be more likely to believe her and trust her analysis if they can see and evaluate the sources for her fact claims.
I think readers would be more likely to trust Newsweek, if it printed solid journalism as well as lively opinion. Then again, perhaps I am simply old fashioned when it comes to journalism about religion, human rights and other life-and-death topics.