Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Newsweek & Wolcott Hit High Notes

Newsweeklies have been a dying category for years. Time, the grandaddy of the bunch, the institution that invented the format, remains (just barely) the flagship of the largest media company in the world (sister pub People has a far higher readership and makes lots more money). And while it's still probably the best of the Big Three, it can never come close to the agenda-setting role it once played in the news media. U.S. News & World Report is of course the poor cousin of the trio. Owned by the idiot developer Mort Zuckerman, it took one last grasp at respectability a decade ago, hiring the respected Jim Fallows as editor. He cleaned house and tried to turn the ship around, but the experiment went bust after just a couple of years when Zuckerman tired of his employee's Ivy League journalism tutorial and sent him packing. Now the mag is mostly known for its annual college rankings, which produce millions in ad revenue but have been widely condemned for doing serious harm to higher education.

But Newsweek may be the biggest mystery of all. It's owned by the Washington Post Company, which is pretty good at journalism. But they've let the magazine flail around in recent years, trying to find itself by dressing up in Serious Journalism while chasing this or that passing middle class fad. The cover packages often draw titters in journalism, seeming to alternate between big, solemn coverage of pseudo trends (inevitably tarted up as the New This or the New That) or soft porn for the masses, masquerading as medical stories (funny, but breast cancer and the like always seem to get top billing). But really: Who needs all that stuff when the downmarket TV beckons?

But Newsweek partially redeemed itself last week, by producing one of its best roundup articles in years,
this stylish and well-reported piece about the mysterious soul of Dick Cheney. Unfortunately, it seems to take a half dozen of the mag's biggest guns to pull it off (see all the reporters' taglines at the end of the piece). The best part of the article: we learn that Cheney has had seven press secretaries, all apparently thoroughly scared of the guy. One was once asked if the Veep attended church on Sunday. "The spokesperson confessed she really couldn't ask the veep: the question was just 'too personal.'"

Meanwhile, Vanity Fair's ace columnist James Wolcott, who cut his teeth at the Village Voice many years ago, just keeps getting better and better. I think his column is now invariably the best thing in an otherwise very good magazine. That's partly because VF's former marquee columnist, Chris Hitchens, has been off his game for the last couple years while he's been off his rocker about the Iraq war and the Bush Administration (and media columnist Michael Wolff has never regained that must-read buzz that won him a National Magazine award back when he was writing weekly in New York Magazine). But it's also because Wolcott is a unique and remarkable talent: a polished stylist and also an incomparable cultural critic, one who routinely tackles the biggest subjects with the sharpest pen. While his VF columns are easily his best work, he also does a hell of a job on his blog. For proof, check
this coverage of the Oscars, which I found more interesting than anything I read anywhere else, online or off.


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