Newsweek Discovers Doomed Spinsters Marrying

It's not often that we have to wait 20 years for a correction, but this is one of those times.

It’s not often that we have to wait 20 years for a correction, but this is one of those times.

Thus does Newsweek revisit a 1986 cover story on “The Marriage Crunch” with a new (and improved!) cover story bearing the headline: “20 Years Ago Newsweek predicted a Single, 40-year-old Woman Had a Better Chance of Being Killed By A Terrorist Than Getting Married. Why We Were Wrong. Rethinking ‘The Marriage Crunch’.”

As it happens, “twenty years since the infamous ‘terrorist’ line, states of unions aren’t what we predicted they’d be,” Newsweek confesses. Our bad! Back then, Newsweek’s cover was premised on a single demographic study on marriage patterns in America which included these “dire statistics”: “white, college-educated women born in the mid-’50s who are still single at 30 have only a 20 percent chance of marrying. By the age of 35 the odds drop to 5 percent. Forty-year-olds are more likely to be killed by a terrorist: they have a minuscule 2.6 percent probability of tying the knot” — figures which, Newsweek noted, were creating a “profound crisis of confidence among America’s growing ranks of single women.”

How did that “terrorist” line come to pass? The magazine explains that it was “first hastily written as a funny aside in an internal reporting memo” by a Newsweek correspondent, then “inserted … into the story” by an editor on the opposite coast. Although this editor and her colleagues “thought it was clear the comparison was hyperbole … Most readers missed the joke.” Stupid readers! They were kidding, ok? And isn’t it funny how a line “hastily written” can “become entrenched in pop culture, journalism and literature” just because an editor “inserts” it into a national magazine with three million paying readers? Newsweek apparently thinks so, offering a list of films and books that actually referenced that Newsweek line (Sleepless in Seattle! Sex & the City!).

Is the magazine contrite? Have its editors learned their lesson? Don’t blink or you’ll miss it: “Beyond all the research studies and forecasts, the trend-spotting and fear-mongering that are too often the stock in trade of both journalists and academics, the real story of this anniversary [of the original cover story] is the unexpected happily-ever-afters,” Newsweek reports. Meaning, we suppose, that of the 14 destined-to-be-spinsters profiled in Newsweek’s 1986 story, eight of the eleven women the magazine was able to locate are now married.

While Newsweek “rethinks” one of its alarmist covers, U.S. News & World Report this week publishes what, at first glance, looks like a sort of anti-alarmist cover: “Global Warming: Can We Live With It?” It is the sort of question, reports Bret Schulte, that has “long been the third rail of green politics for fear it would pull the focus away from fixing the problem.” And yet “adaptation” — or learning to prepare for and adapt to global warming’s effects by, say, building “higher bridges and stronger levees” — may be, according to Shulte, “the next debate in the climate-change debate,” thanks to “a host of reasons, including the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.”

Elsewhere in the magazine, reporters Kenneth T. Walsh and Danielle Knight credit “White House insiders” with crediting Laura Bush and Karl Rove for “President Bush’s mea culpa last week about mistakes in Iraq.” Seems, according to these nameless sources, Mrs. Bush is “quietly prodding” the president to “soften his image” while “it’s thought that political strategist Karl Rove wants Bush to make overtures to moderate voters by tempering his image.”

And in this week’s Weekly Standard, Matt Labash does some “tempering” of Anderson Cooper’s media-inflated image on the occasion of the release of the CNN anchor’s book, “Dispatches from the Edge.” Observes Labash: “[H]istory is divided into two periods: BAC and AAC. Before Anderson Cooper and After. We now recognize the host of CNN’s 360 the way we recognize the sun and moon, which are always before us, as Anderson is. He is silvery and sleek, the son of Gloria Vanderbilt, the friend of mankind. He is an enigma wrapped in a mystery ensconced in a French blue shirt, which really makes his eyes pop, by the way.” The piece is as much about Labash as it is about the “Cooper Duper Newsman” (or his book) — such as, that Labash has learned from Cooper “to see the truth, not with my eyes, but with my heart, even if my aortic valve needs glasses for reading so that sometimes the truth looks a little blurry.”

Reminds us of that scene in Sleepless in Seattle when Meg Ryan “insists that the claim that a woman over 40 is more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to get married is ‘not true’” — and Rosie O’Donnell responds: ‘But it feels true.’”

UPDATE: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of U.S. News reporter Brett Schulte’s name.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.