Newsweek’s latest blunder

"Transcription error" mars special commemorative issue

It seems like only yesterday that we were paying tribute to Newsweek with our July/August magazine cover. Alas, in the few months since then, the weekly has been the center of numerous mistakes and missteps. In August: that recycled sexy asparagus cover and the “Niall Ferguson debacle,” a cover story so riddled with factual errors that Paul Krugman called it “unethical commentary” and Poynter’s Craig Silverman responded with a post noting that Newsweek dumped its factcheckers way back in 1996.

September wasn’t much better. In yet another one of its “look at me!” covers, Newsweek published its “Muslim Rage” issue, accompanied by a proudly provocative tweet asking readers to discuss the cover using the hashtag “#muslimrage.” The results were… probably not the kind of conversation Newsweek was hoping to create. Or perhaps its editors don’t care as long as the chatter sells magazines and keeps the mag in the public eye.

In what should have been a return to sedate, less provocative pleas for readers, Newsweek recently released a “special commemorative issue” about the 10 best American presidents (since 1900—no Washingtons or Lincolns here!). Ninety-six pages of essays on presidential life and history and, of course, the list of the 10 best presidents as chosen by a panel of 10 historians. How controversial can that be?

Or Newsweek could print an entirely different version of the list than the one the historians submitted. On page three of the print edition, you’ll find the top 10 list:

That’s also the presidents’ order in the 22-page cover story. In the list online, however, they’re ranked a bit differently:

1. Franklin D. Roosevelt
2. Theodore Roosevelt
3. Lyndon B. Johnson
4. Woodrow Wilson
5. Harry S Truman
6. John F. Kennedy
7. Dwight Eisenhower
8. Bill Clinton
9. Ronald Reagan
10. Barack Obama

You’ll also find this:

Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this gallery, the middle rankings of the presidents were ordered incorrectly.

Oops! Mistakes happen, of course, even with factcheckers. But this one is a doozy. The cover story of the entire special commemorative issue is this list, and the magazine screwed it up two ways (moving Eisenhower up to fourth, bumping Woodrow and Truman down a spot and then throwing Kennedy down to eighth place and moving Clinton up one) and in two different sections.

CUNY Graduate Center history professor David Nasaw, who was one of the 10 historians polled, was flabbergasted at the mistake. “It’s just not right that a major newsweekly with a Web presence should make errors like this,” he said. “It seems beyond sloppy.”

Newsweek’s defense back in August when the Ferguson story’s errors were uncovered was to tell Politico: “[W]e, like other news organizations today, rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material.” Yet here is a case where factually accurate material was submitted and it’s still not right.

Spokesman Andrew Kirk (who also provided that Politico quote) didn’t seem eager to explain how it happened, nor was he particularly apologetic for it:

Due to a transcription error some of the rankings of our poll findings were listed in an incorrect order in the print edition. We regret the error, which has been amended on the iPad edition and online.

Newsweek director of editorial operations Mark Miller had “nothing to add” to Kirk’s response.

Yale history professor Daniel Kevles told CJR that he was “very pleased” that Newsweek quickly corrected the errors in its iPad version, to which Kirk was eager to point our readers (just $0.99 for a limited time!). I’ll point readers there, too: why pay $10.99 for the incorrect print edition when you can get the corrected one for far less money?

Then again, maybe you should forgo Newsweek entirely and instead spend your money on a magazine that hasn’t made a routine out of public embarrassment.

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison. Tags: ,