Obama the Essayist

The president's Newsweek piece didn't deliver much for readers

In a brief note at the end of his column last Friday, Slate’s Jack Shafer asked why Barack Obama would be writing—or maybe that should read “writing”—a cover essay for Newsweek about the earthquake in Haiti. “He doesn’t know anything about Haiti outside of what his aides may have told him,” Shafer wrote. “He won’t even write it! If the piece is worth publishing, Newsweek should give the byline to its true author.”

Shafer was right. Newspapers and magazines may routinely give bylines to important people who only purport to write the words that appear under their names—so routinely, in fact, that one observer thought it would be “a small scandal” for Obama to actually write the essay rather than just claim credit for it, as he had better things to do with his time. But just because the practice is widespread doesn’t mean it’s right. The person who pens a piece of writing should get—or at the very least, share—the byline for it. That’s out of fairness to the author, but more importantly to readers, some of whom may not be appropriately cynical enough to assume that the name atop the article is a handy fiction.

(It’s worth noting here that this practice is more widespread at some places than at others.
The Obama article marks at least the tenth time since June 2009 that Newsweek’s cover package has included an article with the byline of a prominent political or entertainment figure. Some, maybe even most, of those folks may have actually written the articles; Mark Sanford and Lamar Alexander have more air in their schedules than Barack Obama. But it’s odd, as a reader, to have to wonder.)

In retrospect, though, the key part of Shafer’s comment may have been that line about “if the piece is worth publishing.” That’s because—while the Obama get was hailed in some quarters as a “huge score” and even a “coup”—after having read the essay, it’s not clear that it was.

We’re fortunate to have, in this case, an explanation from Newsweek’s top brass about what it was hoping to achieve journalistically by enlisting Obama to lead its quake coverage. In the course of defending himself from some misguided accusations of liberal bias, Jon Meacham, the magazine’s editor, told Politico’s Michael Calderone that

the coming debate over the extent of our rebuilding efforts is one that will shaped by the President. Hearing him on our national interests in Haiti is a way to add value for Newsweek’s readers and, we hope, to inform the debate about what will inevitably be a long and costly undertaking in one of the world’s most blighted countries.

That is, indeed, an important subject, and one about which a number of people could be expected to have interesting things to say. At one point in his life, Barack Obama might have been one of them.

Given his current position, though, there was little reason to expect him to offer more than boilerplate about American exceptionalism. And that is, indeed, what Newsweek got. Here’s Obama:

We act for the sake of the thousands of American citizens who are in Haiti, and for their families back home; for the sake of the Haitian people who have been stricken with a tragic history, even as they have shown great resilience; and we act because of the close ties that we have with a neighbor that is only a few hundred miles to the south.

But above all, we act for a very simple reason: in times of tragedy, the United States of America steps forward and helps. That is who we are. That is what we do. For decades, America’s leadership has been founded in part on the fact that we do not use our power to subjugate others, we use it to lift them up—whether it was rebuilding our former adversaries after World War II, dropping food and water to the people of Berlin, or helping the people of Bosnia and Kosovo rebuild their lives and their nations.

At no time is that more true than in moments of great peril and human suffering. It is why we have acted to help people combat the scourge of HIV/AIDS in Africa, or to recover from a catastrophic tsunami in Asia. When we show not just our power, but also our compassion, the world looks to us with a mixture of awe and admiration. That advances our leadership. That shows the character of our country. And it is why every American can look at this relief effort with the pride of knowing that America is acting on behalf of our common humanity.

There is nothing new about this, nor anything challenging or thought-provoking. The subject of America’s special place in the world is ground Obama has been treading for some time—notably in his inaugural address and his speech announcing an escalation in Afghanistan, but in many other contexts as well. Indeed, the references to the Berlin airlift, U.S. support for Bosnians, and the American response to the tsunami are all lifted from his earlier speeches. And, of course, the article isn’t really about Haiti at all. Newsweek gave this material the headline “Why Haiti Matters,” but it could more appropriately have been called “Why America Matters.”

None of this is particularly surprising, nor is it especially an indictment of Obama. In addition to his responsibility to direct America’s contribution to the relief effort, the president does have a public role to play in keeping America’s attention focused on the quake’s damage, urging people to make donations or otherwise take action to help relieve the suffering, and outlining what our national response will be. But those tasks are tangential to the core journalistic responsibilities of reporting on, contextualizing, and analyzing events. Moreover, we’re long past the time when the president needed to rely on Newsweek to assemble an audience for him. And the magazine’s readers don’t need a reworking of what Obama has been saying in plenty of other places.

Indeed, while the Obama essay has been described as in keeping with Newsweek’s much-mooted makeover, which prioritizes commentary over reporting, it may be a sign that the magazine’s identity crisis—which the latest rebranding was supposed to fix—is as powerful as ever. In February 2008, Meacham expressed dismay to an audience of journalism students who preferred The Economist to Newsweek. “It’s an incredible frustration that I’ve got some of the most decent, hard-working, honest, passionate, straight-shooting, non-ideological people who just want to tell the damn truth,” he said, “and how to get this past this image that we’re just middlebrow, you know, a magazine that your grandparents get, or something, that’s the challenge. And I just don’t know how to do it, so if you’ve got any ideas, tell me.”

Nearly two years later, this episode highlights one of the continuing differences between the two magazines, and it’s not one that works in Newsweek’s favor. It’s hard to imagine The Economist soliciting a piece by the president, and not just because it is a British publication that doesn’t use even bylines for its staffers. It’s because, love it or hate it, The Economist has confidence in its ability as an institution to say something interesting about major events. Newsweek, on the other hand, is yet again resorting to the journalistic equivalent of stunt casting—and as any TV viewer knows, that’s what happens when the writers start to run out of ideas.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.