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.