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.