Cutting Out the Fat

Time, Newsweek, US News: Pope, pope, pope. John Bolton. Grad schools. Pope pope pope.

Moving on.

Generally, we heart The New Republic. It’s one of the few political magazines willing to challenge its readers’ assumptions instead of toeing the party line (which may be one of the reasons it doesn’t have the circulation of some of the publications that tend to toe the party line). Just look at this week’s cover story by Martin Peretz, which opens with this: “If George W. Bush were to discover a cure for cancer, his critics would denounce him for having done it unilaterally, without adequate consultation, with a crude disregard for the sensibilities of others.” Peretz goes on to credit Bush for making inroads into democratizing the Middle East and attack Bill Clinton for failing to meaningfully engage bin Laden when he had the chance. It’s a detail-rich and thought-provoking piece (if a bit wonky, even by TNR standards) designed in part to move liberals away from “the politics of churlishness.”

But the not-entirely-unjustified knock on TNR is its reliance on conventions — most notably, the notion that it is too often counterintuitive for the sake of counterintuitiveness. Even when the counterintuitiveness isn’t gratuitous, however, it can seem awfully formulaic. Consider two stories from this week. Noam Scheiber’s TRB column is described this way in the table of contents: “The Schiavo case is splitting Democrats committed to privacy from those who advocate greater federal activism. And that’s a good thing.” Clay Risen’s piece on “the decline of brand America” includes a similar formulation: “Now, say marketers, if companies want to compete globally, they need to do the opposite: Get local. Brand America is dead. And that may not be such a bad thing.”

Shining a light on your reliance on convention by allowing nearly identical phraseology into two different stories in the same issue of the magazine: Not such a good thing.

The Weekly Standard’s Katherine Mangu-Ward takes on Jim Wallis, the bestselling author of God’s Politics who presents himself as above the political fray. Here’s the lede: “It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to write a book called God’s Politics. But you have only to read a few pages of Jim Wallis’s new bestseller by that name to discover that it isn’t actually about the politics of an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful deity at all. Instead, it’s 384 pages of Jim’s politics, and Jim (with a couple of notable exceptions) is a pretty average, down-the-line leftist who, by the way, believes in God.” And here’s the problem: Mangu-Ward is right, but she overstates her case, just like Wallis is prone to do. Witness the dueling hyperbole: Wallis writes, “Bush and other Republicans want to make Americans believe that Jesus is … ‘pro-war, pro-rich, and only pro-American.’” Mangu-Ward, in response, then writes that Wallis has a “35-year history of effectively pacifist, anti-capitalist, pro-socialist positions.” And what’s with the closing shot, in which she says she feels sorry for Wallis? That’s the cheapest rhetorical device this side of claiming that he looks French.

Finally, let’s hang with those crazy kids over at The Economist, who want you to know that if you’s like to live longer, you should stop eating, since “the only proven way to extend the lifespan of an animal … is to reduce its calorie intake.” The good news, according to a new study, is that “significant gains in longevity might be made by a mere 5 percent reduction in calorie intake.”

We’re thinking that a 5 percent reduction in media consumption might not be a bad idea, either. You might want to start by cutting out the junk food.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.