In July of 1963, Newsweek became the first major newsmagazine to put the face of an unknown black American on its cover. The issue, which featured the tagline “The Negro in America,” amounted to an “unspoken editorial,” according to then editor-in-chief Osborn Elliott, and it was filled with coverage “very sympathetic” to the civil rights movement. Four years later, in November of 1967, the magazine ran another civil rights editorial. This one was more explicit: The cover featured a picture of two African-American hands, one open beseechingly and the other closed defiantly, and the tagline “The Negro in America: What Must Be Done.” It was, says Elliott, “the first exercise in openly advocative journalism by Newsweek, or any other major magazine for that matter.” The next year, following the Tet Offensive, the magazine did another advocacy piece, this time on the Vietnam War, calling for de-escalation and eventual withdrawal.
Newsweek’s cover gambles were audacious, and they sparked much discussion and debate in the cautious world of 1960s mainstream journalism. By going beyond just-the-facts-ma’am reporting and venturing into advocacy journalism with a passion, the magazine rode the wave of a civil rights revolution that was to change America. It also caught Newsweek’s competition — Time and U.S. News & World Report, plus the handful of newspapers with a national reach — off-guard, and left them uncertain for years as to how to respond.
It’s hard to imagine a news outlet imbedded in the mainstream doing today what Newsweek did 40 years ago. Aggressive, crusading pieces have all but disappeared from the mainstream press. The press has grown to distrust or to disdain the type of pieces Newsweek ran in the ’60s, with editors, reporters and pundits reticent to risk arguing from outside the bounds of conventional wisdom. Today, in elite circles at least, passion is passť. The raised eyebrow has replaced the racing pulse.
It was not always thus. Before the age of objectivity, the American press was a hotbed of passionate pamphleteers, ranging from Thomas Paine in late eighteenth century right up to Wilbur Storey, the editor of the Chicago Times, who in 1861 bluntly declared that “a newspaper’s duty is to print the news and raise hell.” Nineteenth-century wit Finley Peter Dunne, writing in the voice of a fictional Irishman named Mr. Dooley, reflected the times when he declared that newspapers exist to “comfort th’ afflicted and afflict th’ comfortable.” (What Mr. Dooley might think of journalism that afflicts the afflicted and comforts the comfortable is not known.)
We’ve come a long way since then. But the question arises: has it been a long way in the wrong direction?
Liberal pundit Matthew Yglesias, of The American Prospect, provided an insight into the prevailing ethos in April. Writing on his website, he lamented his early take on the war, which he characterized as “Bush is right to say we should invade Iraq, but he’s going about it the wrong way, here is my nuanced wonderfulness.” That take, he said, sounded more intelligent to him at the time than the fervid over-the-top rhetoric coming from antiwar protesters — but in retrospect, it’s painfully clear that it missed the point. Yglesias’ position now is similar to that of many other ostensible liberals, who have launched a veritable orgy of breast-beating over why they supported the war in the first place.
So why did they, exactly? When the administration effectively shifted the parameters of debate in the months before the war, why did mainstream journalists docilely adopt positions that would have been anathema to them a year earlier and have become anathema since? Was a mass self-hypnotism at work? Yglesias blames simple vanity — his desire to seem more enlightened then the protesters — and he’s right, to a degree. But there’s a perhaps more illuminating explanation, and it has something to do with the dominant culture among elites, a culture that deems it flat-out distasteful for people to passionately consider ideas. Elliott says much of what drove Newsweek’s foray into the kind of journalism that broke with traditional practice had something to do with “the consuming passions of the time.” By contrast, “in the past twenty-five years,” writes Jedediah Purdy in his book For Common Things, “politics has gone dead to the imagination. It has ceased being the site of moral and historical drama. It has come to seem petty, tedious, and parochial.”
Some pundits and editors still write with real passion, of course. But few are willing to hold fast to convictions that fall somewhere outside accepted norms. They’re afraid of being marginalized.