Newsweek opts for immature profanity over depth
Posted by James McPherson on January 27, 2012
Through a weird circumstance involving donations to public radio, I get two copies of Newsweek each week. This week’s issue demonstrated why that’s typically two more than I need. The time would be much better spent on Mother Jones, The Nation, or even National Review.
While this week’s issue of Newsweek does have an interesting and worthwhile story about International Monetary Fund chairwoman Christine Lagarde, much of the magazine seems to have been turned over to college sophomores–the kind of sophomores who love writing for university newspapers because they’ve found that they can get away with profanity.
Warning: If you’re offended by reading profanity, even in context, please stop reading now.
I don’t swear much, myself. I did so much more when I played college football and when I worked in a sawmill, but like most of those sophomores I refer to above, I outgrew it. That doesn’t mean I’m a prude about it: Despite the fact that I teach at a Christian university, I’ll even use it in class when it seems appropriate. After all, just as biology students should look at pictures that might seem sexually graphic or gory in another context, students of media should consider even the less pleasant parts of the language.
So the “f word” pops up a couple of times in my media history class. The first is when I’m quoting President Lyndon Johnson asking the president of CBS, “Frank, are you trying to fuck me?” The second comes during a discussion of protest music from various period, when I play the video for “Cop Killer.” I spend a bit of time talking about how profanity was used by young people as a way to get attention — and then, unfortunately in my view, it became much more prevalent throughout society.
That’s a trend I find objectionable, because it’s rude, lazy and generally a reflection of immaturity and/or stupidity. I have been known to ask (usually politely) people in public settings to clean up their language–even though in my journalism classes I have pointed out the goofiness of what I refer to as the “Wheel-of-Fortune” quotes often used in magazines in newspapers and magazines: for example, something along the lines of “Frank, are you trying to f___ me?”
But Newsweek, probably as a result over being taken over by the upstart Daily Beast, doesn’t take the silly “Wheel-of-Fortune” route. No, it goes out of its way to slap readers upside their heads with coarse language, even when that language serves no meaningful purpose. Maybe it’s a Country Joe and the Fish or N.W.A. flashback, but this week’s issue alone offers the following:
- A story about “the Black Hollywood vote,” quotes Samuel L. Jackson saying, “The president got about a week of moderate applause for capturing the most-wanted man in the world. You ask me, he should have put that motherfucker on ice and defrosted his ass Nov. 1.”
- Rick Perry and Paul Begala both are quoted using the abbreviated version of that same word: “mofo.”
- In a piece called “Capitalism Gone Wild” (get it), novelist Robert Harris ”sums up his attitude about Blair by quoting Harold Pinter: ‘We all believed in New Labour, and what a fucking shithouse that turned out to be.’”
- Singer Ingrid Michaelson has decided to drop being “cute,” and so is quoted (via a sock puppet) as saying: “I’ve got some serious dark shit in me. Everyone is like, ‘She’s so cute, she’s so cute.’ You know what? Fuck that!
- Perhaps worst is the annual “Oscar roundtable,” in which half a dozen Hollywood stars come across as a group of hormonal middle school students. Words from the “conversation” that were deemed magazine-worthy include “tits,” “shit,” “bullshit” and “cock” (not a rooster). I have no doubt that the stars used that language. I do doubt that it’s representative of how most of them behave most of the time. If so, let’s hope they stick to acting–they’re just not very interesting, if this is a realistic depiction.
All of those examples come from the print version of the magazine. Online you can find even more, particularly with a story about former porn actress Traci Lords. Weirdly, perhaps, one online story that doesn’t include any profanity is the one titled, “The Sex Diaries Project,” about the sex lives of 1,500 people.
Apparently author Jessica Bennett has figured that someone who writes well doesn’t need to rely on adolescent language, even when talking about immature people and sex. Perhaps Newsweek editors should pay closer attention to her work, assuming readers stay around to see it. I certainly won’t be renewing my free subscription–either of them, for that matter.
FEB. 12 FOLLOW-UP: This post has been linked in an online story of today’s New York Times, which will apparently appear on p. B7 of tomorrow’s New York edition (I don’t know about out here in the West). The story notes that some public television donors had complained (like me, they apparently get Newsweek because they support PBS).
Writer Elizabeth Jensen quotes an email response from Stephen Colvin, chief executive of The Newsweek Daily Beast Company (essentially saying, “Hey, we’re selling more copies, so screw off”), and Newsweek executive editor Justine Rosenthal, stating, ““We do not use profanity unless within a quote or in the context of a story and care is taken to ensure it is never used gratuitously.” Of course, the examples I noted were in quotes. Perhaps Newsweek writers just used to be better at getting more intellectual responses than they are now.