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Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist

  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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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.

37 Responses to “Newsweek opts for immature profanity over depth”

  1. Reuel said

    Wow. It use to be “If it bleeds it leads”. not anymore. Sad, but these kind of disturbing behaviors are now the new normal. Most young today have no idea what is happening in Washington DC or the world, but they follow trash speaking celebrities and comedy central pundits. The times they are a changing.

    PS: Newt has official lost his mind on the trail. The problem is his ego is going to keep him doing this until he destroys Mitt. Leaving a clean path for a second term. As soon as I saw one of his speeches about he was carrying the torch for President Reagan, I knew Reagan and Newt you are no Reagan. So I guess we can call it now, Newt has lost his mind in public, I always though he was a closet nutter. Just such a brilliant mind for history, and little understanding of reality.

    Have a good day.

    A real Reagan Democrat. At least that is what they called us, we were really just independents and were afraid to say so.

  2. […] after a partnership with The Daily Beast — a blogger and author James McPherson documented a dozen examples of vulgarisms in a Jan. 23 emanate — some open radio stations have taken […]

  3. […] after its merger with The Daily Beast — the blogger and author James McPherson documented a dozen examples of vulgarisms in the Jan. 23 issue — some public television stations have taken […]

  4. Mickey Davis said

    Whoever wrote this (I’ve no idea who he is and never heard of him except this article was linked in today’s Times, which I read cover to cover daily so it’s not like I’m from Kansas) is a lot more seriously fucked up than everyone he wrote about. This is right wing shit masquerading as something thoughtful. Its about as thoughtful as a Catholic mass. Yes let’s all become prudes. That should make national health care unnecessary. This guy’s values are somewhere far up his asshole. God save us.

  5. James McPherson said

    Mickey, no reason you should have heard of me, and if you think I’m a right-winger, it’s clear that you know nothing about me. I suspect that you probably didn’t even read the post you commented on–though if you read the Times from cover to cover every day I understand why you might not have time for a lot of other reading. But thanks for your comment.

  6. Anonymous Reader said

    Shouldn’t that be “FEB. 12 FOLLOW_UP?”

  7. Bolo Jungle said

    I think Mickey’s comments hit part of the issue on the head… the way we communicate has changed with the anonymity of the Internet and that hasn’t necessarily been a good thing. It is easy to be harsh – weirdly harsh – and even blindly vicious. It concerns me that simply because we CAN be hurtful in this new medium, we immediately choose to be. I know someone (maybe Mickey) will lash out, but in my opinion, it is disturbing that this tendency seems to lurk in many (if not all) of us.

  8. Reuel said

    Well James welcome to the Wing-nuts. ROTFLMAO. Seems to be a lot of the “I didn’t read the article, but someone told me you were a wing-nut so I shall comment on it, without any investigation.” So you going to join WND? Now that funny.

    Have a good day.

  9. Reuel said

    Hey Mickey I’ve no idea whom you may be. But you missed the whole point of the writing. Oh and you may want to expand your reading to a few more sources than the Old Grey Lady, you know the News only fit to tell there opinion of said news. Oh yeah I read it to and yes compared to you I am far right wing in the middle here. LOL James a right wing. That is a good one. 🙂 Made my day.

  10. Ken said

    Reuel could you please speak English? Is WND like weapons of ‘Nuclular’ ( as George Bush would say) destruction? I don’t think ROTFLMAO is in the dictionary either…

  11. jlp said

    I hadn’t looked at Newsweek in a long time, but then started to get it when I subscribed to my local classical music station. What a comedown from the past! It’s not the vulgarity I object to, it’s the dearth of serious reportage. It’s just so FLIMSY.

  12. James McPherson said

    Jlp, you’re right about the quality. I used to read both the Daily Beast (and have a link to it on the right side of this page) and Newsweek, and appreciated the different styles for different audiences. Now I can’t figure out who Newsweek thinks its audience is, or should be.

    Ken, do you have a point other than to be snippy? I agree with Reuel on relatively little, but he is more correct in this case than Mickey is. And ROTFLMA) can be found in some dictionaries, including here: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=ROTFLMAO

    Bolo Jungle, I agree with you about the anonymity of the Internet and the problems. That’s why I refuse to hide behind pseudonyms, even in cases where perhaps I should. If interested, you can see more about that here: https://jmcpherson.wordpress.com/2009/12/07/electronic-klansmen-trying-to-make-me-famous/

    Thanks, all, for the comments.

  13. Reuel said

    WND is World Nut Daily at which James and I do agree should be it’s name instead of World Net Daily. Google WND. Thank you James, Unlike some I just use Urban text letters to prevent from being offered a job a Newsweek. Good to see the pot stirred a little once in a while. Good for the blood circulation and boredom of this talking points world we seem to of inherited.

  14. Reuel said

    And Ken trust me I know Nuclear and how it is spoken, I have been an Engineer in that area for 30 plus years and I was not a English Major. So criticize all you may of my english skills, it is irrelevant and I think just maybe I should worry more about the business at hands than the posting grammatically properly to your expectations on a Blog site.

    Do have a good day.

  15. dekerivers said

    Sadly for more revenue–or attempts at being ‘edgy’ and hoping for more ad dollars–Newsweek is poking journalistic standards in the eye.

    I hope this nation pokes back and rejects this style of publishing news.

  16. James McPherson said

    Reuel, you probably never thought you’d see the same silliness here as over there as over at those other two sites. But as you know, I always welcome your comments here. Well, OK, sometimes I’m less welcoming of your comments than other times, but always appreciative that you take the time, even when you’re wrong. 🙂

    Dekerivers, I agree. Sadly, Newsweek seems to be acting like a middle-aged guy who is trying to be cool–something that as a middle-aged prof I happen to know too much about. Thanks for the comment.

  17. James McPherson said

    Oh, and anonymous reader, thanks for your note, as well. I’ve made the correction above–that’s what I get for writing too quickly, too late at night.

  18. Redward said

    I have been a faithful Newsweek reader for many decades (yes, decades) but have become so disgusted by the sophomoric and unprofessional tack that Newsweek has taken, that I have cancelled my subscription in protest. Unfortunately, Time magazine seems to be following a similar path and I am now considering cutting that out as well. Perhaps The Week will be able to fill my weekly jones for real news in print. I sincerely doubt that either Newsweek or Time will still be publishing by year’s end, since their bottom-feeding editors, writers and art directors seem to be dumbing down with a vengeance.

  19. […] much has it changed? Jensen relies on blogger Jim McPherson who noted after reading the January 26 issue that words like "fuck" and "shit" were printed in full without any sort of […]

  20. Tim Flynn said

    I cancelled my 20 year subscription over the gratuitous use of the “f” word about 6 months ago. I did not receive a acknowledgement to my memo explaining why I no longer wanted to get the periodical that I had loved for so many years.

  21. Reuel said

    Everyone has there 15 minutes of fame. Well in today’s world, I think it is more like 30 seconds.

  22. […] the bottom of my most recent post, I noted a couple of days ago that New York Times media writer Elizabeth Jensen cited that post in […]

  23. Peter said

    Jim, I think we need to come up with a new name for profanity-laced journalism. Yellow just doesn’t fit the bill.

    I am in the local newspaper business. If we so much as published a single quote with any of the words mentioned in Newsweek, we would be crucified by our readership.

    If Newsweek thinks they can build a younger readership by going the way of Rolling Stone, they are sadly mistaken. While apparently still profitable in the short term, the days of the newsweekly are certainly numbered. (Time included, especially after their failure on person of the year, “The Protester,” really??) Re-branding as a pop-culture weekly seems to be the only way to make money, unfortunately.

  24. Mickey Davis said

    I think everyone is finished piling on, so it seems appropriate to put a few of the sycophants straight about what it means to be right-wing, which I find describes most of what has been discussed here. Americans haven’t a clue what left-wing means. That’s why they think they are left when they are right. Remember (?) that leftism gained that label because of where the Jacobins sat in the French Parlement after, or during, depending upon where you date it, the Revolution. These are the people whose principles led directly to the Paris Commune. That’s what leftists are, not people who confuse, for instance, health care with health insurance. If you don’t understand that Obama is right of center, you don’t know where center is, and you don’t know what left means. And if you think there is any difference between the weekly trash you are discussing here, all of which are right-wing or worse, I guess it makes sense if you are American.

    Perhaps a few examples will help you find yourself on the map. Center is health insurance. Left is national health care. Center is sending a few token minorities to college, without much regard to merit, because they never received any elementary or secondary education worthy of the name. Left is abolishing private schools entirely, and requiring all children to go to public schools. Center is regulating pharmaceutical prices. Since we don’t even do that, we are right. Left is nationalizing pharmaceutical companies, because the federal government funds all meaningful pharmaceutical research anyway, and providing pharmaceuticals to all as part of the national health system. Center is progressive taxation. We don’t have that, so we are right. Left is is true progressive taxation starting at zero, or often less than that, and extending up to 90 plus per cent. It also means close to 100% estate taxes, so that all families and children start of equal.

    Left is nationalizing all industries that employ more than 30 people, regulating all salaries so that nobody at the top makes a multiple of more than 10 or 20 or so more than the least-paid employee. Center is having reasonably limited IP laws. We don’t have that so we are right. Left is abolishing IP, funding serious research through the government. and requiring authors and musicians to earn their living through personal appearances, teaching, and the first sale of their works which will inevitably pay, for a successful work, more than they ever imagined anyway.

    Are you getting the drift? Center or center right is allowing lawyers to become rich off of multinational corporations, and leaving the poor with incompetent or overworked lawyers. Left is nationalizing the legal profession so that lawyers are periodically and randomly assigned to individuals, the wealthy, corporations, or criminals (if you can distinguish between the latter two), so that the talent is equally spread among the population.

    Left, in other words, means fundamentally changing society. Center tinkers. The right goes backward. But they are happy when the center tinkers, because it keeps a left from developing. That’s what you do here.

    Finally, center is believing there are always two sides to every question and not caring what is actually written as long as there are words. Left is caring deeply about the meaning of what is written. Right, and here we have come full circle, is caring about whether the words are acceptable or “trashy,” profane, or respectable, elevating form over substance. Is there nothing more vulgar than caring about vulgarity?

    What I read here was and is right-wing. I would be profoundly embarrassed to read Time, Newsweek, or any of the other so-called newsmagazines. Left people don’t waste their time on that. And, for what it’s worth, I don’t just read the Times daily, which I find relatively to extremely right-wing, but also Le Monde and either Corriere della Sera or La Repubblica, the latter of which is a bit less right wing than the other. I also sometimes read Liberation or Huma, which are truly left wing. They are also a bit trashy and vulgar. The right, as here, would complain about that.

  25. James McPherson said

    Peter: Hey, at least Time picked something human for “person of the year”–remember when it was Earth? Perhaps Newsweek’s readership will guide it, as well. Thanks for the comment.

    Mickey, thanks to you, as well, though the length of your response requires a longer answer:

    “Is there nothing more vulgar than caring about vulgarity?”

    Perhaps only the pretense that vulgarity in itself represents something meaningful or cool. If you read the post, you know that I’m not offended by words. I said, “I don’t swear much”–but as both a fly fisherman and a golfer I can’t imagine giving it up entirely.

    On the other hand, I am bored by showy public profanity and offended by those who think their use of vulgarity indicates something deeper about them other than that they are intellectually lazy, of limited vocabulary and/or uncaring about others’ feelings.

    “Left is caring deeply about the meaning of what is written.”

    Well, sometimes. Which is perhaps why I care so much about the shoddy laziness of what Newsweek now offers, as its writers pretend that vulgarity in itself means something.

    And thank you for the lengthy explanation of your left/right spectrum, with which I largely agree–though I would never assume that readers of an American blog would take for granted a Euro-centric political perspective. I have often argued that my complaints about Obama stem from his conservatism, not any perceived liberalism–and that Bill Clinton was probably our most effectively conservative president.

    “I also sometimes read Liberation or Huma, which are truly left wing. They are also a bit trashy and vulgar. The right, as here, would complain about that.”

    Perhaps some would. I certainly wouldn’t, just as I have never complained about the vulgarity of the Daily Beast. Though often pointless and juvenile, it’s also aimed at a different audience than Newsweek is. Or was. As if anyone knows who the hell Newsweek is trying to reach now. Damn, there’s a swear word, used appropriately. Gee, there’s another.

  26. Jessica said

    The Internet is uncensored and, right or wrong, I think Newsweek is reflecting that change in the media landscape.

  27. Leslie said

    I am glad that you did write about this. I too now get Newsweek as a pledge benefit. I was surprised at the quality of the language. I was also disappointed at the quality of the analysis. I don’t think of myself as a right wing conservative, but I was offended by the use of profanity, which I thought was gratuitous. I am glad to see that it was not just me.

  28. Bailey said

    “Perhaps only the pretense that vulgarity in itself represents something meaningful or cool. If you read the post, you know that I’m not offended by words. I said, “I don’t swear much”–but as both a fly fisherman and a golfer I can’t imagine giving it up entirely.”

    Or perhaps vulgarity doesn’t mean anything. Except of course when this set of words is given meaning by people who are offended by them which, in reading your article, it is hard to escape the conclusion that you’re one of those people. Why else would you do an entire article about the vulgarity rather than what you say is the actual problem, the lack of quality in the actual writing (which was a problem the last time I looked at Newsweek ten years ago, though now maybe it’s even worse?). I know, you’re using one as a symptom of the other, but harping on and on about it gives the vulgarity meaning.

    What I’m saying is that while I believe you that you’re not a member of the so called ‘profanity police’, anyone coming to your site and reading the above article has a very good chance of drawing the conclusion that you are and extrapolating from there. Excessive concern for the presence of vulgarity means something is going on there (akin to, perhaps, Santorum’s excessive concern about Americans sexual practices).

  29. James McPherson said

    Thanks, Jessica, Leslie and Bailey. But in addition, Bailey:

    “harping on and on about it gives the vulgarity meaning”

    Yeah, right. Because without my reaction, nothing in Newsweek has any meaning. 🙂

    “anyone coming to your site and reading the above article has a very good chance of drawing the conclusion…”

    Perhaps. Fortunately, we need not care about the misinterpretations of people who read carelessly and then respond quickly.

    “Excessive concern for the presence of vulgarity means something is going on there”

    “Excessive concern” as defined by whom? Not the same people who define “excessive profanity,” I take it? 😉

    Thanks, though, for dropping by and taking the time to comment. And having me and Santorum in the same sentence made both by conservative buddy and me laugh out loud, so thanks for that, too.

  30. Libertarian Republican…

    […]Newsweek opts for immature profanity over depth « James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog[…]…

  31. Reuel said

    Do you hear that? It was a pin dropped.

    This was a good subject and a nice break from Politics. Thanks: Enjoyed the read from a fellow “Wing-nut” Careful they may use the Tea word on you next. Honestly some posts here I had no idea what they were saying. I guess they would be lost in my world also. Look forward to your next subject matter.

    Have a good day.

  32. Phil said

    I agree that the Oscar Roundtable was one of the least important, and most objectionable, stories that Newsweek has ever run. The trash talk was silly and often nasty. The occasional quotes of various luminaries using the “f” word more or less passed me by. I do not use the word myself, though occasional other crudities of the barnyard variety have been heard occasionally in our household. But thanks for the article as something different from the usual political ruminations which tend to be repetitive….

  33. James McPherson said

    Thanks, guys. Yes, reuel & Phil, as wacky as things are, we better all take occasional breaks from politics–even if it means I end up be considered a conservative. Actually I am, about some things–social manners, monogomy and gun control, among them.

  34. […] I’ve written in what became my most-read post, I generally avoid using profanity. But one reason I generally oppose it it because its overuse has […]

  35. […] well as it once did. Newsweek went too far with its “Wimp” cover, shown above, but the floundering magazine is struggling for survival as much as the Republican candidate is. The fact is, we don’t […]

  36. […] even free subscriptions because of an odd combination of controversial, outdated, lazy and juvenile editorial choices made by Brown and other editors in an apparent attempt to avoid the […]

  37. […] students to visit. I appreciated being quoted in a Times story about Andrew Breitbart, and having a post (about profanity in Newsweek) from my media and politics blog cited in another story (and then […]

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