Niall Ferguson’s cover story in the latest issue of Newsweek has taken the blogosphere by storm. His lengthy editorial “Hit the Road, Barack” took on a barrage of criticism shortly after it hit the shelves (well, the internet). However, the criticism wasn’t about the subjective conceptual hang-ups or reasonable differences of opinion that the right and left usually bandy back and forth.
In his Conscience of a Liberal blog, Paul Krugman put the match to the powder keg, asserting that Ferguson’s premeditated aim was to mislead readers. In typical fashion Krugman used a concise and incisive example to make his point. After dealing with Ferguson, Krugman set his red pen upon Newsweek saying:
“We’re not talking about ideology or even economic analysis here — just a plain misrepresentation of the facts, with an august publication letting itself be used to misinform readers. The Times would require an abject correction if something like that slipped through. Will Newsweek?”
For Ferguson, fact checks sprang up like cold sores with most major news organizations delivering salty impugnments of his article almost line by line. Matthew O’brien’s piece in the Atlantic lays out a play-by-play of the article with accompanying commentary from a fact check carried out by the news team.
Ferguson set out to deliver a blistering condemnation of Obama. With a little directed oversight, truncation and manipulation he was able to fit a square peg into a round hole. His accusations against the President were so egregious that hyperbole was bound to be afoot. Any public official guilty of such incompetence would likely be impeached, castrated and crucified in a public square. With a career chock-full of adulation and fawning students, Ferguson likely believed that his piece would be a feather in his mortarboard. On the contrary, it has ended up undermining his credibility. It was take down piece turned on its head. Through his tendentious, misrepresentative attempt at a coup de grace, Ferguson ended up snookering himself. A humbling experience for a man used to getting patted on the back. How could he put such a cultivated reputation on the line? This can’t be an easy blow for a professor—the veracity of his highfalutin demeanor now in question every time he enters the classroom.
Enough about Ferguson. Despite his questionable lack of judgment, he is still one the most thought provoking historians kicking about. His book, Civilization, is a testament to that fact. So, how about Newsweek then? Are they desperate enough to publish such a cheesecloth piece of work? Are they cavalier enough to let such a dubious article find its way on to the cover without a scrupulous fact check? The Daily Beast has put up a short video clip with Justine Rosenthal, Executive Editor of Newsweek, discussing the piece. The clip is quick to point out the commercial success of Ferguson’s article. It boasts of making it to the top of Drudge Report as well as accruing 10,000 likes on Facebook.
While Krugman is justified in most of his accusations, he is wrong in claiming that Newsweek was somehow a pawn in Ferguson’s game. Newsweek isn't new to the rodeo. They knew the storm that was coming. Not only did they know it—they orchestrated it. From the moment when they called up Ferguson and asked him “what is the next big thing that you want to say?” Newsweek is primarily a business, run by businessmen. (The news business and the newsmen fall somewhere further down the hierarchy). The cost and the benefits for "Hit the Road, Barack" were undoubtedly weighed. This article, along with others such as “America’s Oh Sh*t Moment,” signal a shift in Newsweek's strategy toward the huffingtonpostization of the news. Although the prospective cost of Ferguson’s article was Newsweek's damaged credibility, this was apparently outweighed by its prospective benefit—accessing a new market segment. Perhaps they are looking at the floundering business model of their industry and wondering how to stay afloat in a time of disruptive change.
Newsweek has to attract and lock-in an audience that wouldn’t dream of visiting its website (it will, after all, become just a website). Perhaps this move will strain their relationship with the well informed, but—as Newsweek knows—the well informed are a small minority who know how access their news on the internet, for free. Newsweek is going for a volume play. And that naturally entails casting a wider net, which, in turn, entails dumbed-down, sexy and incendiary content. Newsweek is after a new audience. One that likes the trappings of intellectual life, but finds its sustenance in the broth of entertainment.
Regarding the debate Ms. Rosenthal states “I’m not sure there is a clear delineation of what is right and wrong here.” There probably is, but for now keep an eye out for a Kardashian-Kayne cover story.
(Oh, and if you disagree, try explaining the banner links beside Ferguson's article. Click the screenshot for a full size image).