Nothing delights Culturebox’s Slate colleagues as much as poking fun at U.S. News & World Report. “Apropos of nothing (again), U.S. News goes with a military cover: “Submarine!,” gloated one recently in the “In Other Magazines” column. “(Three weeks ago, it published an equally untimely cover on 20th century military strategists.)” It’s easy to bash a magazine whose owner does the same thing at dinner parties, when he isn’t shopping the editor’s job all over town. That’s what Mort Zuckerman is up to, if a profile in last month’s Washingtonian is to be believed.
Culturebox’s unsolicited advice to her colleagues and Zuckerman: Shush. A quick review of the charges generally leveled at James Fallows, a former Atlantic Monthly big-think guy and much-made-fun-of media critic: 1. He prefers the long view to the short run, stinting reporting for analysis. 2. He has little or no news judgment. 3. His magazine is boring.
Point 1 is just not true–if anything there’s too much information in a U.S. News piece. As a critic wrote somewhere last year, reading a Snooze article rather like being buttonholed by a retired admiral with way too much time on his hands. But you get more hard facts and historical data from the admiral than from almost any other source.
Point 2. Translation: Fallows runs stories no one else runs. One man’s poor news judgment is another man’s smart market positioning. Rather than go up against Time and Newsweek with fewer resources, he publishes Washington Monthly-style tweaks on the news and scours beats undercovered by the other newsweeklies: the military, the auto industry, education, religion. Hence the (quite enthralling) cover story on life aboard a nuclear submarine.
Point 3 is not untrue, but not new either. The Snooze is actually less boring than it used to be, and besides, newsweeklies are boring by definition. The task of boiling down what the average American needs to know each week is fundamentally unglamorous. Nobody in the media really respects newsweeklies–not the reporters who work there, who would rather be pushing the envelope, not their peers in journalism, who measure a journalist’s worth by the number of his scoops. But readers outside the media bubble (and that’s everyone who makes a newsweekly his primary news source) want their world reliably summarized. They don’t care about the very latest wrinkle in the Microsoft-Department of Justice antitrust negotiations. They don’t need a fancy you-were-there lead.
Which leads us to what has inspired Culturebox’s news-peg-less rant (in the best Fallovian tradition): the juxtaposition in the past weeks of two pieces of cultural reportage, U.S. News’s “Prophets of Pop Culture” and. Time’s “Artists and Entertainers of the 20th Century.” By media-bubble standards, Time’s package outstrips U.S. News’s by a furlong. There are fancy names–Ann Douglas, Helen Vendler, Robert Hughes, Terry Teachout, Deborah Tannen, Witold Rybczynski, Ingrid Sischy–and up-to-the-minute critical judgments. And yet the cumulative effect is oppressive. There’s too much too read. Everything is monumental. Everyone is celebrated. The world just isn’t that dramatic and fabulous. Culturebox wound up loathing James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Bob Dylan with equal passion. What else can you feel about a man who was “the shifting, stormy center of American popular music in the second part of the very century when the music was invented”?
U.S. News, on the other hand, has neither names nor big-deal profile subjects. Its package is sizzle-free, shorter (15 vs. 146 pages), and infinitely more original. The choice of profilees reflects not a fixation on celebrity but an enthusiasm for the underappreciated: network founders David Sarnoff and William Paley, the men who created television as we know it; Ernest Hemingway, interestingly seen as the father of modern American nonfiction; Bing Crosby, rather than Frank Sinatra. Culturebox emerged from the experience modestly enlightened, rather than desperately out of breath. Which, in the end, is all she asks.