Thursday, December 11, 2008

Newsweek Comes Out of the Closet. . . as a magazine with a political agenda.

By Mark Hemingway
December 10, 2008, 7:00 a.m.

The cover story in this week’s Newsweek, which makes “the religious case for gay marriage,” has come under fire from a large swath of the religious community. Newsweek’s own blog has been keeping track of the controversy, with religious heavyweights such as Albert Mohler, Ralph Reed, and Richard Land criticizing the article. The Politico devoted an entire article to cataloging the backlash, The Weekly Standard called it a “dire mess,” and countless blogs commented unfavorably. (Not to mention that the piece was not popular in the Hemingway household.)

While there is certainly a religious debate to be had over the validity of gay marriage, most of the criticism of the article sidestepped the main issue to comment on how the author, religion reporter Lisa Miller, wrote the article. Aside from making numerous basic factual errors, the author insisted — before the end of the first paragraph — that biblical views of marriage are déclassé: “Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple — who likely woke up on their wedding day harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about gender equality and romantic love — turn to the Bible as a how-to script?”

Of course, religious Americans are more than used to shoddy coverage of theological debates. So what else is new? Criticism that a Newsweek cover story serves a left-of-center political worldview is almost, well, a weekly occurrence. What is remarkable about this week’s cover story was how Newsweek’s editor, Jon Meacham, has handled the backlash. He hasn’t defended the piece as a matter of opinion or part of a public debate. Rather, Newsweek has apparently come out of the closet as an explicitly ideological magazine editorially endorsing the article’s viewpoint.

In Meacham’s editor’s note in this week’s issue, he defends the cover story, fully cognizant of the fact that his general-interest magazine has staked out a clear theological and political position. This would seem to run counter to the supposedly objective standards of a news magazine. Meacham writes that to “resort to Biblical authority is the worst kind of fundamentalism”: “Given the history of the making of the Scriptures and the millennia of critical attention scholars and others have given to the stories and injunctions that come to us in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, to argue that something is so because it is in the Bible is more than intellectually bankrupt — it is unserious, and unworthy of the great Judeo-Christian tradition.” This, says Meacham, has had pernicious consequences in the past: “Christians . . . long cited scriptural authority to justify and perpetuate slavery with the same certitude that some now use to point to certain passages in the Bible to condemn homosexuality.” (While it’s true some people used Biblical arguments to justify slavery, it was Biblical arguments against slavery employed by abolitionists that won out and largely ended the practice in the Western world.)

Meacham self-righteously refuses to admit that there’s even a place at the table for a religious (or, Heaven forbid, secular) voice opposing gay marriage: “Religious conservatives will say that the liberal media are once again seeking to impose their values (or their ‘agenda,’ a favorite term to describe the views of those who disagree with you) on a God-fearing nation. Let the letters and e-mails come. History and demographics are on the side of those who favor inclusion over exclusion.”

A good journalistic institution with a national following could do a lot to facilitate that debate on this controversial issue. If Meacham’s so convinced he is right, he should open up his pages to those who oppose gay marriage, confident that the right ideas and values will win out. The reality is that the Bible contains uncomfortable truths for people on both sides of the issue: It doesn’t just condemn homosexuality, it also preaches the need for tolerance and forgiveness to those who rush to condemn gay Americans and encourage their victimization.

But why delve into such complex matters when you can use your journalistic perch to declare the debate over? Meacham should change the name of his magazine to Opinionweek and stop scolding other people for correctly pointing out that he has an agenda.

Laws against gay marriage have passed at the ballot box in 30 states, most recently in California. It’s not “religious conservatives” against gay marriage — it’s a clear majority of the country. Which helps explain why Newsweek is in a big slump. According to a story in Folio yesterday, “Sources say that the magazine is considering slashing up to 1.6 million copies from Newsweek’s current rate base of 2.6 million, which would put the magazine’s rate base at 1 million. Newsweek declined to comment.”

Odd that Newsweek would have so much to say about the inherent correctness of gay marriage this week — opposing views be damned — but nothing to say about their rapidly diminishing circulation. Perhaps they don’t want to consider that these two developments might be related. In that sense, Meacham may have a point about inclusion and demographics: If Newsweek doesn’t want to be inclusive when it comes to debating controversial issues, they’re that much more likely to become history.

— Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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