05.05.10

Newsweek's Greatest Hits

The Washington Post Company put its newsweekly on the block Wednesday. From civil rights to 9/11 scoops, The Daily Beast goes into the vault for some of Newsweek’s best journalism.

Word came down Wednesday that The Washington Post Company was putting Newsweek up for sale. The balance sheet, it turned out, was as red as the rectangle that runs across Newsweek’s cover. But before we start another media dirge, we shouldn’t inflate Newsweek into Ross’ New Yorker or Felker’s New York. Let us say it is a magazine that for 80 years has been doing its thing doggedly, respectfully, and, occasionally, spectacularly. Newsweek has—had?—a certain kind of steadiness.

Click Image to See 10 Memorable Newsweek Covers

Rebecca Dana & Lloyd Grove: Who Killed Newsweek? Newsweek (then called “News-week”) was founded in 1933. The first cover had seven photographs, one for each day it aimed to summarize. “It cost 10 cents a copy, $4 for a year, and had a circulation of 50,000,” the authorized biography says. To save it from becoming “a more peaceful, stuffier version of Time” (David Halberstam), Kay Graham and the Post Company swooped in to buy it in 1961, at Ben Bradlee’s urging. That’s when the Newsweek most of us know took shape: the scrappy competitor to Time; the proving ground for future Posties like Bradlee; the after-hours lounge for made Posties like George Will and Meg Greenfield, who traded weeks on the back page for years.

The thing was successful enough that it became a media brand—a giant one, with a dozen foreign bureaus and worldwide circulation of 4 million. But the digital age has proved deadly for magazines that are, as a rule, a tad late. An attempted redesign last year was greeted with a shrug—how do you redesign Newsweek? Then came the knifing: Michael Kinsley buried the New Newsweek in The New Republic, before the Post’s Donald Graham formally did the same on Wednesday.

Which is not to say that Newsweek is dead. Editor Jon Meacham told The New York Observer he’s got two “billionaires” in his “While You Were Out” box; Meacham may even buy it himself. (As they say at Newsweek, we’ll know more next Monday.) With the magazine in the balance, The Daily Beast looks at some of its greatest hits—and a few misses.

Newsweek distinguished itself with spirited coverage of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s, led by reporter Karl Fleming. Based in Atlanta, Fleming interviewed Martin Luther King Jr. numerous times (he reported that King was always running late). Fleming later told interviewer Leslie Jack that he was followed during his Southern reporting and that his phones were sometimes tapped. At night, he always took a room in the well-lit front section of a motel. “We didn’t stay in the back where somebody could come and drag us out in the middle of the night,” Fleming said.

Was there a reporter and a subject who became buddies like Newsweek’s Ben Bradlee and John F. Kennedy? So close was their friendship that during one stop on the 1960 presidential campaign, the two men and their wives took in a porno movie together. “They both knew that each was capable of using the other,” David Remnick once wrote, “and yet both enjoyed the duet.” Kennedy once whispered a scoop to Bradlee at a White House party: U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers had been freed in a prisoner swap with the Soviets.

In 1983, Newsweek published a breathless report on the “Hitler diaries,” newly found writings that were purportedly from the Nazi leader’s own hand. While Newsweek’s story made skeptical noises—“The new find should be read with a giant saltshaker at hand,” a scholar wrote in the issue—the magazine took out full-page ads in The New York Times and the Post to publicize the scoop. The diaries, alas, turned out to be a hoax. The Times later said a Newsweek editor had put the documents’ authenticity at “60-40” when it published the story.

Since 1984, Newsweek has made a cottage industry out of its fly-on-the-wall post-election coverage of presidential campaigns. Newsweek embeds reporters during the campaign, then lets them spill all after the votes are counted. The 2004 edition, penned by the magazine’s master rewrite man Evan Thomas, won a National Magazine Award. “I can’t believe I’m losing to this idiot,” Kerry said to an aide—a complaint that Newsweek got first. The 2008 piece dished up delicious scoops on the crackup of the McCain camp, including Sarah Palin’s notorious department-store raid.

Bigger than any campaign scoop was the story that the president of the United States was having an affair with an intern, and Newsweek had it first. Reporter Michael Isikoff had introduced the world to Linda Tripp in 1997, in a story about Kathleen Willey. The next year, he was ready to publish a story about Kenneth Starr’s investigation of Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky. But Newsweek’s editors held the story, saying they didn’t think it was solid enough. Matt Drudge broke the news of the Newsweek story.

September 11 produced some sterling journalism. “Trail of Terror,” a team-reported cover story after the attacks, unearthed Mohammed Atta’s farewell note and the fact that hijackers sent money home before their suicide mission. A few weeks later, Fareed Zakaria wrote a cover story called “Why They Hate Us,” which sought to explain the most pressing question arising from the ruin of the World Trade Center. “There is something stronger at work here than deprivation and jealousy,” Zakaria wrote. The sprawling piece won numerous journalism awards.

In 2005, Newsweek editors were forced to walk back a breathtaking report: American interrogators working at the Guantanamo Bay flushed a copy of the Quran down the toilet to taunt detainees at the prison camp. The news sparked riots throughout the world, claiming at least nine lives. But the magazine didn’t have the goods. Editor Mark Whitaker stood by the article, but had to retract the detail about the Quran.

As newspapers and magazines scrambled to locate writers who could offer the right perspective on the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Newsweek nabbed a big-time freelancer: President Barack Obama. For a magazine competing for eyeballs on the newsstand, and for a staff forced to change direction quickly in the face of a developing international crisis, the president’s byline was a pretty impressive get.

Newsweek may be slower than Politico, but it still gets the story. Last month, reporter David Margolick got John McCain to say, “I never considered myself a maverick”—a line that Obama himself skewered at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. McCain has had a testy history with the magazine. During the 2008 campaign, operative Mark Salter wrote a long letter to the magazine, accusing it of falling for Obama’s spin.