This is, to say the least, not your usual issue of NEWSWEEK. It is about Iraq, which is not unusual, but it has been guest-edited by Stephen Colbert, which is decidedly unusual. The story of how this came to be is told on the last page of the issue, in a Back Story feature in which Colbert offers his comments on my version of events. Still, I wanted to offer a word of introduction before handing things over to a political satirist who plays an egomaniacal right-wing talk-show host.
When Colbert and I first spoke about his guest-editing, he initially doubted he would have the time to do it. As he thought about it, however, he found the idea intriguing because of the trip to Iraq he was planning. He is there now, and will do his show from Baghdad this week. He would undertake the NEWSWEEK project, he said, if it allowed him to bring renewed attention to the war there and the men and women who are still fighting it.
What does a guest editor do? In Colbert's case, he designed the cover and chose places within the issue to insert his character's voice; the rewritten "recycling box" on this page, for instance, is Colbertian. So, among other things, are Colbert's Top of the Week column, the first Letters page (designated "From the Colbert Files"), Conventional Wisdom and the author biographies in The Take. He also added a note to the top of InternationaList. Everything he did in character is signed, so there should be no confusion about what is NEWSWEEK and what is Colbert.
For Features, we presented him with about a dozen options, all by NEWSWEEK writers and reporters; he and his team chose the nine that we are publishing. Colbert's only appearance in the Features section comes atop a page that he commissioned to show an artist's rendering of a possible Iraq War memorial. Culture is a Colbert-free zone, despite his suggestion that he should claim credit for writing any good book we review.
I am grateful to Colbert and his team, and to our Nisid Hajari and Bonnie Siegler, for making the issue possible. Colbert was not a total stranger to such undertakings: Maureen Dowd once invited him to write her column (the result zoomed to the top of the most-e-mailed list). But a whole magazine is a great deal more work than a single piece, particularly when you have a day job producing a show, and we appreciate the, er, seriousness with which Colbert & Co. treated the project.
In one conversation, Colbert asked an interesting question. I know what is in this for me, he said: I get an issue of NEWSWEEK about something I care about and attention for a project—the broadcasts from Iraq—that I care about. But, he asked, what is in it for you? A fresh voice, I replied, and access to his audience—an audience of politically and culturally engaged people.
Some readers and critics will inevitably object, saying that this is a publicity stunt. To them I solemnly say: you are half-right. Of course I am seeking publicity for the magazine. I would argue with the term "stunt," though, but only because of the popular assumption that a stunt is something silly. (The dictionary definition is a feat of daring, but we do not live in the dictionary.) Colbert's involvement is an exercise not in silliness but in satire, and the two are very different things. His role means more attention for NEWSWEEK, yes, and to me that is a good thing. It also brings more readers to a serious subject—and that heightened interest is a good thing, too. The test of whether the Colbert decision was a sound one, I think, is whether readers learn something new from the following pages. I am confident that they will.