Sign Up

The Real Newsweek Scandal

Why was a crucial story missing from Newsweek’s U.S. edition?

May 20, 2005

Why was a crucial story missing from Newsweek's U.S. edition?

Over the decades, a subscription to the international edition of Newsweek or Time Magazine has been a near-indispensable tool for many high school and college students in Europe, Asia and Latin America who were interested in the United States — and wanted to attend a U.S. university.

The assumption had always been that the international editions of these renowned magazines were a “best of” compilation of articles on the events and people driving the U.S. debate on key domestic and international issues.

Relying on the editors’ good judgment, the reader could count on finding articles that best explained complex issues, that did not shrink away from covering controversial topics — and that ultimately equipped a foreigner with a solid understanding of Americans’ current thinking.

It must be a sign of the times that the basic assumption — that you get to read a selection of the most interesting features read by Americans themselves in the domestic edition of the weekly magazine — no longer applies.

The current “Newsweek scandal” is all about the White House’s charge that Newsweek besmirched the image of the U.S. military with a careless and inaccurate article alleging desecration of the Koran. As many others have pointed out, much of the Bush Administration’s criticism is wrongheaded and hypocritical.

Put in the broader context of how Americans view their role in the world, the truly disconcerting scandal at Newsweek took place several months ago — at the end of January 2005.

In the January 31, 2005 issue, Newsweek International — edited very capably by Fareed Zakaria — treated its readers around the world to a courageous, well-written and extensively researched cover story. It was principally authored by Newsweek columnist and Princeton University political scientist Andrew Moravcsik — and entitled “Dream On America.”

The article begins by describing just how out of tune President Bush’s second inaugural address on January 20 was with how the United States is perceived in many countries around the world.

But the piece quickly moves beyond discussing global anti-Bush sentiment. Rather, the author lays out — in great detail and supported by numerous on-the-record quotes and detailed polling data — that it is the American model itself that many foreigners have become disillusioned with.

And Mr. Moravcsik also quickly dispels any notion that his article is merely a dressed-up anti-Bush rant: “A President Kerry would have had to confront a similar disaffection.”

As he puts it, “Americans are living in a dream world. Not only do others not share America’s self-regard, they no longer aspire to emulate the country’s social and economic achievement.”

This global disaffection with America described in the feature stretches from the U.S. political system (too much money and influence peddling), to its economy (Americans are getting a raw deal in terms of working hours, social protection and health insurance) and social model (racial tensions, high incarceration rates and gun violence).

But the hardest blow to America’s self-image may be Mr. Moravcsik’s detailed description of how newly democratic countries around the world opt in favor of Europe’s political model rather than America’s.

In short, it is an article that shows that the author has his finger on the pulse of how people around the world feel about the United States at the beginning of the 21st century.

And it is decidedly not an anti-American manifesto. Rather, it is an article that must have given hope to the many friends America still has around the world who read it in Newsweek International.

“Finally,” these pro-American Europeans, Asians and others must have thought, “the U.S. debate is moving in the right direction. America’s self-corrective mechanism can now get to work and ultimately restore the true American leadership the world still needs.”

Except, of course, that this was not the case. This uniquely well-argued article — with additional reporting from locales around the world — never made it into Newsweek’s U.S. edition.

Would the article have made any huge difference in the domestic U.S. debate? Maybe, maybe not. But the simple fact that Newsweek’s editors decided against publishing such an important and illuminating article speaks volumes.

One can only guess what their motives may have been: Maybe there wasn’t enough room for such a rather lengthy feature, which would be a poor excuse at best.

Another reason might be that the magazine did not want to upset its corporate advertisers with an article that is highly critical of corporate lobbying and other excesses of the U.S. political and economic systems.

Or maybe the editors simply thought that their readers were not interested in, or simply did not want to hear, the article’s uncomfortable message — the worst possible reason for not running it.

So contrary to what most people outside of the United States think, Newsweek — and Time, for that matter — are cutting some readers out of the loop. But it’s not the foreigners who are being kept away from some of the best and most provocative stories.

Rather, the most pointed pieces are often commissioned by — and printed in — the magazines’ international editions. Doing so gives international readers an impression of a vigorous U.S. debate that, sadly, does not always take place.

This is all the more appalling given that the real audience for the essay was not the readership abroad, but Americans at home.

It would have been a powerful contribution to journalism’s highest function — telling truth to power — to make the article available to its intended audience, especially if it does not like to hear that truth.

What we have to contend with is a situation where the problems of American journalism extend far beyond the admittedly too widespread use of anonymous sources. The real crisis is about an increasing unwillingness to tell hard truths it when it really matters.

In that sense, the current Newsweek scandal has it backwards. Newsweek’s editors surely do not deserve all the blame that was heaped upon them in the wake of the Koran story.

But the real con job on the American people took place in January, when the same editors apparently decided that — for whatever reason — the “Dream On America” essay should not be published in their magazine.

Click here to read Andrew Moravcsik’s “Dream On America.”