A few years ago, my wife and I cancelled our subscription to Time. In an explanatory letter, we said that we wanted a news magazine; Time, to our regret, had become a comic book.
In a couple of days, we’ll be writing to Newsweek for the same reason.
What has happened to America’s news magazines in the past few years is remarkable, and is clearly visible in the current issues of both Time and Newsweek.
For one thing, they have the same cover story: hormones. They also have lengthy pieces inside about the discovery of an ape skull that might be seven million years old. Both are interesting, but neither deserves as many column inches as it got in a magazine whose supposed purpose is to review and analyze the news of the week.
In fact, according to my own highly-arbitrary tally, of the 60 numbered pages in the July 22 issue of Newsweek, only 18 are news in the conventional sense. The magazine even goes so far as to devote three pages and eight photos to a story about an egomaniacal Hollywood producer named Robert Evans who, after having fallen on drug-induced hard times, seems now to be enjoying somewhat softer times.
And as for Time, its July 22 issue features 18 pages of conventional news out of a total of 68. It devotes two pages, one of which is a photo, to the new Anna Nicole Smith television show.
Both magazines contain short items about Michael Jackson and the mistreatment he claims to be suffering at the hands of his record company, and Newsweek offers an interview with a pet psychic named Sonya Fitzpatrick. "But how do you know how a dog thinks?" asks the magazine’s Katherine Stroup. "I just know," replies Ms. Fitzpatrick.
If the Pulitzers gave an award for best interchange between questioner and respondent . . .
Just as troubling to me as the absence of news and analysis in the magazines is the ever-shrinking critical presence in the arts. In Richard Shickel and Richard Corliss, Time has two of the most literate and perceptive movie reviewers ever to appear in print. The same may be said of Newsweek’s David Ansen. But there are issues these days in which these men do not even appear, and when they do, they are pared down to a paragraph or two, or else are assigned to matters beneath their dignity. In the current Newsweek, for example, it is Ansen who writes the piece on Robert Evans.
Books are given similarly short shrift, and serious works of non-fiction are often ignored altogether.
Taking the place of such criticism are sections called "Newsmakers," in which the newsmakers are people like Will Smith; "Periscope," in which we learn that magicians are now performing their tricks on laptops and in movie theatres; and "People," in which we are told some of the details of the Rudy Giuliani-Donna Hanover divorce settlement.
There is nothing new about the combination of journalism and entertainment. The latter has been used as a come-on for the former for centuries. In the Middle Ages, minstrels transformed the events of the day into songs and patter. As a young man, W.C. Fields was the top newspaper salesman on his block because he juggled the papers before selling them.
But these days, the proportions are off, way off. There is too much entertainment, too little news; the emphasis is on the fluff, with the substance seeming to have no other purpose than to provide a brief respite from levity.
Although I did see something in this week’s Newsweek that has stayed with me. According to the pet psychic, "Pets and people transmit energy fields like radio stations. I pick up their signals. I could go into the metaphysics of it, dear, but you wouldn’t understand anyway."
It is time to cancel another subscription.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .