Do All Mags Go to Heaven?

Newsweek’s Bad Week and the Print Media Afterlife

  • Graphic Graeme Shorten Adams

God, they say, works in mysterious ways. Bad news is often just good news waiting to reveal itself, if only you wait it out for a little.

On Oct. 18, for instance, Newsweek magazine announced that, starting at the end of the year, it would no longer be a print publication. To many in the media, this came as a blow. Newsweek’s been around for almost 80 years.
It’s an institution.

The day that Newsweek announced the end of an era, the cover story that was gracing stands carried the lofty headline “Heaven Is Real.”

Better believe it. It’s “A Doctor’s Experience of the Afterlife.” So it’s hard not to feel like this is a message from on high—from Newsweek’s new Editor-in-Chief Tina Brown, that is—that it’s just their time. They’re ready to go.
“Heaven Is Real,” really? A first-person report from an American neurosurgeon named Eben Alexander about the coma dream he had in 2008?

That’s embarrassing. There’s no way around it. There’s no ifs, ands or buts. No matter what you believe about death and whether or not humans have immortal souls, that’s not journalism.

It would be laughable on the cover of The National Enquirer or one of the other fact-phobic supermarket tabloids. For a magazine that’s placed on racks next to Time and the New Yorker, this is credibility suicide.

There’s not a bone in my body that believes that the entire masthead of Newsweek has begun believing in the heaven described in the story, with its “puffy, pink-white” clouds. This is a move as craven as it is greedy.

Brown evidently decided trying to be taken seriously by intelligent readership wasn’t as profitable as pandering to the masses with a big hook and no substance—which is sad, since there’s an interesting story in there.

For publications that respond to the slow demise of print media by turning to the dark side—the brainless, sensationalizing side—it’s hard to feel all that bad about their own deaths.

Some people claim to have experiences of the afterlife while in a coma state, and from the sounds of it, Alexander’s experience, which he claims occurred while his cortex was “turned off,” invites investigation.

The fact that a neurosurgeon’s near-death experience convinced him there’s an afterlife—albeit a neurosurgeon who considered himself somewhat of a Christian to begin with—is a neat story in and of itself. But it’s not reason enough to give him an unfiltered platform.

Done right, by a journalist, this story could have had interviews with people who’ve had similar experiences—then interviews with doctors and scientists to explore how it might be possible for these people to so strongly believe they’ve experienced the supernatural.

A well-written piece like that could, without coming down on either side, speak to both believers and atheists about the fate that awaits us all, explore how little we still know about our brains and the relationship between them and our consciousnesses—and could include more than just a Christian-centric view of the universe.

That’s not what Newsweek did, though.

Instead, they let one guy claim with a straight face that his hippie-dippy heaven experience somehow supersedes every other dream in human history.

However firmly he believes that he saw a real, actual vision of the afterlife—and his flowery rendition of the experience sounds suspiciously like a dream someone might have about a heaven they’ve heard a lot about in popular culture—no serious publication would treat his words as gospel.
If “Heaven Is Real” is that believable, at what point do someone’s firmly held dream-based beliefs become non-credible?

Newsweek took heat earlier this year when a cover story about Barack Obama by Niall Ferguson was torn apart online for containing numerous factual inaccuracies. But it seems like rather than working fact-checking into their editing process, the magazine decided to run stories that simply couldn’t be fact-checked, period.

So what now? There’s a certain irony to the coincidence that a story about the afterlife was on stands the same day the magazine announced they’d be shedding their physical bodies to reside solely in the digital realm, a pure future-space unrestricted by a weekly schedule or page counts (or ad revenue).

What the coming years will hold for Newsweek Global, as their new venture will be called, remains to be seen, however.

Brown admitted that jobs will be lost in the changeover. Hopefully, ex-Newsweek employees will be able to find work somewhere that puts out content that matters.

But for publications that respond to the slow demise of print media by turning to the dark side—the brainless, sensationalizing side—it’s hard to feel all that bad about their own deaths.

If Newsweek keeps on pumping out attention-grabbing, journalism-flouting nonsense like this going forward, it’s not magazine heaven it’ll be going to in 2013, it’s the other one.

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