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So What Do You Do, Mark Whitaker?

The Newsweek editor on why newsweeklies are needed now more than ever, what's really going on in Iraq, and how his magazine plans to exploit the cracks in the Bush Administration's media strategy.

- May 25, 2004

Mark Whitaker is on a roll. His magazine, Newsweek, just won its second National Magazine Award for General Excellence in three years. The first, in 2002, was essentially for the magazine's coverage of September 11 and its aftermath, and was probably the sweeter one, as it was a head-to-head victory over archrival Time. This year's was for Newsweek's war reportage, and it was still more evidence that Whitaker made the right decision upon ascending to the editor's chair in 1998 not to follow Walter Isaacson's thinking at Time that the future of the newsweeklies lay in soft news. These days, it seems Newsweek is battling literally everyone for scoops in Iraq, whether it's Seymour Hersh's one-man gang at The New Yorker, the news networks (including Al-Jazeera), and even bloggers on the ground in Baghdad. Whitaker took some time out from his duties to discuss the end of the newsweeklies' identity crisis, the leaks in the Bush Administration threatening to become a flood, and Newsweek's chances for more National Magazine Award success in 2005.

Birthdate: September 7, 1957
Hometown: Norton, Massachusetts
First section of Sunday Times: "In order: The news section, the business section, the Sunday Styles section, sports, and then I end with the Week in Review. And then I do the Sunday puzzle."

Tell me about your ascent through Newsweek. You started there as an intern and never left—I thought no one spends their career with one publication anymore.
I'm of the generation where everyone was changing jobs. I thought I was strange because I wasn't. I've stayed in one place because it was always interesting. On the other hand, I had no idea that things were going to turn out this way. I left grad school without completing my Ph.D. thesis to take a junior-level job. When I first arrived in New York in 1981, they didn't even have an office for me. For six months, I had to sit at the desks of various vacationing secretaries. Then I was moved into a windowless office for a year. Believe me, I don't think I was being groomed for anything besides writing sidebars and being the person who would stay and do the late shift on Saturday night, so the more experienced writers could have weekends to themselves.

Originally, I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. They said, "Why don't you come to New York for a year and meet some people, and then we'll send you back out?" Of course, I never got back out. It was the Reagan era—either a Soviet leader was dying every week, or we were invading a country every week, so there was just a lot going on. Then our business editor quit. I asked [then-editor] Rick Smith if I could have the business job. He was nice enough to give it to me. He didn't have to, because I didn't have a business background, but he trusted my sense of what a Newsweek story should be. I did it for four years, and in a way it was like going back to school, because I was learning a lot about business. That was a great time to be editing business. We had the crash; we had the S&L crisis; it was the Milken era. Then, after the first Gulf War, there was this big changing of the guard. Maynard Parker was named editor, and he asked me to be one of his AMEs. When Maynard died of leukemia in 1998, I was his number two, so I just fell into the editor job.

Congratulations on your latest National Magazine Award. The way I understand it, the magazines up for General Excellence don't really compete against each other, but against some platonic version of itself. Is Newsweek living up to its platonic ideal of itself right now? And isn't it interesting that Newsweek—and the newsweeklies—have finally roused themselves during these troubled times?
Well, I like to think we do a good job at anytime. But clearly this has been a historic period ever since 9/11, and I think it allows us to really display our strengths. It's at times like these that people look at these magazines, and that has coincided with our rethinking of what a newsmagazine should be, and committing to the idea that we had to not just summarize the news; even if you did it elegantly with nice pictures was not enough. You had to break news, you had to set agendas, you had to do original analysis, you had to do things that even well-informed readers getting their news from other sources would find fresh and valuable. I had taken my editorial staff on a retreat six months before September 11, and we had decided that was the direction we had wanted to go in.

So has the identity crisis the newsweeklies were having in the '90s, a time of peace and prosperity, passed once and for all?
That's always with us. People have been predicting the demise of the newsmagazine certainly as long as I've been doing this. And we're still around. We're still healthy. So I think it's a very enduring format. I also think it's no accident that it's a widely copied format. The front page of The New York Times looks more like a news magazine today than it did 20 years ago. TV newsmagazines—Dateline and 60 Minutes and so forth—have done very well emulating the format. So all of that I take as a sign that it's a very healthy concept. However, the more people emulate it, the more we have to push the envelope and keep trying new things, so we're moving on and rethinking the form.

Walter Isaacson transformed Time during the '90s into a magazine that was much softer than its predecessors, and he was hailed for turning it around. But he doesn't have any General Excellence Ellies to show for it. Is hard news back? Is this what a mini-Renaissance for the genre looks like?
Absolutely. And I think, at the end of the day, that's why people buy and subscribe to newsmagazines. I defend the mix—having a mix of hard and soft news is a good thing. I think occasionally doing a back-of-the-book soft feature on the cover is fine. But when people are deciding to resubscribe, they're doing it on the basis of your news coverage.

The other things are great and add to their sense of value, but I think it's the job that you do on the big events of the day that drives the subscriber circulation. And even on the newsstand, our biggest sellers historically have all been news stories. They are not celebrity stories; they are not soft stories; they are not even religion stories, which tend to sell well. But the biggest sellers have been in the period after the first couple of weeks after September 11, when we broke all records. So I think it's a misconception that news doesn't work for newsmagazines on the newsstand. It does but it has to be a very intense news climate when people are very hungry.

There's definitely a hunger for news about Abu Ghraib, the general situation in Iraq, and what, if anything, the Bush Administration knows about both. Seymour Hersh is breaking stories singlehandedly, while Bob Woodward has disgruntled government sources eating out of his hand. Now even Colin Powell's own handlers are shoving him away from TV camera. Is the wall of secrecy around the White House crumbling?
I think that it is folly for any administration to think that it can totally control information. It was interesting—watch the Rumsfeld hearings, and there were times that he seemed almost as upset that he couldn't control information as he was about what had happened in the prison. But that's the era we live in. Yes, a lot of the leaks and the cracks we've seen in the administration—which had been very good, and frustratingly so, about message discipline—are the result of deep divisions within this administration about how this war has been handled—now, particularly, that it's become so messy. Divisions about the way intel was handled before the fact, about the lack of postwar planning, about issues of how and when we're going to hand over power to the Iraqis. And, obviously, over the prison scandal now.

It's partly the State Department versus the Defense Department, and it's also the FBI versus the CIA. There's a growing split in the conservative movement between neocons and more isolationist conservatives. And all of that gives people more incentive to leak and to talk, and that's why we're getting all of these stories. That being said, I think that you need really good reporters to get them. It's not an accident that Sy Hersh and Mike Isikoff for us are getting these stories, because they are great reporters.

Who do you trust? Where do you look for reliable sources? Is there a inclination to distrust government sources—particularly high level ones—because of these competing agendas and previous misinformation?
I think you have to look everywhere. If Rumsfeld or Bush wants to give us an interview, then we're happy to talk to them. But I think you also have to listen not only to the other critical sources in Washington, but to people on the ground. One of the things that has made me confident about our critical reporting before the war, during the war, and since the war has been the guidance I've been getting from our correspondents in Iraq. They said before the war, "Look, this postwar is going to be a mess. This is not going to be easy. This is a very divided country. All of these religious conflicts are going to come to the fore. Chalabi and the people we're going to try to put into power are not respected," and so forth.

Melinda Liu stayed in Baghdad during the whole war, and she was reporting from the first week on that we were not going to be greeted as liberators. Rod Nordland has been there for the better part of the last year and he is very gloomy about our prospects. It's going to be very hard to have the positive outcome we were hoping for. So, I think when you're hearing that from the field, it makes it a lot easier to stand behind and trust your critical reporting no matter what the administration is telling you. But that's always been true. It was true in Vietnam. The press became more critical of the war in Vietnam before a lot of institutions, probably because they had reporters like David Halberstam and others who were saying "Look, this is not going to turn out well."

But today you also have unabashedly partisan media, particularly in cable news, who insist the war is going well, if for no other reason than it helps ratings to do so.
There's a real appetite for it. I don't think the media is creating the divisions; I think the divisions are feeding the success of both TV shows and publications and a lot of books that are very partisan. There's a real audience there, because that's the way people feel. It's sad. It's sad for this country that people are so divided. Not that there aren't real reasons for it, but we're unfortunately getting closer to the point where one side just won't listen to the other. Part of that came out during the Richard Clarke hearings before the 9/11 commission. The Bush administration was not paying attention to some of these warnings the Clinton administration left them about terrorism partly because they were coming form the Clinton administration, and they hated the Clintonites so much that they figured, "Whatever they tell us must be wrong." Clark was a guy who worked for both administrations. He's become quite anti-Bush now, because he thinks Bush screwed up the war on terror, but he was a career bureaucrat with a particular expertise, so there was no reason to think that he had any sort of agenda coming in. But they figured he worked for Clinton, so who needs to listen to him? I think that's sad, and I fear that the anger is so deep that even if Bush is defeated and Kerry and the Democrats come to power their hatred and distrust of Bush will be so great that they will make the same mistakes.

What do you figure your chances are of repeating in 2005 for General Excellence?

No, I don't know. We've been very fortunate, and I'm very proud of our two wins. I think it's great for our staff, and they've worked hard for it. But I don't think anybody here expects necessarily to become the Los Angeles Lakers or the Chicago Bulls of the National Magazine Awards.

Greg Lindsay is a freelance writer who has covered media for and Women's Wear Daily.

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