TV or not TV? Newsweek makes the publisher's case for not sending print journalists onto TV news shows.

Media criticism.
Sept. 7 2010 6:14 PM

TV or Not TV?

Newsweek makes the publisher's case for not sending print journalists onto TV news shows.

Howard Fineman. Click image to expand.
Howard Fineman

Appearing on television can be good for a print journalist's career. But does it add any publicity value to the publications for which they write and edit? The decline and sale of Newsweek indicates that when it comes to mass-circulation publications, the answer is no.

In recent years, the Newsweek name has been spoken a million times and flashed endlessly on chyrons as its stars have jabbered on shows across the TV universe. Despite the TV ubiquity of Newsweek journalists, it doesn't seem to have made a difference to the beleaguered magazine's bottom line.

Some Newsweek stars—call them the Newsweek Six—appear on TV more often than most practicing Catholics attend Mass. Our good friend Nexis tells us that Newsweek Senior Editor Jonathan Alter has appeared on MSNBC more than 60 times in the past 12 months, soaking up airtime on The Ed Show, Countdown, The Rachel Maddow Show, and Hardball. Newsweek Senior Washington Correspondent Howard Fineman has been on MSNBC at least 140 times in the past year. Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff, who left the magazine in June for a job at NBC News, appeared on the network more than 10 times under the Newsweek aegis over the same period. All three men were billed as MSNBC political analysts, meaning that they earned pay for their play.

Jon Meacham, the recently departed editor of Newsweek, scattered at least eight appearances on the networks and The Charlie Rose Show over the past year. Fareed Zakaria, who recently stepped down as editor of Newsweek International, has been hosting his own weekly show on CNN, and Editor-at-Large Evan Thomas, who recently leftNewsweek, has held a weekly slot on the syndicated political talk-show Inside Washington.

These TV performances haven't been economically useless. But the publicity value reaped has not gone to the magazine, which is already too well-known to benefit from this sort of exposure. Instead, it's gone into the pockets of the Newsweek Six, all of whom write books. Their TV exposure raised their individual profiles with book publishers, helping them negotiate better terms. It's also helped them in the post-release promotion of their books. The same deal applies to such frequent TV yakkers as Tom Friedman of the New York Times, Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, and the late William Safire of the New York Times.

This is not to say that TV's glow can't help small publications—or newly launched Web sites—raise their profile. Slate earnedneeded visibility in its early days when its contributors appeared on television alongside—or in the proximity of—well-known journalists who worked for mass-circulation outlets. It was like a vampire thing. Slate might not have been the equal of the Washington Post, but when one of its reporters appeared next to a Postie under the lights, viewers would naturally make that leap. Back then, even I would go onto television when shamed into it or ordered to do so by my boss. I was treated well on Aaron Brown's CNN show NewsNight; on some CNN International show, the name of which I can't remember and where the "studio" was a closet occupied by me and a robot camera; on Howard Kurtz's CNN program Reliable Sources; and on a scattering of others.

But my TV career died in 2006 or thereabout when some Fox News Channel show invited me on in the afternoon to talk about a piece I'd written. I put on my sport coat, accepted the ride from the Fox limo to the studio, and sat there patiently as a makeup artist slathered flesh-colored goo onto my face with a trowel. I waited and waited and waited in the green room to go on until a very nice young producer tactfully approached me to explain that I'd been bumped by breaking news: Charlton Heston had just released an announcement saying he was retiring from public life because of symptoms related to his Alzheimer's disease.

I took the preemption harder than I should have. If I couldn't compete with a guy whose Alzheimer's disease had prevented him from going onto the tube to discuss it, what chance did I have to make it as a talking head? To mark the death of my TV career, I left Fox without combing out the weird hairspray or removing the makeup. Arriving home, I opened the door to taunt my wife with what I'd look like embalmed.

******

I have a face for radio. Please send makeup hints to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and powder my Twitter feed's nose. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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