5 questions for Newsweek on ‘Hit the Road, Barack’

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There’s certainly nothing wrong with Newsweek fielding an op-ed from one of its conservative columnists. The problem comes when they put it on the cover without a good read-through.

In this case, British historian (and former John McCain campaign adviser) Niall Fergusen penned a widely panned cover piece for Newsweek, the once venerable weekly magazine taken over by Tina Brown of The Daily Beast in 2010. In the piece, called “Hit the Road, Barack,” Fergusen attempts to explain why, in his opinion, President Obama should be defeated in November.

To the delight of conservative blogs and Fox News, Fergusen argues that Obama has betrayed his campaign promises from four years ago, on everything from jobs to health care, and that he needs to go. But the problem for Fergusen, who teaches history at Harvard, is that he’s something short of an economics expert. And apparently, he’s not too solid in the fact checking department.

And so, here are five questions for the Beast that ate Newsweek.

1. Why send an historian to do an economist’s job? Fergusen bases much of his argument against Obama on what he deems economic failures and broken promises on jobs and the economy. He includes charts and lots of numbers. Unfortunately, much of his analysis has turned out to be dead wrong, and based on faulty analyses. Fergusen’s piece has been panned by actual economists, like Paul Krugmanm, who called Fergusen’s analysis not just wrong, but also unethical, and by everyone from Fergusen’s friend Andrew Sullivan (he has charts, too) to The Atlantic‘s business and economics associate editor, Matthew O’Brien, who posted a thorough, damning, fact-check of the Fergusen piece. Politico’s Dylan Byers, meanwhile, points out that to make his argument that the Affordable Care Act will explode the deficit, Fergusen even selectively edited a report from the Congressional Budget Office.

2. Why put it on the cover? Fact-challenged though it may be, Fergusen’s piece is an opinion, as the magazine’s chief editor reiterated Tuesday, not the kind of deeply reported story Newsweek used to devote its cover to. By putting the piece on the cover — the equivalent of the New York Times making one of it’s columnists’ op-eds the front page lede — Newsweek allowed Fergusen to represent not just himself, but Newsweek itself, meaning his opinion, and his errors, belong to the entire editorial team, in the minds of readers.

3. Where were the editors? Analysts tore apart Fergusen’s analysis with astonishing quickness. The things he got wrong were easily check-able, which begs the question: why didn’t anyone at Newsweek check them? For an online/magazine hybrid that’s trying to sell the hybrid genre as something other than a final raging at the dying of the traditional paper magazine, that’s not a good look. Newsweek has responded to critics by saying they rely on their writers to submit factually accurate material, which I guess they’d have to, since the magazine, like most, does not employ a fact-checker.

4. Who asked him? Do American voters really need advice from a British citizen, whose Harvard bio says he “divides his time between the U.S. and Great Britain,” on who our president should be? Not to be rude, but my first temptation upon reading Fergusen’s take on who should win the November election was to reply, “butt out.”

5. What is Newsweek trying to accomplish? If the goal of the new Newsweek is to create maximum buzz with its covers (last week, the cover story by Michael Tomasky called Mitt Romney a wimp, though without the “fact” issues…), at a time when magazines aren’t exactly top of mind for most news junkies, who can revel in the 24-7 information glut on the Internet, mission accomplished. Unfortunately, it’s not the “I think I’ll read more Newsweek!” kind of buzz. It’s the other kind; where people ask, “what the heck happened to Newsweek?”

Fergusen, meanwhile, is defending himself because, well, somebody has to.

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport.