Remembering NEWSWEEK—And THE BELL CURVE Wars

The news that Newsweek will cease its print edition at year’s end brought back memories. I worked in the magazine’s Washington DC bureau, full time and part-time, for some sixteen years beginning in 1989—my first real job after college. I was a library assistant, part of a three-person staff, managing the periodical collection, fulfilling interlibrary loans and fielding research requests from reporters and editors.

It was a wonderful stretch—spanning the first Gulf War, the 9-11 attacks, the Clinton impeachment, the O.J. Simpson trial, the Marion Barry drug bust, the Bell Curve controversy, and three presidential elections.

It also spanned vast technological change. The Internet revolution at first made the work of news librarians easier, but eventually shifted research to reporters and editors. News organizations began to cut their specialist research library staffs, and eventually to abolish news libraries altogether. This process was already well underway when I left Newsweek to go to Human Events in 2002.

I had the good fortune to work under two impeccable research librarians: Sandra Fine, who hired me, and William Rafferty, who had worked as Ted Koppel’s researcher at Nightline. William was an independent leftist, an aficionado of Eritrean politics, who always looked out for his staff. He was an expert at using Lexis/Nexis. Faced with a difficult search query, no one could top him. When Lexis/Nexis reps came around to explain the latest changes, Rafferty would end up instructing them.

Pre-internet, one of the perks of working in a news library was access to periodicals. During breaks, I would read—ironically!—the latest “Charticle,” a regular feature in Forbes by Peter Brimelow and Edwin S. Rubenstein, filled with fascinating bits of information. I would also peruse the book review sections of Nature, The Economist, Science, New Scientist etc.

I had the privilege of working with some interesting people at Newsweek. Editor Maynard Parker had unrivaled class as a boss, editor, and executive. I remember relieving the receptionist one afternoon when he strolled off the elevator. He knew who I was, greeting me at the reception desk by first name, even though as a lower-level employee I had very limited prior contact with him. His death at 58, from pneumonia after his immune system was weakened by treatment for leukemia, was a major loss.

I have tremendous respect for Robert J. Samuelson, a Newsweek Contributing Editor and Washington Post columnist. His independent streak produced unique insights on economic, social, and cultural subjects. He was always decent and civil.

I vividly remember delivering obscure economic journals via interlibrary loan, usually from the Brookings Library, carefully maneuvering around stacks of books in order to reach Bob, usually proofing copy at his desk. He used a manual typewriter to compose first drafts before re-typing them into his computer. Down the hallway, you could hear the clacking of typewriter keys before the zip as he hit the return bar —a once-universal newsroom sound, now vanished forever.

Eleanor Clift was another staffer who was pleasant to work for, even though our political outlooks couldn’t be more different. She was an avid runner and we frequently discussed issues like common running injuries and the latest running shoes.

The company, for the most part, looked after its employees.

Every year, the Washington bureau would host lavish Fourth of July and year-end “Holiday” parties, which offered a pleasant atmosphere of congeniality over an open bar and good food.

And it was from Newsweek’s offices on the 12th floor of a World Bank building, near the Old Executive Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue, that I saw smoke coming from the direction of the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 and watched from the balcony overlooking the Mall as office workers evacuated buildings, sprinting down G street in suits or skirts with briefcases in hand—like a scene from a “Twilight Zone” episode.

One of my first encounters with Bob Samuelson, shortly after my hiring, was in an elevator on my way home, where he noticed a book in my hand and asked what I was reading. "Herrnstein’s IQ in the Meritocracy,” I responded. “That’s a controversial book,” he replied, indicating that he was familiar with it.

Bob was a Harvard graduate, and I often wondered if he had any classes with the co-author of The Bell Curve. Certainly one controversial Harvard professor did have a profound impact on Bob’s life: Edward Banfield—as Bob described in his obituary, “The Gift of a Great Teacher”. Bob participated in Banfield’s memorial service and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) inserted the obituary into the Congressional Record (October 18, 1999).

Working for a major news organization was at times an eye-opening experience. I remember the tense and at times awkward atmosphere around the bureau after publication of The Bell Curve. Two staffers in the bureau were filing articles for a cover story and conversations about the contents of the book were shocked and cautious.

I heard Gregg Easterbrook (I helped research his book A Moment on the Earth  and am kindly acknowledged) telling Newsweek education reporter Pat Wingert that the editors in New York decided to postpone their proposed cover story in anticipation of the New York Times’ coverage. Apparently, the editorial meeting in New York had been tense. Newsweek medical writer Geoffrey Cowley had defended The Bell Curve’s findings, prompting a heated discussion.

I’ll never forget Pat Wingert’s response: she argued against any coverage of the book at all. To paraphrase, she basically said, “Why give it any attention…we shouldn’t make the same mistake that was made over Jensen.”

In other words: let’s keep a lid on this, it’s too controversial and upsetting.

Easterbrook counter-argued that the press should cover The Bell Curve and expose its flaws and faulty premise.

Of course, The Bell Curve was based on solid data, so Easterbrook’s ambition was futile. I had by then a considerable collection of academic studies on IQ and was familiar with Snyderman and Rothman’s The IQ Controversy—eerily prescient in anticipating the media reaction—and I knew the negative coverage would be muckraking smears rather than rational refutation.  (Overall, Newsweek’s cover package was critical but mixed, not as hysterical as some).

It was one of those fishbowl moments: seeing as clear as spring water this internal bias of journalists, who were far from being experts on the subject and yet were absolutely convinced that a book few would bother to read was dead wrong.

Media bias is more nuanced than a simplistic liberal tilt: it is intensely egalitarian. Any suggestion that non-environmental factors might cause group differences in mental ability is simply anathema to most journalists.

Conversely, in September 1999, Newsweek published a cover story [PDF] excerpting Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Testimage. Lemann represented the quintessential egalitarian mindset with a sterling pedigree: Harvard graduate, managing editor of The Washington Monthly, staff reporter for The Washington Post, staff writer for The New Yorker, and dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Lemann had exclusive access to the archives of the Educational Testing Service. The expectation was that his book would refute The Bell Curve.

In a C-SPAN videotaped discussion of his book in September 1999, Lemann artlessly said that, as a journalist, “I find it easier to write about what you don’t know than what you know”. It shows. His over-reliance on anecdote, sweeping generalization, and story-based narrative, missed the mark and failed to get basic facts straight. (He claimed “I’m not aware of a biography of [Edward Lee] Thorndike, but he published widely”. The Sane Positivist, Geraldine Jonçich’s exhaustive 634-page biography of Thorndike, was published in 1968.)

I discussed the deficiencies in Lemann’s book with Bob Samuelson. He said frankly he viewed it as an example of “middle class white guilt”. Newsweek’s interest in promoting Lemann's book was further evidence of Main Stream Media egalitarian bias. As it turned out, The Big Test was a flop, as Steve Sailer pointed out.

One memory serves as a symbol: Someone in the bureau decided that it would be a noble idea to solicit clothing and food for African refugees, to be distributed to newly-resettled refugees in Maine and elsewhere. Several grocery bags of food were stored in a spare office. They became a magnet for rodents. Bags were ripped open, trails of droppings were in plain view, and rats the size of small cats would randomly scurry about, especially at night. Exterminators were called in, but the problem only seemed to intensify.

In Garrett Hardin’s dictum: “Noble intentions are a poor excuse for stupid action”.

It’s probable that MSM egalitarian prejudice contributed to the abrupt termination of my continuing part-time relationship with Newsweek in 2005, after I was fired as Managing Editor of Human Events at the behest the $PLC.

Nevertheless, I’ll always cherish the years I spent at Newsweek as some of the best of my life.

Kevin Lamb (email him), managing editor of The Social Contract, is a former library assistant for Newsweek and managing editor of Human Events. He was also assistant editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.