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Posted at 06:08 PM ET, 09/17/2012

Newsweek’s ‘Muslim Rage,’ USA Today’s redesign and the dying call for attention


This one apparently sold quite well. (Newsweek)
Is this really what we want?

I ask this, staring at a new copy of USA Today, whose graphic redesign and urgent insistence on Futuristic Web-Like Content is alarming me a little, like the makeover that Sandy suffers at the end of “Grease.”

“Yahh,” I said, as it came strutting out in the print-media equivalent of leather pants. “Er, wow. Different.”

“Isn’t this what you wanted?” the newspaper asked, draping itself seductively over a new copy of Newsweek. I quickly averted my eyes from the Newsweek cover, but not quickly enough.

Muslim Rage. Oh. Lovely.

Death is ugly.

Some people and institutions have the dignity to die quickly. One morning they are offering you insights into news and policy over coffee, demure between their glossy covers. The next morning they are gone. You remember them fondly, if vaguely.

But if you want to see the sordidness and indignity of death, look at what is happening to Newsweek. I have seen King Lears running around stark naked, throwing flowers into the audience, with greater dignity.

Its “Muslim Rage” cover is only one of many transparent and garish displays. Is this really what we want? The Internet would argue, no. Even Gawker thinks Muslim Rage is a stupid idea. And if your hip granddaughter thinks you should not leave the house looking like that, perhaps you ought to listen.

To say that Twitter devoured Newsweek’s hashtag #MuslimRage alive would be an understatement. It revolted, devoured it alive and, as Megan Garber noted, spat it out into the kind of actual discussion the glib “conversation-starter” was calculated to avoid.

The worst part about the sprawling, undignified demise of these redoubts of print media is how low their opinion seems to be of their readers. These transparent efforts to Give These People What They Want reveal an ugly, cynical idea of Who These People Are and What They Want. This backfires often enough to give you hope. Audiences can smell when they’re being held in contempt.

Yes, Google trends exist to show the Internet’s mortifying underbelly. “This is what you really want,” everyone says, throwing Justin Bieber at us, again. “Look at these numbers.”

“Well,” we murmur. We were not conscious of wanting this. And presented so unsubtly, with such insults to our intelligence, we are almost positive we’ll pass.

There are several ways to cope with the approach of death. One is to go about your life as though nothing had altered. The other is to try everything you can to prevent yourself from dying, even at the expense of everything that people liked about you. It’s clear, faced with its own mortality, which path Newsweek has chosen.

It’s like “Death in Venice,” but with more garish makeup. It’s gurgling and choking and growing angrier and louder and swinging wildly right and left and spilling its peas and — worse, occasionally selling magazines. That issue with the cover story by Niall Ferguson explaining ”Why Obama Has To Go” may have been among its best-selling single copies since 2010.

Perhaps there is a measure of self-loathing embedded in this. I just wrote a piece titled “Panda! Panda Panda Panda! Baby Panda!” It is hard to point out that the kettle is black without drawing attention to the fact that you are a pot yourself.

But Newsweek is a particularly egregious kettle. That sexy asparagus. This Muslim Rage.

Is this really what we want?

You’d think the Internet would be more pleased about it if it were. But instead it seems angry. We are like people who complain about the decline in the food at restaurants where we no longer eat.

Perhaps the only way out is down. But at this stage of desperation, it is difficult to see this as a bold editorial choice. If your only options are dying with dignity and surviving without it, humans tend to pick the latter. Never mind what those old couples did on the Titanic. What we will try in order to survive should alarm no one.

But it is still strange and pitiful to watch. Grandma comes pounding through the door in stilettos and rouge and leather pants, the oxygen tank still visible behind her.

“This is what I thought you wanted,” she wheezes.

“Yes,” you say, averting your eyes. “I know.”

By  |  06:08 PM ET, 09/17/2012

 
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