The Magazine for People Who Don't Want to Be Dummyheads

Media Reviews for Media People: The Economist

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I'm going to cut right to the chase and start today's exercise by calling out The Economist. The magazine, supposedly one of our pre-eminent news sources, has been outpaced by In Touch and OK in its coverage of the battle over Anna Nicole Smith's estate. It hasn't yet weighed in on the tidal wave of controversy surrounding the Oscar-nominated song from "Once." It didn't provide its readers with a single update on Tom Brady's ankle bootie-wootie last week.
The Economist
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The Economist


Beyond those unforgivable omissions, however, I don't see any news publication -- online, offline, on TV, wherever -- standing anywhere near so tall as The Economist nowadays. Where most other current-events titles have engorged themselves with witless pop-culture trainspotting and every-other-week Jesus covers, The Economist goes about its business -- providing a comprehensive, subtly opinionated take on the news of the day -- with confidence and a sense of mission.

I'd also argue that, in recent months, The Economist has tweaked its content to be slightly more accessible to those with sub-165 IQs. Don't get me wrong: Dummyheads will still respond to the magazine's text-intensive format by grunting and furrowing their brows in futile attempts to ascend the intellectual alp awaiting them. And for all I know, this shift isn't a deliberate one. Perhaps my own "we're-so-screwed-dude" take on the state of the world has led me to inflate the importance of being reliably informed and the extent to which most readers will go to remain that way.

See, I'm about 62.5% smart. What I used to demand from my news gatherers was just enough information so that I could come across as half-articulate at cocktail parties. I also wanted to be able to claim their opinions as my own, thus helping me fill the conversational void in those interminable 17 seconds between when the bartender starts pouring my beer and when I return to my spot in the corner with a full glass.

I get way more from The Economist than that. Most of the media I consume attempts to distract, entertain, even -- heaven forbid -- enlighten. Few entities, however, succeed in synthesizing, in framing the information they convey within a broader context. That, in a nutshell, is what The Economist does better than anybody else.

Hell, it seems to be the only publication that even tries. The Economist begins with the assumption, equivalent to editorial heresy in some circles, that the U.S. is not the center of the universe. Owing to that orientation, it doesn't have to bother with whatever issue the prevailing conventional wisdom has anointed as most important during a given week. Instead, the magazine can devote real estate to an item on the use of dietary supplements in prisons or a where-are-they-now piece on telex machines, as it does in its Feb. 2 issue.

It's long-established that The Economist does geopolitics better than any publication on the planet, whether snaring interviews with Hamas bigs or evaluating the strife in Kenya from a perspective other than "long-distance runners are getting caught in the crossfire." Where the publication has surged in recent months is in its business coverage, which seemed an afterthought in years past.

Rather than slopping a mess of personality atop its dispatches, The Economist plays its business profiles (such as the Feb. 2 one of investment guru Eddie Lampert) straight, all the better to give readers a sense of why their subjects matter. Its pieces on Unilever's push into emerging markets and European toymaker Playmobil similarly waste little time on whimsical detail.

The issues I have with The Economist are mostly quibbles. The non-U.S. focus manifests itself in the writing style, which can result in continental readers tripping over expressions like "own goal." Every so often, it presents a story lead that's almost deliberately obtuse ("The Mother of Parliaments still cuts a lot of ice abroad. At home, however, its reputation for probity is waning as stories of financial misconduct multiply"). That said, I wish The Economist would reconsider its no-byline policy. There's so much incisive commentary here that I find myself wanting to track down the individuals responsible for it, add their names to my RSS reader thingy and send them mash notes ("U R awesome!!!!!!" etc.). Of course, that's coming from a guy currently pushing his editors to run a heavily airbrushed glam shot alongside his columns, so maybe there's something to be said for ego-free journalism.

The Economist contains less advertising than most consumer titles, which seems likely to only enhance its credibility among smarty-pants. That said, there's no better venue for global brands hoping to state their cases in front of well-heeled readers, as Chevron does in the two-page spread that opens the Feb. 2 issue. I'm surprised we don't see more in the way of ads targeting business travelers, whether from the airlines or upper-crust hotels. Conversely, I have no idea why HBO would choose to trumpet not-quite-smart pundit Bill Maher here, given how his "humor" is firmly entrenched in the mainstream.

So yeah, I dig The Economist, even as my gratis subscription went the way of the dodo bird sometime during the past six months. No matter. For anybody who wants to have a clue, it's the best $5.99 you'll spend every week.
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