The Day The Newsweekly Died

Let’s say you are the editor of essentially the last rag standing, the final remnant of the once insanely influential tribe of dead-tree general-interest newsweeklies.  Let’s say you are the lord of Time.

Now, we all know Time is increasingly just another one of time’s victims, a dinosaur in a world filled with post-CGI-meteor digital mammals (extended grotesque metaphor in honor of the party of the first part).  So if you’re the editor, you’ve got a tough trick:  how to cut through all those pesky byting insects? (Consistency? we don’t got no consistency.  We don’t need no Kinky People Can Often Find Good Sex consistency!)

And finally, let’s say you have no moral compass; you don’t care about what’s true, or about the pain your decisions could inflict on millions of people touched by the subject of your cover story.

That’s when you come up with this:

Time Cancer cover

It’s not possible. We’re nowhere near what’s promised on that cover.  Hell, even conceptually, you can’t “cure” “cancer.”  It’s a family of illnesses that share certain characteristics (most importantly, uncontrolled cell division) but that present a whole host of different pathologies and possibilities for treatment; no matter what advances may come, no one who can count past three expects some unitary cure.  But rather than rant on, I’m just going to outsource my rage and disdain to my friend (and MIT colleague) Seth Mnookin, writing yesterday in Slate:

 Witness the headline emblazoned in all-caps on the cover of the magazine’s April 1 issue: “HOW TO CURE CANCER.” It’s followed by an asterisk that directs you to a subtitle, just to make sure you get the point: “Yes, it’s now possible, thanks to new cancer dream teams that are delivering better results faster.”

Which, of course, is completely, utterly, inarguably false. The roughly 580,000 Americans who will die this year from cancer know the reality all too well. For some context, that’s more people than will die from chronic lower respiratory diseases, strokes, accidents, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes combined.

According to Seth, the actual story is more a squib than the blatant idiocy implied by the cover, which is a minor relief.  But the cover on its own is hugely damaging — and Seth gets into what makes it so before coming to the heart of the matter:

Which brings us to the real problem with Time’s headline, which is not that it’s wrong, or even that it might create funding problems for future cancer researchers—it’s that in the context of a fatal disease with excruciatingly painful treatment options, it’s simply cruel.

Exactly.  Cancer has harrowed my own family — non-small-cell lung cancer took my mother ten days before my scheduled wedding, for one example — so I know to the bone what it feels like to encounter witless fantasies like this one.  But it shouldn’t require such a loss to grasp the fact that you don’t get to put the word “cancer” and the word “cure” in the same sentence — hell the same paragraph — unless you’ve cleared the wards and are carrying some folks to Stockholm in sedan chairs.  Go read Seth — and spit on the ground in front of the display everytime you see one of these.

Oh…one more thing: if you had any doubt that the newsweeklies had fully and fatally jumped the shark, doubt no more.

51 replies
  1. 1
  2. 2
    Heywood J. says:

    Look on the bright side — Newsweak would have done the same topic, but with a cover featuring Easter Zombie Jesus doing the curing.

  3. 3
    Gex says:

    What good can come of making people think there is a cure?

    We’ve now had “news” magazines articles on what Heaven looks like and that there is a cancer cure.

    Sure, why not? We no longer think there is a primary mission to what anyone does. Profit is the only mission.

    The interesting thing about the “news” industry is that you can’t fail your way out of customers as easily as other industries. If your car blew up every time you took it to Jiffy Lube for an oil change, you’d stop going there. But Americans keep on buying this useless trash. Fortunately, fewer and fewer do.

  4. 4
    schrodinger's cat says:

    How long before Time joins Newsweek in the dustbin of history.

  5. 5
    daverave says:

    I’d go read Seth but he’s a Sox fan, so, no.

    ETA: maybe this is some kind of cruel April Fool’s joke.

  6. 6
    jheartney says:

    The only times I come in contact with newsweeklies anymore are in waiting rooms. And those are generally months, if not years, old.

    The inflation of headline dishonesty is hardly new, of course. Any trip through HuffPo will show an even more advanced case. I’m wondering if TIME will last long enough to stoop to teasing nipple-slips on their covers. Oops – too late.

  7. 7
    maya says:

    Check the merger licenses on FOX business news. Time may have coupled with The National Enquirer.

    It would all make perfect sense then.

  8. 8
    Heywood J. says:

    I would buy Time and Newsweak more often if they came in two-ply, especially since they seem to be having some sort of weird contest with Weekly World News as to who can push the most bullshit article up to the cover. And of course, with the WWN, Bat Boy would have done the curing.

  9. 9
    Ben Franklin says:

    If TIME wants to display fabricated photos of alien babies like the Sun or NE, to sell their wares at an impulse-purchase checklane line-feeder, then let the buyer beware.

    Desperation merchandising is more legal than vitamin B-17, and rightly so !

  10. 10
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Heywood J.: Re Newsweek; think Mr. Peabody’s coal train.

  11. 11

    And we were singing bye bye journalistic integrity pie.
    We’re not sad to see Time go.
    And especially Joe Klein.

  12. 12
    Johannes says:

    If I was The Lord of Time, I’d call it a day, get into my TARDIS (the one with the functional chameleon circuit) and come up with a new plan to spread disinformation, warp history, and lure the Doctor to his sure destructions. Ogrons, to me!

  13. 13
    Tim F. says:

    Curing cancer is like preventing people from getting angry. People get angry for a lot of different reasons. Plus, if you take away the ability to get angry then you don’t have much in the way of a person left. In the cancer world you take whatever progress you can get.

  14. 14
    kuvasz says:

    I would like to respond in detail, but I have to go, to the funeral of my step-mother, who died of stomach cancer 48 hours ago.

  15. 15
    Maude says:

    Wow. Anything for a buck.

  16. 16
    👽 Martin says:

    @Heywood J.:

    Look on the bright side — Newsweak would have done the same topic, but with a cover featuring Easter Zombie Jesus doing the curing.

    I think you’re confused. Newsweek is tied to Daily Beast, not Huffington Post.

  17. 17
    👽 Martin says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: US News & Hot, Sexy Chicks at least had the forethought to own the national rankings game. It’s the only thing holding them together.

  18. 18
    Schlemizel says:

    I don’t know, I’m willing to give them some leeway on this. Some pretty big advances have been made in several areas and against cancer in general. I think we are closer now than ever before with some real promise.

    This is not nearly as bad as most headlines on health or science issues. I don’t expect accuracy so that may be part of the reason I am not as outraged as you are

  19. 19
    Thor Heyerdahl says:

    Ah…but the publishing date is April 1…no?

    April Fools!

  20. 20
    Amir Khalid says:

    Having been a journalist myself, it’s embarrassing to see my old profession come to this: less meat, more fluff. Some editor has a cool idea for a cover and runs with it, never mind that the actual story doesn’t come anywhere near his cover idea. Newsweek‘s last days, under Tina Brown, were full of incidents like this.

  21. 21
    Tom Levenson says:

    @kuvasz: I’m terribly sorry. In the words of my tradition: may you be comforted amidst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

  22. 22
    minutemaid says:

    As you said in your breathless spittle on screen post off the top…”we all know Time is increasingly just another one of time’s victims”.

    So if it’s not very influential anymore why are you so concerned about it’s influence?

    What am I missing…besides the obvious which is just another dumb post by someone trying to meet their quota of posts or whatever and thinks they should write about something other that birthers for a change?

  23. 23

    @Thor Heyerdahl: That’s what I thought- worst April Fool’s joke ever.

  24. 24
    James Gary says:

    This would be the same “Time Magazine” that ran the long and well-researched cover story by Steven Brill on the cost of American healthcare, less than a month ago?

    It’s easy to pile on “Time” for running a sensationalist cover story like this one, but “Time” is one of a dwindling few institutions in America that even have some ability to publish well-thought-out, long-form journalism to a mass audience. (Even if it often falls short on the “well-thought-out” part.) Cheering for its demise seems both shortsighted and stupid to me.

  25. 25
    Punchy says:

    Maybe it’s a remedy for peeps born in June and July.

  26. 26
    swbarnes2 says:


    I don’t know, I’m willing to give them some leeway on this. Some pretty big advances have been made in several areas and against cancer in general.

    “Cancer in general” isn’t really a thing. Stomach cancer’s not the same as melenoma. One person’s melenoma is different from someone else’s. The first tumor is different from the tumor that recurs a few years after chemo is over, and one tumor is a heterogeneous mix of cells, all with different DNA and mutations.

    There isn’t a magic bullet that can solve all of this. We have a few successes in very narrow areas, like Hodgkin’s lymphoma, where the treatment is highly effective at giving kids long lives after diagnosis, but there aren’t a lot of other cancers where we have such wonderfully effective treatments.

  27. 27
    MikeJ says:

    The Now Show once collected a list of every item mentioned in the headlines of the daily tabloids that either caused or cured cancer. Very funny and depressing.

  28. 28
    Forum Transmitted Disease says:

    As someone who has just yesterday found out an old friend – well, actually, she’s not even forty yet, she’s young, horrifyingly young – has terminal cancer, the cover neither horrifies me, nor does it piss me off, nor does it give me hope.

    I feel nothing. It means nothing in a way I can’t even express. Some stupid magazine cover means absolutely nothing in the grand eternal scheme of things. A former lover and dear friend of mine is going to die. And not peacefully. That means something.

    I think the Overton Window on my outrage has been moved to a place I can’t even describe for you all.

  29. 29
    Amir Khalid says:

    @James Gary:
    If only a story like Brill’s were the rule at TIME, rather than the exception.

  30. 30
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Oh…one more thing: if you had any doubt that the newsweeklies had fully and fatally jumped the shark, doubt no more.

    They did this back in the 90’s with their disgusting Monicagate coverage. I once subscribed to both of them…and with their relentless hounding of Bill Clinton, I ditched them both.

    Utter garbage they became.

  31. 31
    Judge Crater says:

    Someone decades ago famously said that Time magazine was cotton candy for the brain.

    It was the “Politico” of its day. Lots of “insider” bs and silly trivia about the east coast elite. It took itself very seriously (a la Time’s Man of the Year). It hawked the conventional wisdom of the day as if it was passed down from Mt. Olympus straight to the ears of Time’s editors.

    It’s hard to think of a single important story that ever originated from its news room. Or of a real journalist who ever graced its pages.

  32. 32
    Tom Levenson says:

    @James Gary: Not cheering for it. As I said on twitter just now, I got my start in journalism at Time, all the way back in 1981. It gives me no pleasure at all to see this kind of f**k up.

    But I have to call it as it appears to me — and this cover is to me an act of desperation and a clear sign that the magazine doesn’t know what it is anymore.

    They are capable of doing better. But this kind of decision has lasting costs of trust and the “never darken my door again” revulsion of those who’s actual personal experience gives the lie to such cheap and cheerful claptrap. Whatever reserve of market-place good will they had last week that could sustain them as they fumble for an approach to the digital future of journalism…it’s less now.

    Again, no pleasure. But no false optimism either.

    @Judge Crater: Hey! (see above)

  33. 33
    donnah says:

    I haven’t picked up a magazine like that in a long time.

    My son was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of three, twenty-two years ago. At that point, the cure rate was 75%. Ten years before that, the cure rate was less than 50%. And now the cure rate for that type, ALL, is over 90%.

    My son is going to be twenty-six years old, and he’s doing well.

    But my dad passed away on New Year’s Eve after a long series of battles with cancer in different forms, from prostate to kidney to bladder to everywhere. He fought hard, but at 81, he was worn out.

    So I’m not outraged by the cover. I see it as a cheap attention-grabber, but I don’t think anyone would take it literally and believe that we can cure all cancer in all people. I’m just glad when they can.

  34. 34
    28 Percent says:

    Until I got To “conceptually you can’t even ‘cure’ ‘cancer'” I thought the impossibility you were referring to was the cover’s promise of a GOP Makeover.

  35. 35
    28 Percent says:

    Until I got To “conceptually you can’t even ‘cure’ ‘cancer'” I thought the impossibility you were referring to was the cover’s promise of a GOP Makeover.

  36. 36
    James Gary says:

    @Amir Khalid: Yeah, that would be great.

    But the economics of what remains of the magazine industry in 2013 dictate that a large fraction of cover stories be blatant pitches for ad-page sales to a particular industry (in the case of this “cancer” story: healthcare and pharmaceuticals) or attempts to goose newsstand sales (covers about religion–for reasons I cannot fathom–sells a lot of copies.)

    I only mention this because I’ve actually read “Time” fairly often in various waiting rooms over the last few years, and the writing, for the most part, is vastly better from an intellectual standpoint than you’d expect if you read the magazine ten years ago. There was a point in the early 2000s when “Time” (in addition to “Newsweek” and the NY Times) tried to dumb-down and bite-size its content as much as possible in the futile hope of competing with the Internet. But (for whatever reason), that’s not the case anymore.

  37. 37
    James Gary says:

    @Tom Levenson: My comment at #36 is also relevant to yours at #32, although I didn’t see #32 until I’d already posted #36 and now it won’t let me edit. :P

  38. 38
  39. 39
    Metavirus says:

    wow. their international edition for the same day is only claiming that we can now travel to the future.

  40. 40
    Lurking Canadian says:

    It would have been accurate if the text beside the asterisk said “In white mice”

  41. 41
    azlib says:

    Ever since I was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer, my view of the diseases which we call cancer has markedly changed. There are no “cures”, there are simply treatment regimes with varying success rates. And as I discovered in my own research to find which treatment regime fit me best, there are trade-offs with all of them. They all have side-effects which can be as debilitating as the disease itself.

  42. 42
    Rodolfo says:

    A bit late with a comment, since I have been busy meeting with staff from the local hospice and getting used to a more powerful pain drug,

    I want to temper my rage with a smart ass gesture, say, mailing time my oncolgist’s address, asking that they send him the answer to the
    softball sized tumor that is gradually killing me.
    We put up with so much crap. There’s this website , they’ve hidden
    the real cure, your fighting spirit will pull you through, everything happens for a reason , god never gives you more than you can handle, my cousin’s frIend meditated the tumor away….
    The endless parade of ignorance. I ran into someone who patiently explained how diet and yoga would manifest the inner healer.
    So if you can’t explain in detail the molecular biology of my particular cancer shut the fuck up.

  43. 43
    mclaren says:

    You shouldn’t blame TIME magazine for this manipulative dishonest horseshit — you should blame doctors.

    Doctors have been running this scam for decades. Every week we hear about some glorious new so-called medical “breakthrough,” while in reality doctors can’t even treat most diseases today.

    Tendonitis? Here’s the treatment: suffer.

    Shingles? Modern medicine has got a treatment for that: learn to like unbearable pain.

    Arthritis? Modern medical technology has a miracle cure: don’t use your hands.

    Most of modern medicine is a giant scam and that con job “cancer cure” story is just faithful reportage of the ongoing ripoff perpetrated by our greedy incompetent doctors.

  44. 44
    Peppi says:

    This is vey, vey sad.

    Newsweek is basically gone, Tina Brown dragged the New Yorker into the gutter, the Atlantic now offers itself as an ad platform for Scientology and IBM.

    There s a lot of longhorn coming from new sources, but the center is gone and I don’t see any replacement.

    When I was in grade school and being taught how to do “research” for papers, you could cite Time magazine as “factual”. That’s kind of simple, in retrospect, but what is there out there today that fills that role? Wikipedia I guess. Yikes.

  45. 45
    Groucho48 says:

    @James Gary:

    That was an excellent article. One I doubt any blog could do.

    I subscribe to Time. Yes, there is a fair amount of noise to the signal, but, there are always a few decent stories and occasionally a great one.

    I get good value for the 30 cents or so an issue I pay for it.

  46. 46
    Interrobang says:

    @mclaren: You are so wrong it isn’t even funny.

    Tendonitis: Do physiotherapy, take anti-inflammatories, recover in three or four months.

    Shingles: Anti-viral drugs within the first 72 hours, no spread of lesions, and you’re better in a week to 10 days.

    Arthritis: A structured regimen of NSAIDs and physiotherapy, and the pain goes away within a few months. (Rheumatoid arthritis is not applicable, but osteoarthritis sure is.)

    I’ve seen all of these up close and personal, two of which apply to myself, and one (shingles) in my dad.

    Your problem with healthcare is the American healthcare lack-of-system, not medical technology itself. I don’t live in the US, and I’m pretty damn okay with the state of the art. My mother’s one year out from treatment for breast cancer, and she didn’t even puke from chemo.

  47. 47
    Ohio Mom says:

    @Rodolfo: So sorry to hear this. I hope hospice provides everything you need and want it to.

    People sure do say dumb things. When my mom had pancreatic cancer someone I worked with said, “Oh, my uncle had that.” To which I replied, “Then you really do know what it’s like.”

    I was touched, thinking, finally, here is someone who isn’t going to say something stupid because she’s already been through watching someone she loves deal with terminal cancer.

    That feeling lasted milli-seconds, because the next thing Eunice said was, “He swelled up and turned yellow.” Just the image I wanted to carry with me…

  48. 48
    priscianus jr says:

    @donnah: So I’m not outraged by the cover. I see it as a cheap attention-grabber, but I don’t think anyone would take it literally and believe that we can cure all cancer in all people. I’m just glad when they can.

    I’m with you on this. I think Tom Levenson (whose writing I greatly admire, in most cases) has mixed up two completely different issues here, and in a very emotionally heated way: the present status of Time Magazine, and whether cancer can be cured.

    Obviously many cases of cancer can be and have been cured. In such cases it is important that the patient have hope that a cure is possible. But how does one know. So in my view the best thing is to provide encouragement in any way that you know.

    A friend of mine just died of leukemia after a 16-month battle, during which I believed he could beat it. Turned out he couldn’t.

  49. 49
    Gmann says:


    Sorry to hear of your Mom’s death. Cancer sucks. People who try and sell a magazine using it really suck. I’ll never buy a Time magazine again. . . Not that has happened since the whole internet gadget got devised.

  50. 50
    Gmann says:

    @Forum Transmitted Disease: Words typed on a keyboard cannot sooth the pain you must feel. . . I wish you peace and hope and all that you may need.

  51. 51
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Rodolfo: I’m so sorry to hear of your trouble. I wish for you the best care in the world, and the people you care about around you.

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