Alex Shephard writes in the latest issue of The New Republic that something odd has happened to Newsweek. It has become an outlet for rightwing advocacy. The Newsweek story has been covered by many media outlets over the past several years, but I had not seen those stories and had no idea about what happened to this once iconic magazine.

For half a century, Newsweek was owned by the Washington Post and was a well-respected voice in American journalism. In 2010, the Post sold Newsweek to 91-year-old businessman Sidney Harman; Harman bought it for $1 and assumption of its liabilities. Ownership turned over a few more times, from Harman to Barry Diller. Diller regretted his purchase and sold Newsweek in 2014 to a group called International Business Times Media. IBTM changed its name to Newsweek Media Group. Its owners were tied to a small Christian college (Olivet University) led by a charismatic Korean pastor, David Jang. Jang also was founder of a cult called “The Community,” according to this report in Mother Jones.

In 2018, the offices of Newsweek were raided by federal agents investigating a money-laundering operation between the publication, the cult, and the college. A few weeks later, the Washington Post reported that the editorial staff at Newsweek had descended into “chaos” when two of its top editors and a journalist were abruptly fired: they were writing an investigative report about ties between Newsweek and its owners. Despite the firings, a group of staff journalists continued reporting on the company’s finances. Late Tuesday night, their exposé was published, revealing a deep financial relationship between the parent company and a small Christian school, Olivet University.

Alex Shephard summarizes the bizarre fate of what was once a highly respected publication.

Writing in The Columbia Journalism Review last year, Daniel Tovrov depicted Newsweek, once one of America’s most distinguished magazines, as a shell of its former self. All that was left was clickbait, op-eds from the likes of Nigel Farage and Newt Gingrich, and a general sense of drift. “Nobody I spoke to for this article had a sense of why Newsweek exists,” Tovrov wrote. “While the name Newsweek still carries a certain authority—remnants of its status as a legacy outlet—and the magazine can still bag an impressive interview now and then, it serves an opaque purpose in the media landscape.” 

Last week, Newsweek suggested one possible purpose: The legitimization of narratives straight out of the right-wing fever swamps. An op-edwritten by John Eastman, a conservative lawyer and founding director of the Claremont Institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, coyly suggested that Kamala Harris, who was born in California, may not be eligible to serve as vice president because her parents were immigrants. It was, as many pointed out, a racist attack with no constitutional merit, on par with the birther conspiracy theory that claimed Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Within a few hours, Eastman’s op-ed was being brandished by President Trump, who told reporters he had “heard”Harris may not be eligible to serve. 

Three days after the op-ed was published, Newsweek apologized, sort of. In an editor’s note signed by global Editor-in-Chief Nancy Cooper and opinion editor Josh Hammer, the magazine acknowledged, “We entirely failed to anticipate the ways in which the essay would be interpreted, distorted, and weaponized…. This op-ed is being used by some as a tool to perpetuate racism and xenophobia. We apologize.” Still, the magazine refused to recognize what was obvious—that the op-ed was intended to spark questions about the eligibility of a Black woman running for high office. Newsweek’s editors merely feigned horror that the op-ed was taken in the only possible way it could have been taken. 

The publication of Eastman’s op-ed says a great deal about the state of Newsweek’s opinion section, which has become a clearinghouse for right-wing nonsense. But it also points to a larger crisis in journalism itself: The rise of the zombie publication, whose former legitimacy is used to launder extreme and conspiratorial ideas. 

Even by the volatile standards of journalism in the twenty-first century, Newsweek’s recent problems are extraordinary. There are the usual issues: a sharp decline in print subscribers, Google and Facebook, the difficulty of running a mass-market general interest news magazine in an age of hyperpartisanship. But Newsweek has also been raided by the Manhattan district attorney’s office (a former owner and chief executive pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering charges in February) and has been accused of deep ties to a shadowy Christian cult, amid many other scandals

This is one of the strangest media stories I have read. The New Republic calls Newsweek “a zombie magazine.” Sad.