When you heave a turd into your punch bowl, you do so fully expecting your guests to gag and spew upon first sip. Newsweek Editor in Chief Tina Brown, punch bowl-spiker extraordinaire, got just the response she was looking for this week by picking a cover shot in which presidential aspirant Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., lit up her brightest Charlie Manson eyes.
The news network chatterboxes were among the first to heave on cue: “Unfair,” said Alex Wagner of the Aug. 15 Newsweek cover on MSNBC’s Hardball. “Unflattering” (Jonathan Capehart on MSNBC’s Last Word). “Outrageous” (Bob Beckel on Fox News Channel’s The Five). “Something horrific” (Jedediah Bila on Fox’s Hannity). Cataloging the punch bowl umbrage was the New York Times, which collected howls from the National Organization for Women (“It’s sexist”) and the liberal-bias-fighters at News Busters. Slate’s “XX factor” blogger Jessica Grose also declared the photo over the top.
Newsweek responded to the expected criticism with—what else?—a slide show of campaign-stump outtakes depicting Bachmann in all her wide-eyed glory. Disingenuous, yes, but effective in further fueling Brown’s manufactured controversy and adding a little media buzz to Newsweek. “Michele Bachmann’s intensity is galvanizing voters in Iowa right now and Newsweek’s cover captures that,” Brown told Poynter’s Steve Myers.
Tina Brown didn’t invent the faux-provocative (frovocative?) cover image; she has only perfected it. Only last month, Newsweek Photoshopped into existence a Lady Diana-at-50 strolling with daughter-in-law Kate Middleton for a cover to illustrate Brown’s story inside. Tasteless, ghoulish, and creepy? Yes. But also predictably Brownian. In self-defense, Brown said, “We wanted to bring the memory of Diana alive in a vivid image that transcends time and reflects my piece.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Twitter genius Patricia Lockwood lanced Brown’s craven commercial calculation with a prediction of what will appear on the magazine’s cover when Middleton becomes pregnant: “Newsweek, when I saw your cover of Princess Diana as a ghost baby living inside Kate Middleton’s belly I thought it was real and I cried.”
Brown has been playing P.T. Barnum with her covers almost as long as she has been editing magazines. She stirred up New Yorker readers in 1993 with a Valentine Day’s cover depicting a Hasidic rabbi smooching a black woman and Vanity Fair readers with a similarly frovocative cover featuring Demi Moore. * These covers speak to Brown’s strengths as a journalistic rabble-rouser: Never mind if all the word of mouth is negative—the only thing worse than negative buzz is no buzz.
Frovocation works only if used sparingly. That Brown has put her thumb in the eye of the easily offended twice in two months speaks of either her desperation to make people notice Newsweek or her boredom with the project. Because she can hardly be bored by a magazine she’s just taken over and because she is smart enough to know that overuse will normalize and thereby neuter the gimmick, my guess is desperation.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never been put off by a maliciously chosen cover image of a politician or tycoon—photographed or drawn—to complement a profile or news story. There is nothing remotely unfair about making a strong visual statement about a profile subject if that graphic treatment harmonizes with the copy. I used to match wicked pics with wicked profiles all the time when I edited alt-weeklies.
The transgression comes only when the editor pretends—as Brown has with the Bachmann and Diana covers—that she wasn’t playing let’s-goose-the-public with sensationalistic images. Obvious lies, such as Brown’s about merely trying to convey “intensity” with the Bachmann portrait, end up conveying contempt for the reader. And that’s not a pretty picture.
All that said, Newsweek is getting a little bit better every week. I expect nothing less. Actually I expect much more. Send your expectations to email@example.com and surpass my expectations by following me on Twitter. (Email may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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Correction, Aug. 11, 2011: Originally this article mistakenly attributed an August 1993 Vanity Fair cover to Tina Brown’s tenure at the magazine. The reference has been deleted. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)