I am a former gossip columnist so I don’t mind a little color (to put it mildly). But the Newsweek cover was infuriating. So I was pleased when my favorite media critic Jack Shafer dipped his pen in the huge sulfur vat he keeps on his desk, and predicted that the picture will ultimately be worse for Tina Brown, the editor of Newsweek, than for Ms. Bachmann:
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.”…
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 sensationalist 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.