Tina Brown ridicules Michele Bachmann on the cover of Newsweek but humiliates herself.

Media criticism.
Aug. 9 2011 6:12 PM

Tina Brown, Cover Girl

Michele Bachmann is the target, but it's Newsweek's editor who gets wounded.

Newsweek cover: The Queen of Rage

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.

Newsweek cover: Diana at 50 If She Were Here Now

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."

The New Yorker magazine.

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.

Advertisement

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 slate.pressbox@gmail.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.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For email notification of errors in this specific column, type frovocative in the subject head of an email message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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.)

TODAY IN SLATE

Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

Do the Celebrities Whose Nude Photos Were Stolen Have a Case Against Apple?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

Future Tense

Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company

Food

How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

Scotland Is Inspiring Secessionists Across America

The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant

The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant
Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 18 2014 1:34 PM Americans Fault Obama for Giving Them Exactly the Anti-ISIS Strategy They Want
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 18 2014 2:18 PM The NFL Is Not a Nonprofit So why does it get to act like one?
  Life
Doonan
Sept. 18 2014 2:00 PM On the Death of My Homophobic Dog I named him Liberace, but I couldn’t have chosen a less appropriate namesake for this coarse, emotionally withholding Norwich terrier.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 12:03 PM The NFL Opines on “the Role of the Female”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Everyday That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 2:03 PM Ryan Adams’ New Song Is a Reminder That He’s One of His Generation’s Best Songwriters
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 1:24 PM Can the Celebrities Whose Photos Were Stolen Really Sue Apple? It may be harder to prove “harm” than it seems.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 18 2014 7:30 AM Red and Green Ghosts Haunt the Stormy Night
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.