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Michele Bachmann, Tina Brown, and the reinvention of Newsweek

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  August 9, 2011 03:49 PM

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The Queen of Buzz knew exactly what to do with the Queen of Rage: Put her on the cover of Newsweek magazine in a way that gets people yapping.

Mission accomplished, Tina Brown.

The latest Newsweek cover features Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann looking like she could star in a music video for "Crazy Women" by country singer LeAnn Rimes. Picturing the congresswoman's weirdly parted lips and wide, blank eyes in the Oval Office is definitely not a boost for Bachmann's campaign to win the White House — or a boost for the job of Mitt Romney's running mate.

But it's a publicity boost for Brown, who promised a new Newsweek when she she took over as editor last March. At the time, she said she would disprove the argument that "a weekly newsmagazine has no role in today's relentless, 24/7 news culture."

If Brown's chosen role is to outrage, she succeeded with the Bachmann cover. Right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin lambasted the magazine for "bottom-of-of-the-barrel moonbat photo cliches about conservative female public figures." Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, called the cover sexist, saying it would never have been done to a man.

Brown has no problem using the sisterhood to reclaim the limelight she once commanded as editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.

As poynter.org recently pointed out, since Brown became editor, most Newsweek covers now feature women. She started with a decorously-dressed Hillary Clinton gazing out over the headline: "Hillary's War." Then she urged readers to "Meet America's Next Billionaires" — twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen twins. A flattering take on "Kate the Great" set everyone up for this subsequent cover hullabaloo: Through the power of Photoshop, Brown imagined Princess Diana at 50 striding confidently next to her daughter-in-law, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.

Creepy or provocative? Who cares, if it's buzz you're after. But, if readers are what Newsweek is after, Brown's mission is still incomplete. According to the New York Times, Newsweek's overall circulation fell 5 percent to just over 1.5 million since Brown took over. Sales of single issues have picked up, lending some crediblity to the cover shock strategy she is obviously embracing.

Much of the criticism of the Bachmann cover takes on the mainstream media for the way it often marginalizes conservative female politicians. Pre-Brown, for example, Newsweek ran a controversial cover shot of Sarah Palin in running shorts.

At the time, Palin responded to the photo by saying “The out-of-context Newsweek approach is sexist and oh-so-expected by now. If anyone can learn anything from it: it shows why you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, gender, or color of skin. The media will do anything to draw attention — even if out of context.”Whatever lesson she learned from that outing did not stop Palin from posing again for Newsweek. In a more recent cover shot taken during the Brown era, the onetime vice presidential candidate looks pretty sexy in a partially unbuttoned, body-revealing top.

Sexy is one thing. Portraying women as nuts or sluts is an old-fashioned way to take them down. In this case, Brown's primary mission may be new media marketing, but that cover image of Bachmann will linger for a long time — and probably define her.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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