Ed Driscoll

Regarding 'Our First Gay President' and Other Goofy Recent Newsweekly Covers

Update: Welcome readers clicking in from:

Original post follows below.

Well, this happened:

To make sense of the strange Time and Newsweek covers appearing at your supermarket news stand recently — Newsweek seemingly going from cover stories on light S&M one week to Obama as “The First Gay President” the next; Time magazine concurrently featuring a breast-feeding three-year-old(!) boy — it helps to understand the history of newsweeklies.

Time began publishing in 1923 as the first weekly news magazine; Newsweek debuted a decade later as a copycat publication. (It was bought by the Washington Post in 1961, and in 2010 famously unloaded by the now-ailing newspaper for a dollar.) As Alan Brinkley wrote in The Publisher, his 2010 biography of Time founder Henry Luce, Luce and his then-business partner Brit Hadden (who died at age 31 in 1929) were originally going to call their publication “Facts” when they first conceived of the notion of a weekly news magazine in the early 1920s. One night in 1922 though, as Brinkley writes, while Luce was riding the subway home, he came across an advertising card above the windows of the subway car that used the phrase “Time for a Change” or something similar in its copy, which convinced him that “Time” was the correct title for his nascent magazine idea:

Hadden immediately agreed, and they never reconsidered. “Time” was attractive to them because it captured something of the dual purpose of their enterprise—to chronicle the passage of time and to save readers precious time. “Take Time—It’s Brief,” was one of the early slogans they attached to their announcements of the new publication; “Time Will Tell” and “Time Is Valuable” were others.

It also helps to understand what a novelty a weekly news magazine was in the 1920s, by comparing it to the competing information mediums of the era, as Brinkley goes on to do. The first radio networks, the direct precursors to today’s NBC, CBS, and (slightly more circuitously) ABC, were formed in that era. Movies were extraordinarily popular, though they still lacked sound until the end of the decade. That was the media culture in which Time was born, Brinkley writes:

With the exception of the national wire services, whose stories were filtered through local newspaper editors with their own interests and tastes, Time—which even in its early, frail years had subscribers in every state—was for a while the only genuinely national news organ. No newspaper had a reach very far beyond its own city. Radio news in the 1920s consisted of an announcer reading headlines a few times a day. Newsreels were not yet prominent. Even with its relatively modest circulation in the 1920s, Time established itself as an important force in journalism if for no other reason than that it reached men and women in all parts of the country and promised to rescue them from isolation and provincialism and prepare them for the cosmopolitan world.

As John Podhoretz wrote in 2009, recounting his experiences at Time in the early 1980s, until the World Wide Web arrived in the early 1990s, newsweeklies were still hugely influential, through the eighties and nineties, with its top journalists receiving limousine service and tony expense accounts:

Time Inc., the parent company of Time, was flush then. Very, very, very flush. So flush that the first week I was there, the World section had a farewell lunch for a writer who was being sent to Paris to serve as bureau chief…at Lutece, the most expensive restaurant in Manhattan, for 50 people.So flush that if you stayed past 8, you could take a limousine home…and take it anywhere, including to the Hamptons if you had weekend plans there. So flush that if a writer who lived, say, in suburban Connecticut, stayed late writing his article that week, he could stay in town at a hotel of his choice. So flush that, when I turned in an expense account covering my first month with a $32 charge on it for two books I’d bought for research purposes, my boss closed her office door and told me never to submit a report asking for less than $300 back, because it would make everybody else look bad. So flush when its editor-in-chief, the late Henry Grunwald, went to visit the facilities of a new publication called TV Cable Week that was based in White Plains, a 40 minute drive from the Time Life Building, he arrived by helicopter—and when he grew bored by the tour, he said to his aide, “Get me my helicopter.”

Once Matt Drudge blew open the story of Bill Clinton’s dalliances with Monica Lewinsky, a story that Newsweek attempted to suppress, the walls quickly began to fall, and savvy news consumers quickly began to receive their news elsewhere — including from news aggregation sites such as Drudge and Instapundit, which can be and are updated numerous times a day, unlike the increasingly lethargic schedule of the newsweeklies.

As a result, the reader bases of these magazines have imploded. Regarding Newsweek, Wikipedia charts their plummeting readership over the past decade: “In 2003, worldwide circulation was more than 4 million, including 2.7 million in the U.S; by 2010 it was down to 1.5 million (with newsstand sales declining to just over 40 thousand copies per week).”

Rendered dinosaurs in the age of the Blogosphere, Time and Newsweek now have to resort to stunt covers both to gin up PR, and in the hopes that somebody buys the thing when they see it in the checkout line at Pathmark or Walgreens. As the London Daily Mail reported on Sunday, “After Time magazine went with a cover shot of a young blonde mother breastfeeding her 3-year-old boy, Ms Brown is said to have taken it in stride, saying ‘let the games begin!'”

That covering the news is now a “game” highlights the lack of grown-ups in the newsroom and the editors’ offices. Beginning in the mid-1960s, a period when Luce retired from Time and shortly afterwards, passed away in 1967, the magazine began to quickly distance itself from his roots, and his founding vision for the magazine. Luce’s parents were Presbyterian missionaries to China; Luce was a moderate-to-liberal Republican who believed strongly in strengthening the Orient’s ties to America. As I mentioned in the recent video, during America’s transformation into an intellectual adjunct of the Weimar Republic, by the end of the ’60s, Time had asked, Nietzsche-style, if God was dead, turned its back on supporting the Vietnam War, and was asking…who are those strange people in middle America who voted for Nixon?

Still though, give Newsweek editor Tina Brown credit for one thing — albeit not necessarily intentionally. After spending 2008 putting up near-weekly covers with Obama in one messianic pose after another, and comparing him to Lincoln (Newsweek), FDR (Time), and belatedly Reagan (Time again, in 2011), at least Tina has put up a cover that will give Obama plenty of derision in flyover country. Henry Luce cared about those readers when he invented the genre of news magazines in the early 1920s. Ninety years later, like Pauline Kael and Nixon voters in the ’70s (“I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”), Time and Newsweek have largely written them off, and are only vaguely aware they exist.

In the meantime, as Jazz Shaw writes at Hot Air regarding the Newsweek cover, “When is the shark definitively jumped and the daily bread burned past any reasonable definition of being toast? Ladies and gentlemen, this would be that point.”

Barack Obama, on the other hand, has gone in the course of less than a decade from full throated* support of gay marriage to full opposition on religious grounds, back to full support. Are we really supposed to be buying this?

Apparently Mr. Sullivan thinks so. And Newsweek is more than happy to jump on board with a cover which will probably go down as one of the most ridiculed and satirized efforts in the history of magazine publication. (But I wouldn’t mind a piece of the sales from the poster, though.) Yeesh.

Not to mention sell plenty of copies of the latest edition of Adobe’s Photoshop program. I’m not sure how much it’s going to revive the currently atrophying fortunes of either Tina or Barry, but hey, as I wrote back in September on earlier larger than life, and yet somehow…unfortunate…moments with the president, Yes We Camp!

* Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.