Monday, July 14, 2008

Condé’s nasties

Nothing in the world of publishing has perfected the art of editorial distillation — saying a lot in a little space (or saying little in a space better used for something else altogether) — quite like magazines. They scream and cajole us from the subway platforms to the checkout stands; the hysteria of type and images is so much a part of the lingua franca of our daily informational consumption, it’s become a wash of noise, a blanket of titillation we tend to suspect distorts reality, rather than illuminating it.

Few ply the trade like Condé Nast, one of the largest and most successful magazine publishers in the world, a conglomerate whose brand-name ventures run the spectrum of modern life, from fine dining (Gourmet) to technology (Wired) to shopping (Lucky). Two of Condé Nast’s publications have lately gone down a troublesome road, with covers that have awakened issues of racial and ethnic sensitivities, in an industry known historically for having little of either one.

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The cover of the latest issue of The New Yorker, venerable iconoclast of the publishing world, the dazzlingly literate party guest who’s liable to say anything, is understandably topical: Barack and Michele Obama are featured in one of the New Yorker’s classic cover illustrations. But today, the magazine came heavily under fire for that depiction:

In the Oval Office, Barack Obama stands in a turban and Muslim attire doing the fist pound with Michele Obama, herself decked out in combat gear and an Afro Angela Davis would have envied, an assault rifle slung over her shoulder. On the wall to Obama’s right hangs a portrait of Osama bin Laden artfully cropped halfway by the page’s edge (perhaps The New Yorker’s way of knowingly pulling back before they went too far over the top). In the fireplace, a burning American flag.

The illustration by Barry Blitt, a frequent New Yorker contributor, synthesized in one image all of the prevailing distortions and misconceptions about Obama, his past, his loyalties and his political mission. Obama has made clear repeatedly that he is not nor ever has been a Muslim; wife Michele has been just as forthright debunking images of her as a 60’s-style radical in Ivy League clothing.

The jury of the punditburo has been out all day, debating the image:

Editor & Publisher editor did a comprehensive roundup of other media reactions.

New Yorker editor David Remnick defended his magazine. “It is an attack on those who would manipulate and lie about him, and we are holding up a mirror to that,” he told NBC. There are other examples of this kind of artistic exaggeration to the nth degree; of course it’s the foundation of satire.

But The New Yorker has taken a step beyond pure satire, one that invites concerns about whether the greater good is served by an illustration that so cleverly distills the artifacts of a national lie. Is this satire in the service of moving beyond our deepest irrational fears vis-à-vis race and ethnicity, or merely satire in the service of deepening those fears, giving them the imagistic credence that equals validity in our visual culture? In that sense, is it satire at all?

Team Obama condemned it, of course, calling it “tasteless and offensive,” but otherwise has pretty much taken the high road, brushed this off the shoulder. Maybe they realize that in that same visual culture, for all their immediate impact, magazines are perishable things, with a shelf life as brief as vegetables in the refrigerator. The New Yorker will feature a new cover one week from now.

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The cover of the April issue of Condé Nast’s Vogue imprint has been, uh, more of a problem. You know the issue. On the cover, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James is clutching the waist of ubermodel Gisele Bundchen, his teeth bared in a cartoon defiance. This apparent outtake from “King Kong,” directed not by Merian C. Cooper but by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, instantly generated exactly what you’d expect.

Magazine analyst Samir Husni told The Huffington Post he thought the photo “screams King Kong.” Husni said that, given the time and preparation required for a Vogue cover, facile explanations just don’t hold water. "So when you have a cover that reminds people of King Kong and brings those stereotypes to the front, black man wanting white woman, it's not innocent," he said.

Damion Thomas, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at University of Maryland, told the HuffPost that such images of black male athletes "reinforce the criminalization of black men."

Condé makes another perverse statement about the value of black faces on its magazine covers. The LeBron James cover was the first in Vogue's 116-year history to feature a black man, and Vogue couldn't play it straight, couldn't put its first black male subject in the apparel whose style and elegance defines the magazine. Vogue went in for clowning instead.

You’re tempted to think this is something specific to Condé Nast; maybe some bad water got loose in the pipes that run the course of the company’s headquarters in Manhattan. But such evidence of insensitivity to both the country’s racial history and prospects for its multiracial future is an industrywide thing.

In a July 2007 story in Folio:, writer Linda Zebian posits the idea of magazine publishing as “the country club of the media industry.”
Zebian quoted former publisher turned professor of media studies Michael Weiskopf: "With few exceptions the demographic composition of management in the magazine world continues to resemble that of a restricted country club. From the photographs one could just as easily conclude it was the Jesse Helms Awards."

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Shaunice Hawkins, vice president of diversity & multicultural initiatives for the Magazine Publishers of America, told Folio: that her own organization has had difficulties with researching the presence of diversity in the publishing industry.

"Our industry is a combination of private and public entities so a lot of that information is not readily available. That's one of my biggest challenges. We don't have jurisdiction over our members to say, 'Give us your numbers or else.'"

Thus Condé Nast — and its parent company, the privately held (no public shareholders) Advance Publications — are able to call its own shots over who gets on the cover, and how they’re depicted, with no oversight or accountability to the public.

Reacting to the LeBron cover, Tamara Walker, a Philadelphian interviewed by HuffPost, grasped the wider importance both of that cover and the New Yorker cover that followed— seemed to understand not just what such covers say about Vogue and The New Yorker, or even what they say about Condé Nast, but the message they send about the magazine publishing industry in general.

“If more people of color worked for Vogue in positions of editorial authority, perhaps someone in the room might have been able to read the image the way so many of us are reading it now, and had the power to do something about it.”
Image credits: Covers: ©2008 Condé Nast Publications/Advance Publications.

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