Thursday, May 17, 2012

When the headline becomes the story:
On Newsweek’s gay Obama cover

WHEN AMERICAN presidents make history, the magazines that analyze and report on that history are necessarily never far behind. That’s what they do (with varying degrees of success). The digital world hasn’t been kind to the analog magazine; the steadily declining numbers of subscribers to those magazines, and print periodicals in general, show how the battle for eyeball share and pass-along in the dead-tree media has been a matter of trying to squeeze Dom Perignon out of a rock.

So when President Obama made history last week by endorsing the idea and practice of gay marriage, it made sense that some of the last magazines standing would report and analyze that cultural Richter-scale event, and distill their journalism on catchy, irresistible covers intended to leap from the newsstand into your hands.

Two of them have done just that. With varying degrees of success.

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The New Yorker went first after Obama’s announcement. In its May 21 issue, the celebrated magazine published a cover illustration showing the six columns of the White House rendered in the rainbow colors of gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual America. It was a quietly poignant, tastefully understated way to make the point that the LGBT community had a champion living in “the people’s house,” a president who had their back in their drive for full equality.

Newsweek wasn’t nearly so subtle. On the cover of its May 21 issue, a photo illustration depicts the president adorned with a glowing rainbow halo, all above the headline “THE FIRST GAY PRESIDENT.” (That’s also the title of the cover essay written by Andrew Sullivan).

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Hyperbole is a staple of 21st-century American journalism; you needn’t look any further than the lurid headline compressions of the New York Daily News and, God help us, the New York Post to know that’s true. But no matter who thought of the Newsweek headline, it makes its reach for eyeballs and wallets in a way that’s too disingenuous by half.

First of all, it’s not accurate — the real first gay president was James Buchanan, as Jim Loewen notes in Salon. Newsweek’s willful departure from the truth isn’t an insignificant matter for a magazine struggling to hold on to market share against Time magazine, its better capitalized rival. The second problem is that the very phraseology of “the first [adjective here] president” is a tired, tabloid trope to begin with; its use in the current context sensationalizes a national moment that deserves better.

The third issue, stemming from the second, is just in the tone of the headline. It doesn't even have the good manners to be circumspect and respectful of its own occasion; it’s a blatant scream for attention, like a flasher in a raincoat. The Newsweek headline commits the cardinal sin of journalism: promising more than it knows it can possibly deliver.

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Some in the media were upset, but they focused on the wrong things — in the process advancing their own hyperbolic arguments into the debate. Condemning the Newsweek cover, for example, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell worked himself into one of his ritual righteous lathers on Monday night.

“We live in a wicked stupid country, okay?” O'Donnell said. “This is a country that believes, in a very substantial proportion, that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Huge number, millions and millions of people ... like 30 percent, think he wasn't born American. They think he's Kenyan. Crazy, crazy beliefs. And Newsweek, it seems to me, has to consider the responsibility of sending out into such a collectively stupid country and stupid electorate this thing, which is the only sentence in Newsweek that most people are going to read this week — the sentence on the cover.”

O’Donnell, of course, has to reckon with the fact that the “stupid electorate” he fulminated about was smart enough to elect Barack Obama president, as well as presumably smart enough to be watching O’Donnell’s program in the first place. In his condemnation of the Newsweek cover, O’Donnelll managed to condemn the magazine’s audience, and everyone in the country, at the same time.

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TERRY SHROPSHIRE was more on point. Writing in Rolling Out, an entertainment news Web site, Shropshire employed hyperbole to undercut Newsweek’s hyperbole. “[N]o one dared called Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson the “first black presidents” because they openly supported civil rights. They didn’t call Robert F. Kennedy the “first black attorney general” because he took steps against segregationists from blocking African Americans who sought to exercise their rights to vote, to go to college and to use any public restroom in the South.”

Other criticism was more granular. UiMaine, commenting on The Washington Post Web site, observed: “It's the halo that bugs me. It feeds into the rhetoric that the Right shovels to us that Obama considers himself sainted, messianic, whatever. Saying that you're in favor of allowing same-sex marriage does not make you a saint. It makes you anti-discriminatory in your rendering of marriage being between two people of majority status. That's it.”

Jonathan Capehart of The Post disagreed, suggesting that much of the reaction came from reading nothing more than the headline. “In this 140-character world that substitutes for discourse, people react to headlines and what they’ve heard rather than actually reading the ‘offending’ piece in context.”

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Andrew Sullivan, who wrote the Newsweek piece behind the headline, wrote a truly moving essay, one that puts Obama’s statement against a backdrop of a nation struggling with self-identity. It was an essay that, frankly, deserved better than the title it got.

The division of labor in modern journalism is such that, often as not, the person who wrote the piece may or may not be the one who writes the headline. That challenge of distilling the gist of a story often falls to a desk editor, who may or may not be fully sensitive to the need for nuance — or to the ways that the wrong headline can put more attention on the headline than on the story itself.

The headline — which Newsweek executive editor Justine Rosenthal described as “a collaboration” between herself, Sullivan and Newsweeek uber-editor Tina Brown — was, according to Rosenthal, a play on Toni Morrison’s long-ago observation of Bill Clinton as “the first black president.”

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BUT WHAT was meant wasn’t necessarily conveyed. The headline sought to suggest that, with his stand on gay marriage, President Obama had so allied himself with the quest for LGBT recognition that he was indistinguishable from anyone in that community – a rhetorical leap of faith unsupported by the facts. The Newsweek headline presumes a personal affinity, an emotional connection between Obama and LGBT America that doesn’t exist, at least not yet.

Sullivan’s essay suggests that the recognition of marriage equality by Obama — our first biracial president — was prompted in some measure by his own grappling with identity in a nation whose intransigent, zero-sum reflexes about race have, for millions of people in this nation, parallels on matters of sexual orientation. A powerful point.

But it’s the disconnect between the specifics of the essay and the broad generality of the headline that’s the problem. Rule #1 in the use of journalistic hyperbole: It has to have more than a casual relationship with the truth of the underlying narrative to be truly effective.

The Newsweek headline is a cautionary tale of the impact of unintended consequences, and shows how overreach, even with the best of intentions, can be problematic.

In today’s viral, rapacious media universe, Newsweek is doing what it can to survive. But the Sullivan essay’s headline has obscured the deeper, more salient points of the trenchant essay it seeks to distill. And it points to the intelligence — maybe even the wisdom — of an old line of thought that couldn’t be more fitting today: Just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should.

Image credits: Newsweek cover, story excerpt: © 2012 Newsweek/The Daily Beast. New Yorker cover: © 2012 Advance Publications. Buchanan: Matthew Brady via The Library of Congress.

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