About That Time Cover

by Michael Walsh

I hate to rain on a perfectly good theory, especially one about what’s left of the mainstream media, but there’s probably less to last week’s Time magazine Putin-vs.-College Football rumpus than meets the eye. Time’s international covers often differ from the domestic covers, and have for years. Even in my day there (1981–1997) it was common practice for the covers and content to be targeted to the interests and events specific to the region; I, for example, wrote two different cover stories on Andrew Lloyd Webber, one for Time International pegged to the opening of Starlight Express in London and the other for the domestic magazine, pegged to the Broadway premiere of The Phantom of the Opera. So it’s not exactly news that a global newsmagazine like Time has different editions.

The reason, I suspect, that Time put college football on its domestic cover had little or nothing to do with protecting its readership from the clock-cleaning that Russian president Vladimir Putin just delivered to President Obama. In one, quick, elegant exchange, Putin secured his position in the Middle East, got the Americans to take their own pieces off the chessboard, isolated Israel, and left Obama holding the bag for the whole mess; only a Punahou graduate could possibly think that trading two rooks and a bishop for a pawn and a bag of potato chips was a good deal.

Rather, it has to do with the almost complete lack of interest on the part of its American readership in international affairs. As that readership continues its steady decline — and with the smoking ruins of Newsweek still smoldering across the street — Time needs to show big advertisers that eyeballs are still hitting their ads in the print book, and newsstand sales have always been a quick and handy ratings system. And I can guarantee you that the football cover, timed for the opening of the season, sold many more copies than Vlad the Impaler’s pitiless mug would have. Commerce before art.

Unfortunately for Time, the cover flap occurred just as my old colleague, Rick Stengel, announced that he was following in the grand tradition of Strobe Talbott and Jay Carney and was taking a job with a Democratic administration, this time as the State Department’s top flack. Stengel is part of the parade of journalists who have forsaken their role as neutral arbiters of the news and cast their lots where their hearts have always been — with the Democrats, mostly as public-relations types. But at least now the veil is off, and the public can judge their work accordingly. (Be sure to click on the previous link for their names and job histories.)

When I started in professional journalism, back in 1972, it was unthinkable for a reporter to take sides; indeed, it was a firing offense. And should a reporter leave the profession for, say, PR, it was axiomatic that he or she would never be allowed back into a newsroom; their objectivity, the theory ran, was hopelessly compromised. Today, a job in government, especially (but not, to be fair, exclusively) Democratic government, is viewed as the brass ring above the brass ring: The kibitzer as policy maker. It’s like the political version of Rotisserie (or Fantasy) Baseball, except that there’s nothing fantastic about it, and the final standings really do count.


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