Ihe Magazine Publishers of America got just what it deserved earlier this month when it hosted an event called “Laughing Matters: Magazines Celebrate Humor“.
The evening to which a thousand magazine advertisers were invited featured The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart supposedly making merry with a panel of heavy-hitter editors: Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair, Kate White of Cosmopolitan, Jim Kelly of Time and David Zinczenko of Men’s Health.
It was part of something called “Advertising Week,” a sprawling five-day event which, I guess, is supposed to celebrate advertising. Nobody I talked to–including several publishers and magazine public-relation executives–seemed to know what Advertising Week was really about or even who it was for.
But hey, the MPA, in a giddy early press release, claimed that the evening featuring the hotter-than-hot Stewart and the “all-star editorial panel” would be “lively, thought-provoking and completely entertaining.” And it certainly was a hot ticket.
Now, though, I am sure some of the MPA’s more tight-fisted members must be in a bit of a sulk. They shelled out, reportedly, a quarter of a million dollars–$150,000 for Stewart and a $100,000 for the cocktail party that preceded the show. And they really got a lot less than they had bargained for.
The problem was that Stewart–although he has graced the covers of Newsweek , Wired, and Esquire–just didn’t seem to be very interested in the editors, or in magazines in general. In his usual style, he dissed them both.
He started by taking a few swipes at Men’s Health. He asked Zinczenco why his magazine was “so gay?” And “Why do the men on your covers always have to be so… glistening?”
Then he went on to mock Vanity Fair’s cover of Paris Hilton. Carter, who looked even more bored than Stewart, said he thought she looked “presentable.” Stewart then took a slap at Time for cooperating with the federal prosecutor in the Valerie Plame case. He complained to Kelly, >Time’s editor, “One prosecutor asks for some documents and everyone pulls their underwear over their heads, and you turn them over. And not only that, but Newsweek gets the story.” Kelly took his cue from Carter and murmured some barely audible reply.
Stewart also said at some point he didn’t think print media was really that relevant to the current cultural and political debate. At that one, you could hear some stifled groans from publishers and MPA officials. I suppose Stewart then realized he shouldn’t bite the hand that was feeding him so lavishly–his whole performance took less than an hour. So he backtracked a bit by saying, “I didn’t say you weren’t important. I just said you were at the kids’ table.” More groans. He also said in a question-and-answer session with the audience that he didn’t have much time to read magazines. One publisher remarked that at that point he could almost hear the sound of advertisers’ money draining away.
Unfortunately, the editors didn’t do much to defend themselves. The only way Jim Kelly tried to prove Time’s continued relevancy was by saying they had a website. But then the editors were behaving the way editors always do around advertisers. By either being very cautious with every word or tying too hard to sell, sell, sell. David Zinzencko especially kept blabbing on about how he worships at the altar of his readers and that Men’s Health was so relevant because “Fit is the new rich.” Carter and Kelly, who are definitely chunky, looked like they didn’t need to hear that.
Kate White, in turn, claimed that all of Cosmo’s sex tips and tricks really, really, really were factchecked at the magazine’s Love Lab. (Gosh, I hope that it won’t be located, in Hearst’s new $500 million dollar building, too close to Good Housekeeping’s kitchen. It might put off the recipe testers.) She also said that “women in their 20s and 30s have shorter attention spans,” which provoked a few hisses. Cosmo readers have shorter attention spans than who, Kate? Rhesus monkeys?
Afterwards the editors seemed almost as annoyed as the MPA. White complained, “We were led to believe that it wasn’t going to be a roast but a dialogue.” About Love Labs? Jim Kelly, more sanguine, said, “If you hire a fire-eater to come to your party, the curtains are going to get singed.”
In truth, it was just another attempt for the magazine industry to try to appear edgy and hip and with-it for its advertisers. Exactly what America’s most successful magazines never are, and what their readers don’t want them to be. When magazines try so very hard to “celebrate humor,” the joke usually turns out to be on them.
–Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.