October 21, 2004

A Real Cell Job


In the latest Newsweek, the cover story is devoted to the stem cell debate. The thesis of the article is that this topic actually has the power to tip the election.

Any marketing person knows that there are generally two great motivators: fear and sex. Of course, in the current frenzied election environment, the stem cell topic is a natural for the news seller. On one side, you’ve got the general fear of science gone amok. On the other side, you’ve got the political hysteria about genetic farming and tampering with embryos.

Certainly, the lead story does its scary best on the political end. The text does a fine job. And the pictures — which is where I place a lot of my attention — are good too. I found many effective contributions: On the first facing page is a rather dark picture of a woman holding up her daughter who is suffering from juvenile diabetes. Both stare into the camera with guilt inducing expressions that almost cry out for some kind of prosecution. The second page has a dark, close up picture of a more-wrinkled-than-usual Laura Bush. The fourth page has a discomforting shot of a priest (in this case, an actual Archbishop) posed in front of a wooden cross hanging on a stark wall.

But that’s all standard stuff. What I’m particularly interested in is the way Newsweek uses the other articles to tap into (and exploit) deeper anxieties about the stem cell issue. The “hook” to effect this is a special feature in the issue called “Next Frontiers,” which highlights new developments in science and technology.

Here, what you find are a number of articles that, I believe, subliminally tie-back to the stem cell piece. For example, there’s a write-up labeled “How to Program A Cell” which mentions how scientists are “starting to tinker” with genes and human bacteria. Remarkably, there is one line that says: “Scientists can even program cell colonies to grow into circles or hearts in the petri dish.”

(What, did somewhat say “they” can grow hearts in a dish!!)

The centerpiece of this section, however, is an article about the film “The Polar Express” and advancements in movie special effects. If you noticed, there is a teaser for it on the magazine’s cover.


It’s in this article, I believe, where the worries raised in the stem cell feature really get expressed. The discussion may be about digital –as opposed to biological–manipulation, but the story goes out of its way to suggest the genie is leaving the bottle. The article talks about the power to capture and replicate muscles, bones, joints, fingers and skin. It refers to the creation of “fake people” that are “indistinguishable from real ones.” There is even reference to the development of a “photoreal male human” that the magazine was made privy to, but is otherwise still a secret. The piece concludes with the assurance that, given the funding, some maverick is going to finally find a way to duplicate reality.

After unearthing these cross connections, it’s interesting to re-examine the magazine’s cover. If you study it more closely, the portrait of Christopher Reeves and his wife is really bizarre. Reeves’ wife, Dana, is looking directly at the viewer, and appears quite life-like. On the other hand, Reeves — who almost everybody seeing this picture acutely realizes is newly dead — has a fixed stare and the waxy look of an automaton. Add in the fact that his profile (on page 50) identifies him not by his name but by the not-human, biologically reconfigured character of “Superman” (the film role he was most known for), and you can start to get a little confused as to who (or what) you’re looking at — not to mention, what we’re getting ourselves into with all this stem cell business.

Once you’ve taken it this far, the shot of Hanks in the upper corner starts to fit right in. It’s easier to see if you think of the cover like a movie poster. There’s Reeves, the star, as a disembodied, genetically-recombined ghost. And there’s Hanks, his co-star, playing the role of a mutation.

So, what is the feeling they’re trying to leave you with? Maybe Reeves is a warning, and Hanks knows something that he’s not telling.

Post By

Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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