September 29, 2006

With Deep Apologies To Susan Sontag


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Oh, if this story was only about Afghanistan….

Many of you emailed me about Newsweek ditching the "Losing Afghanistan" cover on this week’s American edition.  Most also directed me to the incriminating screen shot from Newsweek’s site juxtaposing the cover image for three continents with the one for the U.S.

As to the Afghan downgrade specifically, I have little to add to the excellent American Journalism Review piece discussing how "the real 9/11 war" has been neglected by American media (and domestic magazine covers).  What wasn’t much examined in all this, however, was the state-side cover (and cover story) Newsweek ran instead.

I found it incredibly revealing that Newsweek would torpedo the Afghanistan story in favor of a profile of star photographer, Annie Leibovitz.  What it signifies, in a larger sense, is how political reporting (far beyond Newsweek) has become obsessed with form.

In a BAG discussion thread the other day, a commenter writes:

When is this "Show" going to be over? When is our President his administration, our Senators and Congress people going to quit putting on this subliminal show for us and start actually doing something of substance. Something that means something, something that gets something done, something that actually changes something for the better. When are they going to get on the ball and start to actually fix the things that have gone wrong instead of depending on only shaping public opinion through visual displays and word manipulation?

Of course, human nature being what it is, politics (and political media) has always been concerned with personality, posturing, attraction.  At what other time, however — in the midst of so much contention and conflagration, so much blood and so many flames — have our leaders (with our media chained behind) been so preoccupied with the picture, picture making and, even, the picture maker?

But then, looking further into this Newsweek cover/cover story, I’m sorry to say that the picture gets even uglier.

Why, exactly, did Newsweek forsake the Afghanistan story?  As marketing carny (and International Editor) Fareed Zakaria explained to the International Herald Tribune:  "In the U.S., Newsweek is a mass-circulation magazine with a broad reach, while overseas it ‘is a somewhat more upmarket magazine for internationally minded people who travel a lot’ …."  Accordingly, Newsweek switched out the cover because the magazine was able to negotiate an exclusive right to publicize Leibovitz’s new book.

Granted, the publishing of this album might be a worthy cultural event.  Under impoverished current terms, it might even be justified as a noteworthy political story.  That being possible, however, somebody should (and I refuse to understand why no one did) consider the primary hook of the Leibovitz story (along with the way Newsweek marketed that hook).

If anyone in contemporary American criticism achieved sanctity for intellectual seriousness, respect for culture from "hi to low," and the ability to preserve one’s dignity and privacy as an American icon, it was Susan Sontag.  Further, if anyone cultivated more attention and regard for the art and practice of contemporary documentary photography and photojournalism, it was also Susan Sontag.

More shame, then, to Leibovitz, Newsweek and Random House for trading on Sontag’s privacy, memory and, in a fantastically disturbing act of irony, Sontag’s own image, to whore this magazine.

Give me Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore (in the "Unforgettable Celebrity Shots" photo gallery to the right of the on-line article).  Give me Nelson Mandela and even that (rather good) portrait of a justifiably suspicious Bush cabal.  Give me the political shots of Sarajevo (which, juxtaposed with the celebrity pics, seem more like portfolio filler).  I’ll even take the shots of Leibovitz’s family, which — given who and what she is — are thoroughly uninteresting.

But my god, don’t give me this press release in which Leibovitz gushes on about the intimate details of her relationship with Sontag.  And certainly, certainly, certainly do not use the 22nd shot of a 22 image photo gallery for a perverse grand finale, and to brag how you chose the dress ("a favorite bought in Milan") that Sontag wore the day after she died, which (and I don’t blame readers for avoiding the upcoming link) you used to turn this revered figure into Newsweek necro-porn.

(cover images: Newsweek Cover.  October 2, 2006.  linked image: Annie Leibovitz.  New York, December 29, 2004)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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