February 27, 2008

Covering (And Covering) Afghanistan



Last June, I got into a vigorous and protracted email exchange with a NYT Magazine editor over a post I wrote critiquing one of their covers.  The fact I made their radar screen at all, I believe, is because the piece appeared on my “Reading The Pictures” Huffington Post blog and attracted a large number of comments.  (The post is still there, but the comments, for some reason, are not.)

Anyway, the editor had several objections to my analysis, but the most virulent one had to do with the allegation that I wasn’t dealing with the actual cover.

A little background:

If you’ve been into The BAG for a while, you know that I spent most of last year in Spain.  As such, the version of the NY Times I accessed daily and exclusively — just like many of you do now — was the NY Times On-Line.  What I failed to realize back then, however (until the proverbial shit hit the fan), was that the version of the NYT Magazine cover that the NYT publishes on its NY Magazine home page is only a replica of the actual print version.  For some reason, The Times chooses to publishes on-line only a select amount of the cover text from any given dead tree edition.  (To keep the semantics straight, by the way, the editor explained that the magazine cover on their website is actually a “photo illustration.”)

It was this discrepancy, then, which caused me to analyze the cover portrait of John Edwards (accompanying Matt Bai’s profile of Edwards as a poser-to-the-poor) as labeled with the large, bright yellow text: “INSIDE THE INCOME GAP,” without realizing that the slightly smaller headline: JOHN EDWARDS’S” (and still smaller) “WAR ON POVERTY” was also published just below his left shoulder.  (You can see links to both covers, and to my post — including at least one necessary, but several strongly recommended addendums — below.)

Why I bring all this up — besides the fact that the misunderstanding merited further examination at the time, and I never dealt with it — is because of the difference between the on-line and print versions of the magazine cover this past Sunday.  Why I think it is significant, even crucial, in this instance, is the significance, timeliness and treatment of the current subject matter, which, enhanced by Lynsey Addario’s powerful photos, involves the status of our war in Afghanistan.

Suffice it to say, without reading the voluminous, and yes, “Lord of the Fly-ish” article by Elizabeth Rubin, these two covers (or “actual cover” versus “photo illustration”) convey very different sensibilities.  Those of you who only consume the on-line version might have been confused to see Captain Kearney, a handsome, rather confident and also bad-ass looking U.S. soldier standing in contention with a rather puny title/footnote indicating he was possessive of a quagmire.  … And, if that was the end of it, I’d say we were looking pretty good.

On the other hand, if you happen to either subscribe to The Times, with Sunday included, like I do (now that I’m stateside, and also thoroughly aware that the on-line version is missin’ a whole lotta text), or if you shell out the $5 or so at the newsstand, you’ll observe that the print version, in all its textual glory, is profoundly more complicated, ambiguous and weird.

Framing up our Afghanistan campaign as a combination of Catch-22 and Heart of Darkness, the print cover not only rubs out two of Kearney’s charges as it speaks, but devolves into a deathly hip run-on piece of irreverence.  …And that (in a rapid-fire burst of both blunt and clichéd terms) being the whole of it, I’d say Kearney — both strategically, as well as morally — is looking profoundly lost.

(On the subject of different iterations of the same thing, by the way, I should point out that the sighting and subject matter of this NYT piece closely parallels the article, Into The Valley of Death in the January edition of Vanity Fair by Sebastian Unger, illustrated by the World Press winning photos of Tim Hetherington.

I mention this specifically because Hetherington’s winning images will be the subject of next Sunday’s first BAGnewSALON discussion forum, which I’ll preview in more detail later in the week.)

Battle Company Is Out There (NYT Mag Afghanistan cover story)

NYT Magazine Home Page

June 10, 2007
NYT Magazine John Edwards print cover

June 10, 2007
NYT Magazine John Edwards on-line “photo-illustration”

Reading The Pictures: Crippling John Edwards (June 15, 2007/Huffing-ton Post)

Into the Valley of Death (Sebastian Unger/January 08 Vanity Fair)

The Fight for the Korengal (VF
accompanying slide show — Tim Hetherington)

(image: Lynsey Adder for The New York Times.  2008. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan.  nytimes.com)

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Michael Shaw
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