September 16, 2008

Atlantic Mechanics: What Did the Atlantic Know and When Did It Know It?

[Illustration by Doug Ross Click to scare yourself.]

On Monday James Bennet, editor of The Atlantic, ate piping hot crow during his required ritual humiliation segment on Fox. [*Scroll down for video clip.] He did so as The Atlantic, in full-damage control mode, strove to underscore that The Atlantic did not know what it was getting when it hired Jill Greenberg to defraud Senator McCain. What he says makes a certain amount of sense -- "We didn't know the gun was loaded!" -- but not complete sense. Especially if you know a bit about how magazine issues are planned.

As a result, I'm not buying the Bennet/Atlantic line that the magazine did not know what they were getting. Indeed, his argument pretty much boils down to a plea of "Guilty -- but with an explanation." I can accept that Bennet himself may not have known about Greenberg's peculiar political pretensions. (Note that he is careful to use "I" throughout the clip below -- as in "I have not had any correspondence with her..."), but Jason Treat, the art director of The Atlantic must have known. And it is Treat that's probably in the hot seat at the present time.

Jill Greenberg's politics and style are well-known to any one who pays attention to the work of "editorial" photographers. They are especially well-known to the art directors of magazines since it is their job to know. It is a very small world.

A couple of years back, the Jill "Crying Babies" Greenberg story was news throughout the infosphere, the media, the television, and the magazines. Her psychoabuse of children for political anti-Bush motives was a scandal that reached international levels. If she was known for anything, she was known for that. Atlantic art director Jason Treat almost certainly knew about Greenberg then, or, if not, was certain to have come across it when assigning. Art Directors typically review portfolios of photographers before assigning them for the first time. In any event, for The Atlantic's purposes, Greenberg's political leanings were not a bug but a feature. A unique selling point.

Treat also knew, from the mere fact of working within The Atlantic, and most likely from editorial meetings with Bennet and Jeffery Goldberg, the in-house author of the McCain article, what the tone and slant of the cover story would be, and what sort of cover image was likely to be approved. It simply does not happen that an art director gets an email from an editor that says, "Cover article on John McCain. Please assign and ship the result direct to the printer." Does. Not. Happen.

How do I know? Well, between City Magazine, Penthouse Magazine, Viva Magazine, Omni Magazine and Houghton Mifflin books, I estimate that I've had a hand in putting over 100 books and around 200 issues of various magazines together. In the course of this "career" I've been an owner, executive editor, managing editor, senior editor, fashion editor, copy-writer, ad sales manager, and publisher. And while I know you can put out a magazine without a lot of money, you can't do it without a lot of meetings.

Magazine creation requires a lot of meetings, formal and informal. Unlike books which can be published with a staff as small as one, major monthly magazines are complicated, rapidly changing beasts that require a lot of collaboration, communication, and - sadly - meetings. There's a lot of co-ordination between art and editorial and, if possible, any "creative asset" is given either a copy of the article's text, or a detailed summary.

This may or may not have been the case with the Greenberg assignment. Artists and photographers can have reading comprehension issues. At a bare minimum there would have been an exchange of emails or phone calls between Jason Treat and Jill Greenberg to reach an understanding of what the magazine was looking for in terms of tone and slant. You don't leave your cover photographer clueless, even if she is by both birth and breeding.

This practice -- art directors being told how to slant an image -- is common in magazines, and art directors listen carefully in order to assign a person most likely to win the editor's and publisher's approval. If they don't come up with such an image they risk having to do the job over with much less time, and a lot more expense. It's important to get the art the way the magazine wants it the first time out. It is even more important when it comes to the cover image. What you are looking for in a cover image is, first and foremost, impact. If it jibes with the content of the story, fine, but if not impact will do just as well... even better.

Impact in a cover image - the kind of quality that either arrests the eye as in the classic Esquire covers of George Lois, or confirms the bias of the target demographic -- is essential for making news stand sales pop. Magazines like to get as many news stand sales as possible. It is these sales, and not subscriptions, that the magazines' ad sales reps use to persuade advertisers that the publication has juice. After all, if you can't judge a magazine by its cover, what reason do you have for picking it up off the news stand? A magazine with a bland cover that is not picked up by a human hand has exactly zero chance of being sold.

As a consequence, the cover is the single most important page of a magazine. A lot of work and thought and effort goes into conceptualizing, assigning and designing a cover, and whether or not it is fair or "artistic" are the least of the factors considered. What you are looking for here is "pop."

When it comes to covers, art directors generally are utterly under the control of the editorial and, especially, the publishing arms of the magazine. An interior illustration may be "owned" by the art director in concert with the editor, but the cover is "owned" by the business arm of the magazine first and foremost.

The editor may be the person who constructs the cover - illustration + coverlines -- but it is customary for the publisher/owner of the magazine to sign off on it before it goes to press. It's no accident that The Atlantic McCain cover builders put "Porn and Adultry" in a bright red slash on the upper left hand corner of the cover. It was a kind of insurance in case, as is often the situation with low circulation magazines like The Atlantic, the rest of the cover is covered by other magazines. If that happens, you've got "Porn" to fall back on. The fact that it also gives a bit of a dig to McCain is just icing on the cake for the Obama-tanked Atlantic.

This last factor, Obama-tanking, also comes into play when assigning a John McCain cover. In general, The Atlantic has not had a balanced editorial viewpoint since the departure and subsequent death of the great Michael Kelly. In addition, when the Atlantic was sold by Mort Zuckerman, who'd hoped at one time it would gain him a Clinton cabinet position, to the current owner, David G. Bradley, it was soon relocated from Boston to D.C. as part of Bradley's political toy collection. It was sold for around $9 million and currently loses, it is thought, between $3 million and $5 million annually. This, however, does not concern Bradley all that much since he is thought to be worth north of $300 million and recently spent $13 million on his house. For Bradley, the wampum he loses on The Atlantic is a mere bag-o-shells.

The prestige and influence of the 150 year old magazine, however, are very important to Bradley. Although he made his pile from lesser and more mundane info-products, Bradley, from all reports, has a lot of intellectual power along with the yearning to leave a mark on his time. In addition, Bradley and his wife are known to be staunch supporters of the Democrat party -- and once you have a few hundred million you become more interested in power than in money. If you can own and operate The Atlantic in DC, you've got, as they say, a chip in the game. As a result, Obama has been getting the standard cushy ride from all aboard at The Atlantic that wish to stay aboard this particular plutocrat's gravy train.

It would not do for a McCain cover to be, well, too pretty. Indeed, this sort of thing would be so well-known to those that work for Bradley that I doubt he would even have to mention it. All you have to do with those of great wealth is to please them, and people in general have a great sense of how to do that when their jobs, increases, and bonuses are on the line. That and the swell parties. Filthy rich publishers do not for an influence-free editorial staff make. Trust me on this one.

The result is quite evident with even a brief glance at the two covers side by side:


If you imported a reasonable person who had been kept in strict isolation for the last 10 years and asked him which one of these two cover subjects the editors loved, I think you can guess his answer.

On the left we have that patented O-doe-eyed expression coupled with the dreamy sort of effect we've come to expect when an O-tanked publication does its duty to "The One." The Atlantic's variation on this religious theme is especially inspiring since it embodies both the siren song of the diversity dream, and E Pluribus Obamum ("Out of Many, The One).

We also note, more in sorrow than in anger, that the story is written by The Atlantic's foremost in-house Obama acolyte and rollicking sidekick, Andrew Sullivan. Indeed, Sullivan's public fawning over Obama has become so intense as to be palpably moist. Just the sort of "critical" mindset you'd want to bring in for a fair and balanced assessment.

The promise, big promise, of the O-cover is to explain to the converted, once again, "Why Obama Matters." I shall leave it to history to really answer that one. I only note here that it contrasts rather starkly with The Atlantic's treatment of Senator McCain.

McCain, as you can plainly see, is up for rougher handling by The Atlantic. Plainly stated, they should have just run the coverline,

Adulterous Warmonger! Will Kill Your Children and Your Little Dog Too!

It would have had, at least, the value of honesty. And more impact too. Indeed, it would have won the art director a golden pencil from his peers, and joined the pantheon of memorable magazine covers right next to National Lampoon's immortal "Buy This Magazine or We Shoot the Dog." Treat would have been made for life.

Another, more subtle part of the dueling cover game here, is the inclusion of the word "Why" in both major coverlines. Delete "Why" from both and you wind up with "Obama Matters" vs. "War Is His Answer." This will be lost on most readers of the magazine, but will be the subject of no little humor amongst the staff, and highly approved of by the owner. They probably will blow them up and hang them in the reception area like trophies, after sending Bradley a set in a frame.

It sounds silly and it is. Still, the most persistent problem common to all monthlies is that they are invariably over-produced and over-thought. Too much grinding on what is already granulated inevitably leads to a dullness that always dims the finished issue. First thought, best thought never enters into it, or if it does it is hunted down and killed by the abominable no-men of the magazine.

You'll also note that the McCain cover makes a claim for that rarest of all journalistic abilities, telepathy. If Jeffrey Goldberg can really get inside the mind of Senator McCain, just think what his sex life must be. Indeed, should McCain be elected, the Goldberg should be wary of accepting any invitations to Russia or the Middle East.

In the end, it doesn't matter, though, since what is important here is not that greater insight is brought to the matter of the McCain who would be President. What really matters is that the cover 1) confirms to those that love Obama that McCain is an evil old man, 2) makes the editors feel a frisson from sticking it to Republicans, and 3) -- most important -- that they all get a pat on the head and a fat year-end check from David Bradley.

Mission accomplished, I'd say.... Until, of course, their photog went rogue.

I can't know precisely what sort of advance schedule The Atlantic operates on, but I do know that any monthly magazine issue has to be planned and in production in part at least 3 months before its onsale date. Jason Treat had at the least a couple of months to find, assign, and schedule Jill Greenberg and Senator McCain for a photo shoot. It's not that easy getting such schedules to mesh, and once it was done it would have been impossible to reschedule. Hence, I must reasonably assume that Treat and Bennet were pretty confident that Greenberg would deliver a suitable image with only a nudge and a wink. That she went beyond that might have blindsided them and upset them, but they knew she'd also give them the goods.

Which she did. Which is why they can say they "stand by their cover." In the end, Greenberg gave them exactly what they wanted in the first place.

What did The Atlantic know and when did it know it? It knew it all along. Jill had them at hello.

James Bennet's turn in the barrel.

Posted by Vanderleun at September 16, 2008 7:06 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

"Blessed is the man, who having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact."
George Eliot

Posted by: Vanderoldman at September 17, 2008 8:05 AM

Picture perfect. I work in the field of advertising, and the funk of left-wing miasma permeating the atmosphere is nearly suffocating. People in this business of commercial art know perfectly well what side they are on. The dreary, predictable uniformity of opinion and taste is so bad that I can even forecast the simple things that these people use to furnish the miserable spaces of their minds. Here, in LA, there is only one radio station playing in the offices, KCRW, the NPR affiliate. TV shows? If you want to talk about Jon Stewart, everyone can tell you what was on last night. Magazines? Free copies of the New Yorker from the media department, and sometimes Maxim if it's a guy in question. I have worked in many dozens of advertising agencies, and I have never, not once, seen a clipping or button or poster for a Republican campaign. I've seen lots of photoshops of Bush as Hitler, chimp, etc. I have seen very large posters of Che. And lately, especially in two agencies, I have seen Obastard's material everywhere. One tool of an art directing drone even has one of the Hope posters, a giant one, nearly six feet tall.

The point is that with a magazine as clearly political in nature as the Atlantic, the intersection of its ideology and its art department cannot help but produce a miscarriage like Greenberg. They knew precisely who they were hiring, and anyone, including Bennett, who says otherwise, is a flat, reeking liar.

Posted by: Faraday Cage at September 18, 2008 8:28 AM

"Why", the word they secretly ignore, really is the important word. As in, "Why do they feel the need to tinker with an election this way?"

Are their ideas so shallow, their cause so lost, that they may only hope to win by means of ceaseless shenanigans, cover manipulations, and slanted coverage?

Why, as in: "Why are they so selfish, that they place their own decision of who should be our next President, over the peoples right to choose?"

The final question, though is "Why are they so ignorant that they have failed to notice that the game has changed?"

Drudge Report, FOXNews, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, the "Great One" Mark Levin, and last but certainly not least: "Rick N' Bubba." Also, FreeRepublic, RedState, American Digest, & so on. The information gap has been filled.

They continue to proceed as if this election were being held in 1988, or 1992. Hello? Atlantic? Its the year 2008!

We are on to them. We are watching like a hawk. Americans have people guarding this Republic from propaganda with innocuous sounding brigades such as the "Pajama Patrol" but don't be fooled by the name. Those Mom's & Dads in pajama's have outed many a fool scheme.

Today, this brand of photographic and propaganda nonsense will sink Obama, not help him. It will also sink a few magazines and newspapers along the way. Subscriptions are falling.

Posted by: Joe (1-Eagle) at September 20, 2008 5:01 PM

we watch we listen and we judge

Posted by: at September 22, 2008 9:54 PM

we watch we listen and we judge

Posted by: thePeople at September 22, 2008 9:55 PM