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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.

  • weisseharre


  • arty

    Just remember that you’re talking about the NYTimes Magazine, a private fiefdom within the newspaper. The magazine’s attitude seems to be “Anything we say or print is perfectly fine because we make a ton of money for the company.”
    And the newspaper itself, all the way up to Keller, seems to be “They make a ton of money for us so everything they say or print is fine.”
    Readers frequently complain about the use and abuse of photographs and their sometimes tenuous connection to fact, and it never sticks because no one in charge cares. It’s like Bushland, where no one is ever responsible, let alone guilty, when it comes to mistakes or errors in editorial judgement.
    Buzz rules the magazine, and buzz sells expensive ads. Back in the early 80’s, a popular graffiti in Lower Manhattan was “Die Yuppie Scum.” Well, those yuppies grew up, and now they’re the desired demographic of the magazine.
    The implied truth of a Lexus or Mercedes ad certainly trumps that of an actual news photo. The first is, for both editors and readers, a necessity; the latter is just filler.

  • black dog barking

    When you run a paper-inking factory like the New York Times you’ve probably been having recurring internet-related nightmares for years. Your economic model based on central production and a massive time-sensitive distribution network is, frankly, obsolete. All internet copies are effectively free, as is instantaneous world-wide distribution. Dinosaur, meet mammal.
    Comparing the online and print versions of the same NYT story shows a print-based thumb on the visual quality of experience scale. Print-based looks like the superior product even if the ASCII word content of the underlying article is identical. The more elaborate masthead title banner visually argues that the bottom product is superior. Its [tag cloud]-like text swatches reach out to the viewer, promise good times inside. Buy! Me! (Not that internet version.)
    The other big difference between the two is the blue-less-ness of the bottom image. Comparing a local white area from each pic, the tag on Capt Kearney’s helmet, one finds approximate RGB values of 15-14-13 in the top images versus 14-13-8 in the bottom. In RGB terms, dropping blue in relation to Red and Green produces oranges and yellows, the hues of those sunset / sunrise shots we see in movies so often. Visually more interesting, more exciting.

  • gasho

    The words in the print edition really heap on the “oh crap” feeling, whereas the picture alone is just a (well composed and complex) picture of a soldier.
    I want to take a second to thank you for highlighting these elements in our media that would otherwise go unnoticed. I also want to let you know that the BAGging doesn’t stop after the browser window is closed. I’ve been reading the Bag now for years and my mind is constantly searching the visual environment for a ‘new read’ in many many things I see during the day. Doing photography can do a similar thing to the mind… you see more. Focusing on the media and politics in this way has been a REAL eye opener for me. I’ve become extremely critical (if not savvy) about any images, juxtapositions, headlines, captions, graffiti and on and on…

  • Cactus

    blackdog: Once again, nail on the head. I thought the color shift was due to TheBag copying the print cover. So not only does the print copy hide the other men in the ‘hole’ but further de-emphasizes his stark reality with the color shift. So are we supposed to have the warm fuzzies for the good Capt. by this shift and the lead words, “I feel like Dr. Phil” (TV’s huggy bear) when in reality his situation, and that of his crew are cold, dangerous and, according to the ‘fine print’ on the cover, horrific?
    So what are we to infer from these two about the intended audiences? Is the Sunday morning ham’n'eggs version more palatable for the relaxed audience? Or is it simply that the online version just isn’t that important because they know the online readers aren’t going to be buying a Rolex or Lexus very soon?

  • mcc

    Cactus: Or maybe the first was just their attempts to make the image look reasonable on a computer monitor, and the resulting changes in apparent message were a coincidence and/or byproduct of the fact that whoever did the web conversion wasn’t consciously taking visual communication into account? Both the color correction and the teensy anti-aliased text from the print cover look pretty questionable on a computer screen, especially at 400×543.

  • Astrogall

    I read the original article before seeing the cover. More than anything it reminded me of Vietnam reporting. The words on the cover give off a similar spaced out sixties free form association vibe.

  • Astrogall

    And once that’s in my mind I notice the green in the combat uniform and the dark background which could be jungle rather than the brown deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan. The strident words and their different fonts encourage the idea of this being the cover of ‘Rolling Stone’ circa 1969.

  • Dr Faustroll

    Yeah, but at least the surge is working. I just read that after the drawdown, we’ll have between 5 and 10 more reverse targets of opportunity spreading freedomocracy over there then when we asked to give it a chance to work. By the time John McCain completes his first 100 days, we can probably expect troops levels to starting to get to pre-Tet-offensive levels, just with a volunteer force! Imagine that! Oh NOMF™ that has such ignint essos in it.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    the cover on a print magazine is an advertisement for its content.
    the image of a magazine cover ‘on a website’ is neither an advertisement, nor a container.
    (“rtbag” has here on the BAG not-really-A-bag written extensively about this distinction :)

  • Toe Tag

    Rubin’s piece doesn’t parallel Sebastian Junger’s piece in Vanity Fair—she seems to have picked up where Junger left off. Junger’s piece has an afterword that refers to casualties that occurred after he’d left Battle Company, and the same casualties are mentioned in Rubin’s piece. Captain Kearney must be weary of having all those journos hanging around his unit by now.

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