Commentary

Magazines Still Stir Controversy -- But For All The Wrong Reasons

Every editor knows that buzz -- and its cousin, scandal -- are key to magazine publicity. It’s satisfying to see tongues start wagging over revealing stories, finely crafted photo shoots or trenchant analysis of current events.

It’s far less satisfying to become the subject of stories, as editors of People, Memphis magazine and Australia’s Who magazine likely have discovered in the past week. Each magazine has committed a gaffe that led to a backlash.

People  faced criticism for publishing an online story about a swimsuit worn by Kim Kardashian during a recent trip to the Bahamas -- just as deadly Hurricane Dorian was ripping the island nation in half.

Headlined “Kim Kardashian Flaunts Her 24-Inch Waist In A Sexy Metallic One Piece On Bahamas Vacation,” the story showed pictures that the reality TV star posted to her Instagram account over the weekend.

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Reactions to People’s story were mostly negative on Twitter, as people described the magazine as “tone deaf,” “incredibly inappropriate,” “ill-timed” and “insensitive.” People magazine declined to comment.

The pub later changed the headline to read, “Kim Kardashian Shares Bikini Photo from Her Bahamas Vacation Ahead of Deadly Hurricane.”

In other words, Kardashian should be commended as a hero and exemplar of feminine courage for bravely flaunting her curves as a catastrophic hurricane bore down on her island refuge.

Further up the scale of negative publicity was Memphis magazine, a regional monthly with 60,000 readers.

Memphis withdrew its September issue and apologized for being racially insensitive following a barrage of criticism from readers, community leaders and politicians. Its cover story, coyly headlined “The Race for Mayor,” depicted caricatures of three mayoral candidates that evoked hurtful imagery from Tennessee’s slave-owning and segregationist past.

Most offensive was the cartoonish portrayal of Tami Sawyer, a county commissioner and activist who would be the first woman mayor of Memphis if she wins the Oct. 3 election.

The magazine’s editorial team apologized for the cover art in an op-ed that mentioned the history of political caricature. That statement was inadequate, according to Anna Traverse, CEO of Memphis magazine’s parent company, Contemporary Media Inc.

“We published a magazine whose cover image was taken, justifiably, as playing into a long history of racist, demeaning tropes, a history of marginalizing African-American women in particular,” Travers wrote in an op-ed titled “We Failed Memphis.”

Who magazine, a celebrity and entertainment weekly published by Pacific Magazines, didn’t help race relations with a recent story about 19-year-old supermodel Adut Akech. The magazine’s story instead featured the picture of another black woman, model Flavia Lazarus.

Akech may not be a household name like models Cindy Crawford or Naomi Campbell, but that doesn’t excuse Who’s editors, who should have known better after commissioning a feature article about the budding star.

Akech appears on the cover of five different editions of Vogue this month -- Australia, Italy, Japan, Germany and U.K. -- and Time magazine named her one of the most influential teenagers of the year in 2018.

Who also issued an apology while explaining that a PR agency supplied the magazine with the wrong photograph after setting up the interview.

Getting thrown under the bus is routine for flacks, and in this case, Who’s editors were right to apologize.

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