There's a funny female media war going on today. Even some liberal feminists are accusing Newsweek/Daily Beast editor Tina Brown of sexism in choosing a magazine cover shot that makes Michele Bachmann look like a crazed zealot. Arianna Huffington herself hasn't weighed in, but her website did, suggesting that Huffington's close friend Brown's photo choice "crosses a line" and diminishes Bachmann. National Organization for Women president Terry O'Neill flat out called it "sexist," suggesting we use Gloria Steinem's sexism test -- would a man be treated this way? -- and concluding, "Surely this has never been done to a man."
Today Brown struck back at the HuffPost and NOW criticism by releasing some outtakes that she seems to think will prove that Newsweek merely chose a representative, newsworthy shot. "Michele Bachmann’s intensity is galvanizing voters in Iowa right now and Newsweek’s cover captures that," Brown said in the Daily Beast.
Brown's a little bit off there – but so are her feminist critics.
First of all, releasing nine outtakes is laughable; Newsweek likely had hundreds to choose from. More relevant: There are actually shots in those nine outtakes that don't make Bachmann look crazy. If you liked Bachmann, or wanted to show the way she connects with voters, you might pick the one where she's clasping the hand of an elderly man. She looks kind of sweet, if a little overcaffeinated, not menacing.
But the bigger issue is: Brown has nothing to apologize for. Newsweek picked a striking photo that distilled Bachmann to her newsworthy essence. It's also simply true that Bachmann does something very interesting with her eyes when there's a camera in her sights. Sometimes she's looking at something off camera, as she did when she delivered the Tea Party rebuttal to the State of the Union, which makes her seem distracted and/or demented. Often she just keeps them open impossibly wide and unblinking, which led Chris Matthews to ask her memorably if she was hypnotized on Election Night 2010.
Is the shot sexist? I'm on record saying that the pre-Brown Newsweek cover featuring a fetching Sarah Palin in her running shorts was sexist. This one was not. I don't agree with O'Neill's claim that no man would ever be depicted that way: You can find plenty of shots of a deranged-looking George W. Bush and John McCain, and on the Democratic Party side, Howard Dean. Check out this Media Bistro piece from 2006, noticing crazy-scary cover photos of Al Gore and Sen. Mark Warner in New York, Wired and the New York Times Magazine.
The Newsweek cover was well within the bounds of what most editors would consider a striking, newsworthy photo. Especially since it came on the day that the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza exposed just how extreme Bachmann's beliefs are. I was most blown away by the way one of her "must-read" books defended slavery: as a kindness that rescued Africans from "savagery" and made them Christians, but also as an institution that developed "mutual respect" between slave and slave owner, likewise thanks to Christianity.
The Newsweek cover captures Bachmann in all of her self-righteous fanaticism. Brown has nothing to apologize for.