Obama on the Cover
Cover Portrayal of the 2008 Campaign
By Eric M.
Action – initial draft Dec. 2008; last revised and updated October 28,
|An illustration or a photograph and a few
carefully chosen words designed to catch your eye, pique your curiosity
hopefully get you to stop, pick up a copy and buy it--this is what a
cover can do. By the time a weekly
magazine hits the newsstands or arrives in the mail, a whole week’s
events has passed by. Accordingly,
magazines must seek to provide something different than the daily
by highlighting broader themes and currents.
Even if the cover doesn’t cause us to stop and buy a copy of the
magazine, we may view it in the newsstand window as we rush by in the
to catch the Metro and again in the evening as we head for home.
Copies of magazines may grace our living room
tables or office reception areas for weeks or even months, thereby
our impressions of the individuals and events depicted.
Introduction and Methodology
non-scientific but fairly
intense survey of how major U.S.
news, opinion, general interest and more specialized magazines
portrayed the 2008 presidential campaign and candidates on their
covers, based on frequent visits to local
news agents here in Washington,
DC as well as close attention
to the web. The survey does not include every single
cover issued. Two
newsmagazines not included in this survey are The Week and Newsmax
(this omission is an artifact from the 2000 and 2004 studies which also
did not consider
those magazines). Text-only covers are not included; covers must
have some graphic elements to be considered. Also not considered
are instances where a candidate or the campaign is shown in a secondary
position on the cover, for example in the upper left corner or in a
strip across the top. To present a broader picture, a number of
magazines from overseas are also considered.
It is important to emphasize that the survey covers a
broad swath of magazines. An opinion magazine has a different
than a news magazine which in turn has a different audience than a
celebrity magazine. For some magazines, newsstand sales are
significant and for others and for others minor or negligible.1
The publicity director for one opinion magazine wrote in an e-mail
sales are small. The size of your enterprise and corporate
relationships between newsstands and publishers matter more than the
covers ... We have to fight through a Conde Nast haze to get our issues
in a good place."
Likewise the covers encompass many different media. There are
portraits by top photographers such as
Annie Liebovitz, Platon and Nigel Parry; news photographs; photo
illustrations which manipulate a photograph or photographs using
Photoshop or other means; and
straight illustrations by well and lesser known artists. Some
magazines frequently feature works by a particular illustrator as for
example Roman Genn for National
Review or Krieg
Barrie for World. Some
of the more interesting covers are highly conceptual; for example Newsweek's
May 5, 2008 "Obama's Bubba Gap" cover showed arugula and beer as
symbols of Obama and Clinton.
National Journal tends to do a
fair number of conceptual covers as well.
are referred to by (and listed in
rough chronological order based on) cover issue dates.
Keep in mind that magazines typically come
out earlier than the date on the cover; for a bi-weekly magazine
will have to calculate two weeks back to figure out when it first
appeared; monthlies usually come out in the later part of the preceding
month (i.e. Sept. 2008 cover date likely means the magazine first
appeared in the latter part of August).2
defined as those featuring Obama, Obama and his family, Obama and
members of his team or his running mate, Obama other
who are not competing candidates, and representations of Obama (for
the Obama logo). The same applies to
covers," "Palin covers" and so forth. This definition is used
even if a cover was dominated by one candidate and the other candidate
or candidates are in minor roles. Covers with
multiple candidates of both parties, multiple Democratic candidates,
Republican candidates, and general election matchup covers are grouped
editorial cartoon by Michael Ramirez shows four people waiting at a bus
stop. The first states, "President
Bush is not on the list of 100 most influential people in the
The second person says, "Neither is Time
Magazine." The third person chimes in,
"Is Time Magazine still in
business?" And the fourth says, "What's Time
organizations faced difficult times in 2008 and indeed in recent
there were frequent reports of downsizing, layoffs and buyouts.
With its March 19, 2007 issue The
switched from a
weekly to a bi-weekly. In June 2008 U.S.
& World Report announced that it
would go to a bi-weekly starting in Jan.
by Nov. 2008 that plan had changed from bi-weekly to monthly. At
the very least these examples show one consequence of the economic
difficulties facing the industry may be fewer covers. Newsweek announced on March 31,
2008 that 111 staffers in New York City had accepted a buyout, and in
Dec. 2008, the Wall Street Journal
reported the magazine was planning staff cuts and "a major makeover"
that will lead to a slimmer magazine. The Magazine Publishers of
Rate Card Revenue & Pages figures
for the 3rd quarter of 2008 showed declines for perhaps 90-percent of
magazines compared to the same period in 2007. In its Nov. 23,
2008 issue the newsletter Harrington’s
(www.nscopy.com) reported that, “The
half of 2008 was the worst for newsstand sales in at least five years,
period of relative stable performance… Virtually
at every level of the distribution system, leaders have acknowledged
third quarter was, if anything, even more discouraging.”
In terms of numbers of covers, Hillary Clinton was the clear
winner of the pre-primary period, appearing on at least 30 covers of
domestic magazines in 2005-07. By comparison, Obama appeared in
25 covers during this period. All told 40 Clinton covers were
found; Bill Clinton appeared on eight of those. Looking at the 20
covers with multiple Democrats, Clinton appeared on all of
them. Some of the early
covers clearly showed Clinton as the frontrunner. For example, The New Republic's Nov. 21, 2005
issue showed Sen. Russ Feingold as "The Hillary Slayer," the New York Times Magazine's March 12, 2006 issue had former Gov. Mark
Warner as the Anti-Hillary3, and New York's May 29, 2006 issue
presented former Vice President Al Gore as "The Un-Hillary." (Interestingly none of those three
individuals ran). In its Jan. 1, 2007
issue Newsweek had already
narrowed the contest down to a two-person race, Clinton vs. Obama ("The
Race is On").
Nine covers were found featuring other Democratic
candidates, of which seven showed John Edwards. Other covers
featured Democrats who did not get in the race including former Gore,
Warner, Feingold and Sen. John Kerry. The protracted
Obama-Clinton race generated a number of creative covers including Newsweek's arugula-beer cover. The
Republic's April 9, 2008 issue ("We Have to Choose One")
showed an ambiguous figure created by morphing Clinton and Obama.
Time's May 8, 2008 issue
("There Can Only Be One") tackled the same theme with a split photo
approach inspired by a 2008 NBA Playoffs ad campaign.
Among Republican primary candidates there was a fairly wide
distribution. Through the end of Feb. 2008 23 McCain covers were
found. There were 18 Giuliani covers, 13 Romney, eight Huckabee,
six Fred Thompson, three Brownback and one Hunter. Despite his
very vocal and active supporters, Ron Paul apparently did not manage
any solo appearances on magazine covers; the closest to a Paul cover
was the June 18, 2007 issue of the American
Conservative ("The Ron Paul Moment") which showed Paul and
Giuliani. Among those mentioned as presidential prospects then
Sen. George Allen, Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Bill Frist, former House Speaker
Newt Gingrich, Sen. Chuck Hagel and Gov. George Pataki made
covers. Giuliani seemed to attract negative covers from all
sides. The National Review
's Aug. 7, 2006 issue (But Will It Play in Peoria?) featured a photo of
Giuliani in drag, New York's
March 5, 2007 used an extreme close up of Giuliani and asked simply
"Him?," Harper's Aug. 2007
issue had a Steve Brodner illustration and the title "A Fate Worse than
Bush," and the American Conservative's
14, 2008 issue ("I, Rudy") showed him in fascist apparel.
From late 2006 to late 2007 the possibility of a campaign by New
York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg generated four covers.
2006 to Election Day, this survey
found just over one hundred Obama covers on U.S. magazines.4 Obama
was also shown in the majority of the
21 covers found in the pre-primary and primary period featuring
Democratic and Republican candidates, and he was on all but the
earliest of the
featuring multiple Democratic primary candidates. The Nov. 2008 issue
Single Copy cited above reported, “In
terms of sales, the celebrity category, which had lost some of the buzz
past five years, was looking at phenomenal sales for current issues
featuring the United States President-elect, Barack Obama.”
election dozens more Obama covers appeared.
Obama had three early
appearances coinciding with his election to the U.S. Senate. The
first national magazine cover was the October 2004 issue of Black Enterprise featuring a
photograph by Brent Jones and the
headline "The Next Big Thing in
Politics - Barack!" He was on Washington
November 2004 issue in a Fred Harper illustration with the headline
"The Great Black Hope,"
sub-titled "What's Riding on Barack Obama?" Newsweek
weighed in with another early cover featuring Obama on its Dec. 27,
2004-Jan. 1, 2005 “Who’s Next” issue (headline “Seeing Purple”).
McCain had appeared on many
covers during the course of his career, including several dozen during
for the 2000 Republican nomination. In
2005 and 2006 McCain was seen as a probable 2008 presidential candidate
in the thick of debate on a number of issues and he naturally made a
covers. From June 2005 to Election Day,
this survey found just over fifty McCain covers on U.S.
magazines. The survey found only eight covers featuring
multiple Republican primary candidates, and McCain was included in four
of those. In addition to the McCain
covers, in September and October 2008 there were 12 Palin covers
zero Biden covers).
The survey found 32 Obama vs.
general election covers. Additionally, a couple of covers from
March and April
had McCain, Obama and Clinton. The first to show the head to head
match-up appears to have been the June 2008 issue of Reason ("The Cult of the Presidency"). The general election
is a point in the process
where some of the more specialized magazines tend to put the campaign
on the cover; examples include Nature, E, and Christianity Today. The most
common approach for the general election covers is to run head shots of
the two candidates. Distinctive covers included New York's Sept. 15, 2008 cover
Barracuda" which had a photo illustration of the presidential and vice
presidential candidates and assorted others and the New Yorker's Oct. 27, 2008 issue
which featured a Richard McGuire illustration of Obama, McCain, Biden
and Palin fighting. Only one cover
featured a third party or independent candidate, Reason’s Nov. 2008 issue “Bob Barr
Analysis: Explaining the Imbalance
The survey found significantly
covers featuring Obama than McCain.
Much has been written about media
favoritism towards Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential
One factor which helps
the numerical imbalance in Obama and McCain covers is the different
paths of the Democratic and
primary contests. The McCain campaign went through the period of
near collapse in July 2007, which could
fewer cover appearances, and he then went on to effectively wrap up the
nomination in February. Meanwhile the protracted and closely
primaries continued for months, creating more opportunities for
magazines to do
Obama covers. The fact that more than twice as many covers
were found featuring multiple Democratic candidates as
multiple Republican candidates underscores this point.
possible explanation is the fact that placing a celebrity on the cover
may help sell magazines. Given the diverse magazines considered
in this survey it is important not to compare Obama fit the celebrity
description while McCain had already “been around the block” once
before. The phenomenon of so many Palin covers appearing
in such a short time tends to support the celebrity theory. One
could argue that there was not an ideological bias so much as a
The star quality of
historical nature of his candidacy very likely did cause some magazines
on the cover while McCain did not make the cut. Most obviously,
magazines geared to an African
American audience, including Black
Enterprise, Ebony, Essence, Jet and Vibe went 100
percent with Obama. Anecdotal observations also support the
of favoritism towards
Obama. For example, Betsy Newmark, an AP history and
government teacher in Raleigh, NC, wrote about Newsweek in a May 29, 2008 posting
on her “Betsy’s Page” blog: “No
other person has been on the cover in the past year and a half as many
Obama. In the past few months, he's
appeared on the cover about once a month and there have been Obama
stories three times since May 5. Aren't
they embarrassed by their favoritism?” Indeed a review for the
entire campaign shows Newsweek
ran eight Obama covers compared to four McCain covers and two Palin
covers. Time ran seven
Obama covers, two McCain covers and one Palin cover. These are
fairly shocking numbers. A number of general
interest magazines such as Men’s
and Men’s Vogue put
Obama on the
cover but not McCain. Some
individual magazines and specific types of magazines appeared to show a
tilt towards Obama in terms of the number of times they put him on the
up on the Obama craze. Early on
there were several Clinton
covers. However, in
terms of the nominees, this survey only turned up one McCain cover (Der Spiegel) during the campaign
versus nine for Obama. McLean's,
Canadian newsmagazine, actually beat many American magazines in
putting Obama on the cover of its Feb. 5, 2007 issue.
The most controversial cover
2008 cycle was the New Yorker’s
2008 issue featuring “The Politics of Fear” illustration by Barry
Blitt. Obama is shown as a Muslim
wearing a turban and fist-bumping his wife, who totes a gun over her
shoulder. The Obama campaign responded
with a statement from spokesman Bill Burton.
“The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff explained
to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Sen.
right-wing critics have tried to create.
But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we
agree." Vanity Fair
posted a parody on its website
showing McCain with a walker and Cindy McCain clutching pill
Nation’s Sept. 29, 2008 had an illustration, inspired by the New Yorker cover, showing Palin
McCain in the Oval Office. Entertainment
Weekly did a parody
featuring a photo of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart on its Oct. 3,
issue. Many commentators opined on the matter and a number
of editorial cartoonists weighed in as well.
the primary campaign, a number of bloggers took issue with The New Republic's May 7, 2008
Clinton cover ("The Voices in Her Head") decrying the "hysterical"
portrayal of the senator from New York.
Another controversy arose over
Jill Greenberg's photography of McCain for
Atlantic in its October 2008
issue. Greenberg, who later described herself as "a pretty hard
core Democrat," described on her blog how during the shoot she used
uplighting to produce unflattering images of McCain and writes how she
"left his eyes red and his skin looking bad." Later she also
created some manipulated images of McCain using Photoshop.
Although the image the magazine ran is "respectful," The Atlantic had to issue an explanatory note
that stated in part, "When we contract with photographers for
portraits, we don't vet them for their politics--instead, we assess
their professional track records. We had never worked with Jill
Greenberg before (and, obviously, we will not work with her again)."
Day and the Inauguration there were many, many Obama covers,
reflecting the historic nature of the choice and the high expectations
he faces. Time
magazine's Arthur Hochstein identified the Nov. 17 cover of the New Yorker, an illustration
by Bob Staake showing the "o" in New
Yorker as the moon over the Lincoln Memorial, as the top
magazine cover of the year.5
Additionally, a number
magazines produced collector’s and commemorative issues. For
example Ebony’s Dec. 9 issue
Obama’s first post-election interview (done on Nov. 13).
Essence produced a 56-page
tribute with separate Barack Obama and Michelle Obama
covers. Rolling Stone’s
“Barack Obama and the Triumph of Hope” had
“exclusive Rolling Stone interviews and articles, over 140 pages of
six of his most stirring speeches.”
publicity director for The Nation,
in a Jan. 14, 2009 e-mail:
"On average we move 170-175k a week via subscription (right now it's
172,660) and only 9-10k via newsstand. (Last week it was 9,302).
Anecdotally, the Obama covers didn't make a dent in sales for us; the
Democratic Convention Preview did sell slightly better; that was our
strongest Obama image of the year.
"...for an independent publication like The Nation, newsstand sales are
very difficult. We sell well in Independent bookstores and at
some Barnes & Noble and Borders around the country, but generally
companies that own multiple titles also pay for space and access on
newsstands, and are able to secure better positions and notice for
sales. The Nation, with only the one title, may be competing for
newsstand space against a company with 30 titles; independent
publications like The Nation continue to look for better ways to move
magazines in store. For now though the heart of our readership is
our subscribers (170-180k) and our website visitors (1 million distinct
2. For example the issue of The
Advocate dated February 2009 was sent to subscribers starting
12/23/08 with an expected delivery date of 1/2-1/6 and was on-sale on
the newsstand 1/20/09.
3. The New York
2006 issue with Gov. Mark Warner on the cover was one of the odder
covers. It featured a photo shot by Alexei Hay using infrared
chrome film and not processed properly. The Times ran an
explantory note in its March 15 issue. ("The
cover photograph in The Times Magazine on Sunday rendered color
the jacket, shirt and tie worn by Mark Warner, the former Virginia
is a possible candidate for the presidency.
The jacket was charcoal, not maroon; the shirt was light blue,
the tie was dark blue with stripes, not maroon...The film that waused
color to shift, and the processing altered them further; the change
notice because of a misunderstanding by the editors.")
See also Gabriel
Sherman. "Why Is This Man
Laughing? First Glimpse of Handsome Gov.
Warner Bears Slight Resemblance to Mr. Ed." March
2006, The New York Observer.
4. The American Society of Magazine Editors
actually created an "Obama"
category in its 2009 Best Cover Contest (for the period from June 1,
2008 to May 30, 2009). On Oct. 14, 2009 the ASME announced the
July 10-24, 2008 issue of Rolling
Stone featuring a Peter Yang
photo of Obama as not only the "Best Obama" cover but also as the
“Cover of the Year” from among ten categories.
magazine produced 50
"The Top 10 Everything of 2008" lists. Hochstein wrote of
Staake's Nov. 17 New Yorker
cover that, "It is beautifully rendered. Simply
spectacular." Other campaign covers in Hochstein's top 10 were Rolling Stone's July 10 cover
(Peter Yang photo of Obama), Entertainment
Weekly's Oct. 3 parody of the New
Yorker "Politics of Fear" cover, and Mad magazine's Sept. 2008 cover
(Alfred E. Obama).
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Did Its Convention Covers
Joe Heroun's Observations on Some of The New Republic's '08 Campaign
Zina Saunders on the Jan. 2009 Cover of The
the Cover: W, The Dems & the 2004 Campaign"
"Cover-ing The Campaign: The 2000
Presidential Campaign As Portrayed on Magazine Covers"
© 2008, 2009 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action