Of all the adjectives one might use to describe Newsweek's current Sarah Palin cover, "unflattering" probably isn't one of them. But Palin says the cover's posed shot of her in running gear, including short black shorts - a photo originally taken for Runner's World magazine was out of context and sexist. And even some who aren't fans say she has a point.
The photo in question shows a smiling Palin, who on Wednesday launched her national book tour, standing near a folded American flag draped over a chair, hand on her hip. She's wearing a long-sleeved red athletic top, running shoes, and the aforementioned shorts. It's a far cry from the photo Newsweek used on its cover a year ago, a close-up in sharp detail, which many of her supporters criticized as unflattering because it showed her skin pores and a few wrinkles.
This time, it's just the former Alaska governor looking trim and fit. But Palin expressed her dismay on her Facebook page. "The out-of-context Newsweek approach is sexist and oh-so-expected by now," she wrote her fans on the site, who now number over a million. She also accused the magazine of "focusing on the irrelevant rather than the relevant" in its coverage of her. Over 3,000 fans responded.
"Sarah, don't worry about it," wrote one, David Pearl. "They are just jealous they do not look that good in shorts and are not as smart. Just consider it free publicity to help sell the book." "It was a cheap shot, and that's all they have!" wrote another, Deborah Ann Stroscheim. "They are just trying to sell the mag." Few would dispute that last part. "The main consideration for covers is, what will draw attention?" said Kenny Irby of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Florida. "There's no question that people will pay a lot of attention to this cover."
The issue, Irby said, is one of context. The photo is accompanied by the headline: "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sarah? She's Bad News for the GOP (Republican Party) - And For Everybody Else, Too." And that leads to a whole different interpretation, Irby noted, than if you were looking at it in Runner's World, where it originally ran in August.
"The image is not sexist," said Irby, who specializes in visual journalism. "The words are more damaging and questionable. The powerful pairing is the issue. Why did they use this photo, where half the frame is her legs - when they had thousands to choose from?" In his own opinion, Irby said, "It's a pretty underhanded shot at her credibility."
Newsweek issued an official statement Tuesday defending the photo choice. "We chose the most interesting image available to us to illustrate the theme of the cover, which is what we always try to do," said the statement, from editor Jon Meacham. "We apply the same test to photographs of any public figure, male or female: does the image convey what we are saying? That is a gender-neutral standard."
But was Palin right to charge that the photo was unfairly used out of context - a perfect image for a running magazine, but inappropriate for a news weekly? "I think she's got a point," said media ethicist Kelly McBride, also at Poynter.
On the other hand, McBride added, "If I were posing in running gear and I were as controversial as Sarah Palin, I would stipulate the boundaries on that."
To Newsweek managing editor Daniel Klaidman, Palin, as a public figure, must have known that the photo could be used elsewhere. "If you're going to be in the arena, you've got to know that when you pose for a magazine that picture might appear elsewhere," Klaidman said in a telephone interview. "She's a public figure. We cover her."
Also, he pointed out, the photo is consistent with the image that Palin likes to portray. "She's cultivated this persona: Outdoorsy, folksy," he said.