Recently, Dario Calmese, a Black artist, photographed the actress Viola Davis for the cover of Vanity Fair. The cover was released yesterday. The photo that adorns it is based on “The Scourged Back,” an image, from 1863, of Gordon, a man who escaped slavery and whose back had been lacerated by whipping. Davis re-created Gordon’s pose; she wore a dark-blue MaxMara dress backwards, so as to make her back visible. “This image reclaims that narrative, transmuting the white gaze on Black suffering into the Black gaze of grace, elegance, and beauty,” Calmese said, of the Davis cover. He added, in an interview about the photo shoot with Jessica Testa, of the New York Times, “I knew this was a moment to be, like, extra Black.”
Online, Calmese’s image of Davis got better reviews than another recent cover of a Condé Nast magazine: that of the August issue of Vogue, which features a portrait of Simone Biles—the Olympic gymnast and survivor of sexual abuse within the USA Gymnastics setup—in a Bottega Veneta bodysuit, also with her back to the camera. The image was shot in February, by Annie Leibovitz. After it came out, critics said that Leibovitz’s dim lighting had done Biles a disservice. “I adore Simone Biles and am thrilled she’s on this cover,” Morrigan McCarthy, national picture editor at the Times, tweeted. “But I hate these photos. I hate the toning, I hate how predictable they are.” Britni Danielle, a journalist and editor, added, “Simone Biles deserved better than Annie Leibovitz bad lighting.” Defenders of Leibovitz argued that her editing style is typically dark, but many observers agreed that a Black photographer would have done a better job. “I super hate that Vogue couldn’t be bothered to hire a Black photographer,” McCarthy said.
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In commissioning Calmese for its Davis shoot, Vanity Fair hired a Black photographer for its cover for the first time in its history. According to Testa, of the Times, Calmese suspected that that might be the case when he took the assignment, and asked editors to double-check; they confirmed his hunch “to the best of our knowledge.” Yesterday, Astead W. Herndon, a politics reporter at the Times, called that fact “embarrassing” and suggested that Vanity Fair apologize. “Progress is cool,” Evette Dionne, the editor in chief of Bitch Media, tweeted, but “it’s also shameful that it has taken more than 100 years to achieve a simple feat, which is then touted as progress.” When it comes to representation behind the camera, Vanity Fair is hardly an outlier. As Testa notes in her story, the first Black photographers to shoot the covers of Vogue and Rolling Stone—Tyler Mitchell and Dana Scruggs, respectively—only did so within the past two years.
In an interview with Sonia Saraiya that accompanies her cover, Davis called out Vanity Fair for a lack of diversity in front of the camera, too. “They’ve had a problem in the past with putting Black women on the covers,” she said. “When you couple that with what’s going on in our culture, and how they treat Black women, you have a double whammy. You are putting us in a complete cloak of invisibility.” For her introductory note to the latest issue, Radhika Jones—Vanity Fair’s editor in chief, who is herself a woman of color—calculated that between 1983, when the modern iteration of the magazine was born, and 2017, when she took over as editor, Vanity Fair only put seventeen Black people (excluding group shots) on the cover of a regular issue. Since then, ten Black subjects have been featured. Jones says that she has prioritized improvement during her tenure. “We are not bound to continue the cultural hierarchies we inherit,” she writes in her note.
In this regard, too, Vanity Fair is not an outlier. In 2018, the editorial arm of Ceros, a Web content company, reviewed the covers of ten glossy magazines between 2012 and 2018 and found greater diversity across 2017 and 2018 than in the five previous years; the percentage of Allure covers featuring a nonwhite subject, for instance, increased from 27 to 58 percent, while the equivalent percentage for InStyle jumped from 32 to 50 percent. In 2018, the important September covers of at least eleven major fashion and lifestyle magazines featured Black women: Glamour featured Tiffany Haddish; Marie Claire featured Zendaya; Vogue featured Beyoncé. Writing for Teen Vogue at the time, however, Jessica Andrews pointed out that while the covers were cause for celebration, “Black women didn’t suddenly become fashionable or marketable this September.” Andrews highlighted what she called “the next frontier” at which to aim: “more black photographers, editors, stylists, bookers, and creative directors.”
It’s not just fashion journalism that’s been reckoning with that frontier. In recent times, and particularly since the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, the wider media industry has been confronted with its poor track record on representation and the inclusion of Black perspectives. The recent reckoning has been especially intense at Condé Nast, where, as the Times’ Edmund Lee reported in June, top staffers including Adam Rapoport, the editor in chief of Bon Appétit, resigned (or faced calls for their resignation) following claims of personal and institutionalized racism. According to Lee, Susan Plagemann, a white Condé executive, once complained to Jones that more of Vanity Fair’s covers should feature photos of well-to-do white women. (Plagemann denies saying this.) As Calmese’s powerful work shows, the opposite, of course, is necessary, on both sides of the lens.
Below, more on race and the current moment in media:
- “We wanted to capture her depth”: For the cover of New York magazine’s recent TV issue, Ruth Ossai, a mixed-race photographer, did a photo shoot with Michaela Coel, the creator of I May Destroy You, an HBO/BBC show that fictionalizes Coel’s experience of sexual assault. Ossai’s photography and E. Alex Jung’s accompanying profile have both won plaudits. “Michaela is an incredible auteur,” Jody Quon, photography director at New York, says. “We wanted to capture her depth.”
- “Meet the new Black press”: For Nieman Reports, Deborah Douglas profiles the new Black press—“outlets that advocate for and culturally represent Black people but are not necessarily Black-owned, are largely digital, nimble, and take an expansive view of who and what constitutes journalism.” Examples include theGrio, a video-centric site; zora, a Medium-hosted site for women of color; and The TRiiBE, which aims to reshape narratives about Black Chicago. (In 2018, Jackie Spinner profiled The TRiiBE for CJR.)
- “A reckoning in Black media”: Taryn Finley, of HuffPost, has a deep dive on how dual pandemics—covid-19 and police violence—are transforming Black media. The present moment of reckoning “hasn’t been limited to white-operated companies,” Finley writes. “Even as they amplify Black voices, Black-operated publications have also come under fire for replicating the same anti-Black and sexist workplace structures that exist at mainstream, white-run publications.”
- A terrible answer: Yesterday, President Trump sat for an interview with Catherine Herridge, of CBS News. When Herridge asked why Black Americans are still dying at the hands of police, Trump accused her of “a terrible question” and said, “So are White people. So are White people.” In a separate interview, with Townhall, Trump defended the armed couple who confronted protesters outside their home in St. Louis. Philip Bump, of the Washington Post, situated both interviews in context.
Other notable stories:
- For CJR’s new magazine on election coverage, Lyz Lenz writes about the “parade of stereotypes” in campaign coverage of Iowa, where she lives. “The trouble is not just that we’ve been used as characters in some campaign story,” Lenz writes. “What worries us more, now that coverage has moved on, is what happens if the country thinks of us as less than fully human.” Also for the magazine, Alexandria Neason profiles Joanne McNeil—author of Lurking, a history of the internet—and how she compartmentalizes news consumption. By carefully curating Twitter lists, McNeil “receives a filtered version of the Twitterverse,” Neason writes, “less boundless echo chamber than local library.”
- Yesterday was a busy day in the so-called “cancel culture” wars. First, Vice wrote that Bari Weiss, an opinion writer at the Times, had resigned from the paper. Weiss subsequently posted a resignation letter, in which she alleged bullying by colleagues (“Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper should not require bravery”) and claimed that Twitter is now the Times’ “ultimate editor.” (The ultimate editor was unimpressed by her letter.) Then, Andrew Sullivan announced that he’s leaving New York magazine. David Haskell, its top editor, said that Sullivan and New York are “no longer the right match.” Speculation abounds that Weiss and Sullivan may work together on a new venture.
- In April, Vox Media—which owns New York as well as sites including SB Nation and Curbed—furloughed roughly a hundred staffers due to the pandemic. According to Alex Sherman, of CNBC, many of those who were furloughed now face being laid off. In other bad business news linked to the coronavirus, The Guardian said today that it will lay off 12 percent of its workforce. Up to one hundred eighty jobs could be cut, including seventy editorial staffers.
- Police in Iowa are refusing to disclose evidence related to the arrest of Andrea Sahouri, a Des Moines Register reporter who was pepper-sprayed, then detained, while covering protests in the city in May. Prosecutors say that since the charges against Sahouri—interference with official acts and failure to disperse—are misdemeanors, discovery is not available to her. Sahouri’s attorney is pushing back on that claim.
- Sara Fischer reports, for Axios, that the Times is doubling down on film and TV projects: in addition to its existing weekly show on Hulu and FX, the paper has ten scripted projects and a number of documentaries in the pipeline, and is partnering variously with Netflix, Amazon Studios, Lionsgate, and Oprah Winfrey. The Times “is starting to look more like a Hollywood studio than a traditional newspaper,” Fischer writes.
- In other Times news, the paper said yesterday that it will relocate its digital-news team in Hong Kong to Seoul. Roughly a third of the paper’s total Hong Kong staff will make the move; the rest will stay put. The decision follows China’s imposition of a draconian new security law in the territory. Last week, I assessed its ramifications for news outlets.
- For CJR, Madeleine Wattenbarger reports that despite daily press briefings, the Mexican government is failing to provide the public with reliable data on covid-19 transmission. The briefings represent “incessant information as a stand-in for transparency,” Wattenbarger writes. Mexico has the lowest testing rate of any country in the OECD.
- Ice melting on Mont Blanc, in the Alps, has revealed newspapers that were on board an Air India flight that crashed on the mountain in 1966. The local man who found the papers said that they are very well preserved, and that once they’ve dried out, he intends to put them on display in a café that he runs. The Guardian has more.
- And Captain America, a/k/a Chris Evans, formally launched A Starting Point, a platform that aims to create “a bipartisan channel of communication and connectivity” between voters and elected officials. Last year, CJR’s Justin Ray wrote, of the concept, that “fixing partisanship with partisan chit-chat is a bit like trying to cure diabetes with Skittles.”
ICYMI: Do journalists pay too much attention to Twitter?Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.