Did Newsweek set out to make Michele Bachmann look like a loon?

Newsweek is coming under fire for a wild-eyed cover photo of Michele Bachmann. The headline calls her the 'Queen of Rage.' But was the rough treatment actually a compliment of sorts?

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Republican presidential candidate, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota reacts as she steps off her campaign bus before speaking to local residents during a meeting at the local community center, Monday, Aug. 8, in Atlantic, Iowa.

Does Michele Bachmann’s photo on the cover of the current issue of Newsweek make her look like a loon?

It’s not flattering, that’s for sure. The shot shows her staring out with wild eyes, as if she just stepped on a slug and is trying to not scream with revulsion in front of the photographer.

Or perhaps, just before the shutter snapped, someone in the room said, “Oh look – CNN says Rick Perry is getting into the race!” And she’s reacting to that, because, you know, Perry would be a formidable competitor for a Bachmann core constituency – Christian evangelicals.

The cover headline – “Queen of Rage” – multiplies the overall wingnut effect of the presentation.

Newsweek has received lots of criticism for the cover package. Even the National Organization for Women, which disagrees with Rep. Bachmann about pretty much everything else, defended her on Monday.

“It’s sexist.... Surely this has never been done to a man,” said NOW president Terry O’Neill.

Really? As practicing journalists, we have perhaps a different view of this controversy.

1. Yes, yes they would do this to a man. We’re old enough to remember when news magazines used the word “wimp” in cover heads about George H. W. Bush. In a way, it’s a compliment to Bachmann that she’s the target of this rough treatment. There are probably many unflattering photos extent of Newt Gingrich, say, or Rick Santorum. But they’re not doing well enough in the polls to merit the coverage.

2.The question is not whether they would do this to a man. It’s whether they would do it to a Democrat – particularly a sitting Democratic president. We’ll be waiting to see if Newsweek runs an Obama cover story titled “King of Socialism,” or something like that.

3. Newsweek knew what would happen, and is pleased with the response. In meetings photo editors sit around talking endlessly about their photo options. Of course they do. And Newsweek/Daily Beast editor Tina Brown famously began her career in the rough and tumble world of British journalism, where “Princess Anne Not a Horse – See Inside” counts as a restrained headline.

4. This is not the most damaging news coverage Bachmann has received this week. The actual Newsweek cover story is mild, noting only that the “principled rigidity of her position has caused some problems for her campaign,” and then talking about how she used to be a government lawyer, and maybe a relative’s farm got government subsidies. In contrast, the New Yorker has a longer, tougher piece tracing the roots of Bachmann’s beliefs, including her past involvement with such controversial thinkers as the evangelical Nancy Pearcey, a creationist and advocate of the theory of “Dominionism,” which holds that Christians are biblically mandated to occupy secular institutions until the return of Christ to earth.

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