By now you’ve surely heard about the controversy brewing over this Newsweek cover photo of Sarah Palin: Clad in athletic gear for a Runner’s World photoshoot, wearing shorts, arm resting casually on an American flag. The non-controversial part is that she’d wear running gear for a Runner’s world photoshoot for a feature called “I’m A Runner”; the controversial part is that Newsweek used this photo, because it shows Sarah Palin posing in shorts, which some people think is sexist and inappropriate, but which I think is fine because she posed willingly for the series less than 6 months ago, and this particular photo was controversial because of the resting-on-the-flag thing and that well-illustrates a story a story about why she is problematic and that is headlined “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Sarah?” which is a reference to a song that is basically about a nun going rogue.
But! Still, it is controversial, and Palin herself disapproves of it, saying that it is sexist and taken out of context. Now Runner’s World is getting in on the action with a disapproving editor’s note on the story:
On the cover of this week’s issue of Newsweek is a photo that was shot for the August 2009 issue of Runner’s World, in which Sarah Palin was featured on the monthly “I’m a Runner” back page. Runner’s World did not provide Newsweek with the image. Instead, it was provided to Newsweek by the photographer’s agent, without Runner’s World’s knowledge or permission.
Well! I hope Newsweek is suitably ashamed of itself!
Here’s the thing: Does Newsweek need the permission of Runner’s World here? I’ve reached out to them and asked, but I’m guessing they didn’t buy this photo in a back alley out of someone’s trenchcoat. Probably there were resale rights and Newsweek legitimately transacted for cover use that way. They do this every week, so that is my guess.
[Next-Day Update: As it happens, Newsweek didn’t need the permission of Runner’s World…but the photographer did. Jeff Bercovici at Daily Finance confirmed from Runner’s World that they had a year-long exclusivity clause in their contract with the photographer, that was violated in selling the photo to Newsweek. Full story here; the post as written yesterday continues below, though the “why” in my next question is pretty well answered.]
Why is Runner’s World distancing itself from the photo? Yes it’s controversial, but Runner’s World declines to explain what part of the controversy it wants no part of. The fact that a photo of politician in athletic attire is on the cover of a newsweekly? So the only acceptable clothing for a politician to wear on a magazine cover is a suit, then? That’s sorta weird, you’d think a magazine about running would want to see the sport promoted across all areas of a healthy, active lifestyle. Maybe it’s because the image isn’t dignified? But then why did they publish it? Is it because the headline is “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Sarah?” and not “I’m A Runner?” But then if it’s only appropriate to picture a person in running garb when they are being interviewed for a running magazine, why then does the Runner’s World 5-page interview contain all sorts of bits about Palin, the politician? Doesn’t seem fair, shouldn’t a news and politics magazine get to invoke Palin, the Runner? And by the way, if the two don’t mix, then why did you shoot Palin in her office with an American flag?
Sorry, Runner’s World, I’m calling you out: You’re just distancing yourself from the Newsweek cover because it’s getting bad press. But I cannot think of a single reason why you should be annoyed that your duly-published photo should be duly published elsewhere. If you have a reason, you might have done well to duly publish that.
And by the way, if Newsweek was looking to publish a gratuitously sexy image of Palin from that photoshoot, they would have done better to choose this one (coy!), or this one (wearing pink!). They chose the one with the flag — the one that was controversial not because it showed Sarah Palin’s legs, but because it pictured her casually leaning on an American flag tossed over a chair. It wasn’t the biggest controversy of the summer by a long shot — mostly a blip, really, hitting just before the July 4th weekend — but that was the news, such as it was, that came out of Palin Joggergate.
People I respect think this cover is sexist, and I have taken time to think about it — I’m not coming to this conclusion lightly. (I thought the Diane Sawyer headline in Capitol File a few months back was way worse, but no one seemed all that exercised about that.) And maybe it’s just because I remember this flag controversy from early in the summer, so to me, that’s what the photo was all about, and the connotations it has. But also — for a politician who makes a big deal about how she’s off going rogue, for one who makes athleticism and out-of-the-box-ness part of her personal brand, for one who posed happily for all these shots not 6 months ago, after she’d gotten her book deal, knowing the kind of scrutiny she is under — well, I am sorry, but I don’t blame Newsweek for taking the bait. Sarah Palin is a savvy, experienced grown up, she should take at least some of the responsibility for setting it. Refusing to do so is, in my estimation, the most un-presidential thing of all.
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