Series of Tubes: Time Magazine Drama

One of the things the Internet is famous for is drama. No matter what the topic, you can almost always find a side and kindle a good flame war, and/or stir up a big, juicy scandal.

This weekend saw some drama of the “big juicy scandal” variety. While the rest of us were busy stuffing our faces full of turkey and ham and spending the rest of the weekend in a tryptophan-induced coma, the fine folks of Reddit were combing the online archives of Time Magazine to discover this travesty:

December 5 2011 Time Magazine covers for US and international markets
December 5 2011 Time Magazine covers for US and international markets. Click to view onsite.
What you’re looking at there is the different covers Time Magazine used on their print editions for various markets. Different covers for different markets is standard practice. The purpose of the cover of any magazine is to get you to pick it up off the stand and buy it, obviously, so you want to put a striking image on the front. Using different covers for overseas markets is not particularly scandalous because the kind of cover that might appeal to an American audience might not appeal to a European or Asian audience. (Shocking, I know. Oddly enough, America is not the center of the universe.)

Despite the covers, the articles inside are the same. The drama here stems from the disparity of the article getting front-cover pimpage on the various editions. The rest of the world gets the ongoing revolution in Egypt. We get “Why Anxiety is Good for You.” As one Redditor, “Lyme,” said, “I know someone else said this is because America can’t handle the world outside the US, which may be part of it… but is anyone else really disturbed that the message to people in the US, who have been struggling economically for the past 4 years or so is ‘anxiety is good for you’? I feel like the people in the US who are starting to become really dissatisfied and disillusioned with the ‘American Dream’ are being told STFU GET BACK TO WORK ALL THIS STRESS IS GOOD FOR YOU MOVE ALONG NOTHING TO SEE HERE.”

Once this initial discovery was made, Redditors descended on the Time Magazine archives and found this example, showcasing “The Return of the Silent Majority” on the US cover and “Why the US will never save Afghanistan” on the international covers. This was shortly followed by this one, with “Why We Should teach the Bible in Public Schools” on the US cover versus “Talibanistan” on the international covers, this one with “The End of Excess: Why This Crisis is Good for America” on the US cover and “All Together Now (Please?)” on the international, and several more covers with something either inane, right-wingish, or “hey, life sucking here is awesome!” type covers on the American edition, and something of considerably more import on the international cover.

Cue the Intarnets OUTRAGE.

The_MPC” commented, “THIS is why, as an American living in Washington DC, I get my news from BBC.”

“And really pathetic. We look so sheltered. Insulated. Just feed the cows and there will be no stampede. And, by the way, stress is actually good for you, ya f****** idiot,” said FilmFiend999.

Putin_my_a** said, “You think THAT is terrifying? Try being from a country other than the US and desperately yelling and waving to get your collective attention: ‘Hey US! Yeah, over here! There’s some really important s*** going down and we could really… hello? What the f*** is Black Friday? Could you PLEASE pay attention to the World for a second?'”

“This is exactly why I think reddit is an awesome place to get news — if an article is popular enough, there’ll almost always be a comment pointing out any biases…or presenting another view on the issue,” said “Appropriate-Username.”

Oh, wait, what was that, Appropriate-Username? Did you say something about “bias”? Could it be that people might have cherry-picked the covers that best demonstrated their personal opinions? Tsk, I don’t know. Seems unlikely.

Hold on, what have we got here?

November 14 2011 Time Magazine covers for US and international markets.
November 14 2011 Time Magazine covers for US and international markets. Click to view onsite.
Redditor Porracaralho offers four examples featuring bias in the opposite direction, IE, inane international covers versus important news on the cover of the US edition. The October 31 2011 issue offers “The China Bubble” on US covers and “Inside TinTin” on the international covers. The July 4 2011 issue has the US Constitution on all four covers with only the wording slightly changed for clarity. The June 29 2009 issue has “Iran vs. Iran” on the US edition and a 20-year retrospective on the international covers.

A Redditor calling himself SKZSKZ2 goes one better, and offers twenty sets of covers, starting with the June 27 2011 issue and paging back in order. Suddenly, Time Magazine looks a whole lot less like just another member of the “American media propaganda machine.” A quick run through the set of links SKZSKZ2 offers shows that most of the time, important stories feature on all the editions of Time Magazine, and the incidence of “stupid” stories on the front cover varies from edition to edition, most likely depending on what the folks at Time think will sell more magazines in a given location during a particular news cycle.

There’s a lesson to be learned here, folks, and that is that you can’t ever take a thing at face value. If you only read the top hundred comments over at this thread on Reddit, you might walk away with the idea that Time Magazine was deliberately dumbing down its US covers, when nothing of the sort is happening. Like Porracaralho and SKZSKZ2, you have to dig a little deeper to get at the truth, both on the Internet, and in real life.

What do you think?