BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Next time you're at the news stand take a quick scan of the magazine rack and look for a minority cover girl. If you find one, in all probability you'll be looking at a copy of Essence or Latina Magazines, edited for ethnic audiences, because according to a study by the New York Times, non-whites continue to be substantially under-represented on magazine covers -- except in teen-targeted titles and such fantasy-pandering men's magazines as Maxim. When Halle Berry appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan, she was only the fifth black woman to show up there ever and the first since Naomi Campbell in 1990. Joining us to discuss the phenomenon is Times reporter David Carr. David, welcome to OTM!
DAVID CARR: Hey, thanks for having me, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me tell you a personal experience of mine. About 10 or 12 years ago I was at a magazine where the editor was sharing with me his philosophy of journalism and the way he did this was going over a list of his last 12 covers, and he gave me the circulation [LAUGHS] figures for these - the various issues. And he took the trouble to note that on the issues where white men were on the cover, their sales were the highest; white women was the second highest, and that there was an immediate dropoff if you went to any sort of other skin complexion. He was reporting this as just a fact of life, but it, it drove their decisions on what to put on the cover. Apart from the -- how disturbing that is from a journalistic point of view and from a cultural point of view, from a business point of view I, I guess it makes sense -- if they sell more magazines if there's white people on the cover - doesn't it?
DAVID CARR: Magazine people are not inherently less enlightened than the rest of the population and they were hewing to certain racial standards because it was in their business interests. If you talk to a black male -- I talked to the agent of one of the more famous black actors in Hollywood -- he can't get on a, a magazine cover, meanwhile selling movie after movie after movie -- because there is a belief throughout the industry that his mere presence will depress sales more than anything. What I tried to argue in the piece is those standards may be changing. In the eyes of Madison Avenue far and away the most important impressionable consumers are expressing very specific different preferences in matters of race and product endorsement. Teen magazines began consistently using minorities at a rate of, say, one out of three back in the mid-90s, and that trend is slowly and I must emphasize very slowly leaking into mainstream media.
BOB GARFIELD:There's a quote in your piece from the editor of Cosmopolitan, Kate White, and she says that the absence of non-white women on the cover of Cosmo reflects the celebrities that Hollywood produces, not the magazine's editorial preferences. You know, I'm not buying that. Are you buying that?
DAVID CARR: No, I'm not buying it, because Cosmopolitan almost half the time uses models -- not famous people - and when they - when they do put a model on the cover, they don't generally choose someone who is not white with very large hair and a real big smile. Magazines are aspirational in their format. You're supposed to be able to see yourself when you look at -- not you and I of course, Bob, but the young woman buying Cosmo is supposed to look at that and say that's what I would look like when I come into the room -and they have it down to a very scientific sort of formula. And magazines are not a hugely risky business. They don't take a lot of chances. Cosmo's version of taking a big risk is choosing a brunette instead of a blonde. [LAUGHTER]
BOB GARFIELD:All right, let's talk about Halle Berry for a moment. She's black; she's absolutely magnificent. But she is beautiful in a, a very Caucasian sort of way, and-- a lot of the, the black models and actresses who have broken through into the mainstream have kind of aquiline noses and -- and I wonder if in your survey you were able to determine whether this sort of "acceptably white-looking" version of blackness still rules.
DAVID CARR: Do you see somebody with very dark skin and African features on the cover of any magazine that is marketed on a mass level? Absolutely not. And a lot of what's gone on in terms of the diversity that magazines do brag about is be-- come from Latinas and crossover stars like Jennifer Lopez. It isn't so much after all these years that black is beautiful, but a certain version of non-whiteness seems to finally be acceptable on the cover of magazines.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, David Carr -- thank you very much.
DAVID CARR: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: David Carr is a staff writer for the New York Times. [MUSIC]