PEOPLE magazine at 40: Paparazzi in print

1974 was not a good year for America. Historians depict a country exhausted from 15 years of public stress. They see the after-effects of more than a decade of social and political conflict over civil rights, equality for women, the nuclear arms race and the Vietnam War, as well as the lingering and devastating effects of three assassinations in the 1960s. The resolution of the Watergate scandal, with the resignation of President Richard Nixon, brought a “sense of weary relief,” in the words of historian John Morton Blum.  It also brought a desire to retreat from engagement in public issues to the cultivation of private lives. The time was ripe for PEOPLE magazine.

The first issue appeared on March 4. It was, as the editors noted, the first launch of a national magazine in 20 years, since Sports Illustrated in 1954. In an introductory note to that first issue the editors did not talk about how their publication might propel the advance of the rising “celebrity-gossip-scandal” journalism and contribute to the decline of “general interest” publications (think of LIFE, Look and Collier’s). Their goals were more modest.

“Journalism has, of course, always noted and dealt with people,” they wrote, “but we dedicate our entire editorial content to that pursuit.” The American people were ready and eager to get away from issues and conflict about them to the “up close and personal” approach television was pursuing. Ideas, history and social, political and economic matters could remain the province of those pointy-headed pseudo-intellectuals in Washington and on campuses.

But what kinds of people would PEOPLE reveal to us? The “doers, headliners, stars and comers.”  Or, as the editors said, “the above average, the important, the charismatic, the singular.” The average Americans, the “folks” in flyover land wanted to read about them, the publisher bet, and and the publisher turned out to be right. Circulation remained strong in 2013 at 3.5 million, ranking PEOPLE in 12th place among magazines. Reader’s Digest was the only other magazine in the top dozen directed at general readers.

The editors also promised “never to be cruel or awestruck or gushy.” To translate that, they promised to be bland and inoffensive. In the first issue they mostly succeeded.

The cover story on March 4, 1974, featured Mia Farrow at 29, about to dazzle audiences in “The Great Gatsby” with Robert Redford in the title role. Readers discovered that Farrow “in real life is not at all like Daisy (Buchanan),” the character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel on which the movie is based. “With Mia everything is family…She’s really a loving, caring person, not like those old selfish movie stars caring only about themselves.”

Farrow may well be a caring and selfless mom, but why lambast movie vixens of old such as Betty Davis and Barbara Stanwyck? They may not have been embodiments of family values, but they sure could act.  And Farrow? As Roger Ebert (no highbrow critic in some cinematography journal) put it: “…we cannot understand what’s so special about Daisy Buchanan. Not as she’s played by Ms. Farrow, all squeaks and narcissism and empty sophistication.”

PEOPLE couldn’t help being gushy and awestruck before Hollywood’s gods and goddesses, editorial vows notwithstanding. That came through again in another story of the first issue, one about William Peter Blatty, writer and producer of “The Exorcist,” one of the 1973’s blockbusters.  He is quoted as dismissing criticism from New York Times critic Vincent Canby (who called the movie “elegant claptrap”) and the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael: “They belong to a very small set of reviewers who have been trapped so long in the squirrel cage of their own ego that the world outside their cage is a blur. They neither reap nor sow nor perform any useful social function.”

The PEOPLE reporters did not enter Blatty’s verbal squirrel cage to interpret, and who can blame them? The best comment on the movie came from the manager of a theater in which it played: “My janitors are going bananas wiping up the vomit.” That helps explain all that talk about how much a movie grossed.

The rest of the issue is pleasantly bland and blandly pleasant. Movie gossip columnist Sheila Graham, recently transplanted to Palm Beach, informed readers that her new home town was “the richest and snottiest Place to be Seen” and that in comparison to Hollywood, a “working town,” it was dull. But at least “there are no slums in Palm Beach.”

There’s an interview with Marina Oswald, widow of JFK’s assassin. It’s Psychology Today Lite, but at least it quotes her as wondering if Lee Harvey Oswald “brought all this down on America.” The closest the first issue comes to insight into the people it covered is the homespun, cracker barrel “makes you kind of wonder” comment Marina Oswald tossed to her interviewers.

In the first decade after PEOPLE’s debut two things happened to American journalism. Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone magazine, summarized the first in 1985: “Call it what you want – gossip journalism, celebrity journalism, human-interest journalism. By any name, this has become the dominant theme in journalism.”

David Sumner, professor of journalism at Ball State University and often called “Professor Magazine,”(he’s author of “The Magazine Century:  American Magazines Since 1900”) identified the second dominant theme, a “general decline in the intellectual level of magazine content.” Both themes emerge with relentless clarity from a viewing of the June 16, 2014 issue of PEOPLE.

The content consisted mostly of pictures and snippets of text. Gone was the pretext the people depicted might be, as suggested in 1974, “above average, charismatic or singular.” A few may be important to their families and friends. Take this example. An entire page (p. 28) was devoted to the photo of a chubby young man who turned out to be Rob Kardashian, a “TV personality, business man and model, best known for appearing on reality television shows that center upon his family,” (“Keeping Up with the Kardashians”).

“It’s a family that “prides themselves (sic) on looking absolutely fabulous,” an insider revealed to another publication [which? Looks like maybe it was Hollywood Life?], and poor Rob obviously failed to live up to his fabulous potential.

The rest of the pictures showed us many more people such as Rob. There was a full page devoted to things these people said:

  • “If I’m in a bathing suit, I should pose proudly.” — Jessica Simpson
  • “I looked down and the nutter was trying to bury his face in my crotch, so I cracked him twice in the back of the head.” — Brad Pitt
  • “There’s a Twitter account called @JessicaBielArms.  Should my ass be offended?” — Jessica Biel

Wittier comments used to be found written on the walls in junior high school boys’ rooms.

The cover story, an interview with Hillary Clinton, makes a stab at journalism. The former First Lady and secretary of state and perceived front runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination answered questions, but her answers lead to few follow-up questions her comments should have provoked.

When asked about what she discusses with those who see her as the best hope for a female president, she replied: “I don’t think the most important questions are ‘Are you going to run?’ and ‘Can you win?’” I’m not having those conversations. The important questions are ‘What’s your vision for America?’ and ‘Do you think you can lead our country there?’”

About Monica Lewinsky: Hillary Clinton has “moved on.” We should too, the presidential hopeful tells us: “I think everybody needs to look to the future.”  There’s not a word about fixing the present.

Asking questions is what journalists do. PEOPLE today is a mix of supermarket tabloid, movie fan magazine and gossip column. It does public relations work for the “stars” and wannabe stars, the very rich and occasionally for a mover and shaker in Washington.

Paul Fussell, author of “The Great War and Modern Memory,” summed up what the magazine represents: “It is the function of a bad magazine like PEOPLE to encourage readers to admire and envy shallow show-business celebrities and various stupid freaks of curious achievements…”

And that raises a question not likely to get discussed around the water cooler: Do magazines such as PEOPLE shape or mirror society?


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