Mitt Romney is far from being one of my favorite presidential hopefuls, but I agree with Jim Geraghty that this Newsweek cover, portraying Romney as a dancing lunatic, is fairly appalling. Geraghty says that the article itself is very fair, but that doesn’t matter. Roughly 99% of the people who see this cover will never read the article. For better or worse – and almost certainly worse – our politics are dominated by optics. The story is secondary to the substantive issues.
One of my grad school professors, Mark Rozell (now at George Mason) liked to talk about an evening news report done on Ronald Reagan’s economic policies during the 1984 campaign. I don’t recall which network it was, but the report just decimated Reagan on the economy. It was a voice-over piece, and most of the images were of Reagan in various settings, mostly in places like Yellowstone or other grand settings. After the network aired the report, the head of the news division was contacted by a member of Reagan’s staff, and was thanked for the report. Why was this network being thanked for a hit piece? The images. The text of the story didn’t matter. What would stick in viewer’s minds were the images, and these were images of the president in majestic settings, showing off the trappings of power. Many viewers would tune out the content of the story and instead focus on images that were greatly favorable to Reagan.
It’s human nature to focus on imagery, and so I don’t necessarily fault those who ignore the broader context of such stories. That being said, I’m sure Newsweek didn’t choose this particular photo by accident.