Art & Design

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Picture a memorable magazine cover: John Lennon's naked body wrapped around Yoko Ono from Rolling Stone, Demi Moore's very pregnant belly on Vanity Fair. Those two covers led a list announced this week of the top 40 magazine covers over the past 40 years. Mark Whitaker is the president of the American Society of Magazine Editors, the group that ranked the covers. He's also editor of Newsweek and he joins me by phone from his office.

Hello, Mr. Whitaker.

Mr. MARK WHITAKER (President, American Society of Magazine Editors): Hi, Debbie. How are you?

ELLIOTT: Good. You were one of the 52 judges. What do you think makes a great cover?

Mr. WHITAKER: Well, I think there are a lot of elements. I mean, I think obviously the cover itself has to be inherently interesting and arresting both visually and in terms of the language or lack of language, but I think what you also see in the covers that came out on top of this contest is that really memorable covers capture a moment that is emotional and dramatic to begin with and they sort of crystalized that moment for readers. I think the Lennon cover came out on top both because it's a really distinctive cover that still holds up but also because that was such an emotional moment. Everybody remembers how they felt when they heard that Lennon had died. So it had both of those things going for it.

ELLIOTT: And this photo was taken just before he was killed, right?

Mr. WHITAKER: That's right. It was totally new. It was an Annie Leibovitz photograph, the great magazine photographer, and it captured a lot about Lennon, too. I mean, it was provocative but also vulnerable, a little cheeky literally, you know, and figuratively and I think that those are the things that people loved about John Lennon.

ELLIOTT: Magazine covers from the 1960s dominated this top 40 list. Why do you think that is?

Mr. WHITAKER: Well, I wouldn't say they dominated, but they were certainly very well represented. I think there are two answers to that. One was that it was just a very dramatic time. The one decade that didn't do so well was the '80s. I think it's partly a reflection of the fact that even though some interesting things happened in the '80s, they were nowhere near as dramatic in terms of political and social change as the '60s, but I think the other reason that the covers from the '60s hold up and the people remember is that new vocabularies in terms of cover treatment, a new way of approaching magazine covers visually and in terms of language and humor were all being introduced at the time. So some of the things, for example, that George Lois, the great cover director for Esquire, did in the '60s, since then, you know, his style and that style has been widely copied. So it doesn't seem all that new anymore, but at the time it was deeply original, and I think everybody remembers that.

ELLIOTT: The number three magazine cover on this list was his photograph of Muhammad Ali from Esquire magazine in 1968. Will you describe that for us?

Mr. WHITAKER: Well, it's a visual metaphor. It's Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian. He's in his boxing trunks but then, you know, pierced with arrows on all sides, and obviously what that reflected was, you know, his being under attack for his religious beliefs, for his outspokenness and so forth.

ELLIOTT: Now as we said, Mr. Whitaker, you're the editor of Newsweek and two of your magazine covers made the list. Can you describe those for us?

Mr. WHITAKER: We had two covers. One was from the '70s. It was called The Nixon Tapes. It was right in the middle of Watergate and the week that we all found out that Nixon's recordings from the Oval Office had been recorded, the cover director at the time, Ron Meyerson and his partner, came up with this very inventive cover where basically they turned the White House itself viewed from above into a tape recorder and...

ELLIOTT: An old reel-to-reel tape recorder.

Mr. WHITAKER: Reel-to-reel, right. And it's interesting because when we were thinking about what to submit, I immediately thought of that cover. I mean, I was still a teen-ager when it came out, but I remembered it vividly. The other was one we did literally on election night 2000. Every four years, we do this big yearlong reporting project of the behind-the-scenes story of the election, and we get it all ready and we close on election night and print it the next day. And, of course, in 2000, the election went into overtime because...

ELLIOTT: Election night lasted about six weeks, if I recall.

Mr. WHITAKER: Exactly. Exactly. But, you know, we still went ahead and published our project and what we did for the cover was to take an image of George Bush and an image of Al Gore and morph them. And it turned out visually actually that they morphed very well. And the cover line was, `The Winner is...,' and it sort of captured the fact that the outcome wasn't determined but also the surreal nature of that election night and the weeks that followed.

ELLIOTT: Mark Whitaker, editor of Newsweek and president of the American Society of Magazine Editors. You can see all 40 covers on our Web site, npr.org.

Thanks for being with us, Mr. Whitaker.

Mr. WHITAKER: It was my pleasure.

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