Magazine Mavens Discuss Covering Michelle Obama Ebony magazine's Harriette Cole, and Tatsha Robertson, news editor of Essence Magazine, talks about the image of Michelle Obama, wife of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama.
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Magazine Mavens Discuss Covering Michelle Obama

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Magazine Mavens Discuss Covering Michelle Obama

Magazine Mavens Discuss Covering Michelle Obama

Magazine Mavens Discuss Covering Michelle Obama

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Ebony magazine's Harriette Cole, and Tatsha Robertson, news editor of Essence Magazine, talks about the image of Michelle Obama, wife of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Later in the program a legendary brain surgeon talks about his latest achievement, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. We talk with Dr. Benjamin Carson in our Wisdom Watch conversation.

But first, Michelle Obama's time in the public eye has revived conversations about the way African-American women are depicted in the popular media. Well, Mrs. Obama has graced the pages of Vogue, Newsweek, the celebrity magazine - U.S. Weekly or Us Weekly, And of course, Essence and Ebony magazines.

She's also been criticized by some commentators as arrogant, un-patriotic, and angry. We're talking about Michelle Obama's image in our monthly visit with the Magazine Mavens. Here with us, Harriette Cole, Creative Director at Ebony Magazine, also with us Tatsha Robertson, News Editor, at Essence Magazine.

Ms. HARRIETTE COLE (Creative Director, Ebony Magazine): Pleasure.

Ms. TATSHA ROBERTSON (News Editor, Essence Magazine): Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Harriette, let me start with you. Take the long view here. Have you ever seen an African-American woman, who's not the principle? I mean, she's not the candidate whose image has evoked this kind of response.

Ms. COLE: I have to say, no. I don't recall it in history. The only person that I could think of who received quite a bit of scrutiny during her early moment, was Carol Moseley Braun, but she was the main person. I think what is happening now, is that America and perhaps the world are in shock that there is an African-American Democratic nominee for one. And with him a wife who's hardly Barbie.

You know, she is a powerful, tall, smart, clear-thinking, clear-speaking grounded woman, and we don't know her. So, what happened, I believe, during the primary process is she would say things, and bits of it would become the sound bites that would be played again and again. But you didn't get to see all of her. You know the - you would see the scowl on her face, but not the smile. You would see - you might see an angry moment, and then she got called the angry woman, but you didn't get to know her.

So, today as the Democratic nominee is representing himself in the general election cycle, so is she, and I think we are all getting to know her and the two of them with fresh eyes.

MARTIN: What Tatsha, though, I would push back a little bit on what Harriette said, in part, because I think Hillary Clinton was subjected to a very great deal of scrutiny when she was the wife of the Democratic nominee. But I don't know, the difference for me though, is that she has never had a policy-making role in her husband's political career, unlike Mrs. Clinton. I mean she - you've never heard Barack Obama say two for the price of one.

Ms. ROBERTSON: No, absolutely. But for some reason, despite all that, I mean, I think it's - I've never seen anything like it. I really do believe she's been scrutinized. I would say even more so than Hillary Clinton.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROBERTSON: I mean, we all know how hard Hillary Clinton had it, years ago when her husband was running for president. But I think there's something really interesting going on. The opponents of Barack Obama have not really been able to have their criticism stick.

So, I mean there was the Reverend Wright issue, there was the, you know, flag pin. None of that really stuck. And also Barack Obama has sort of been able to not be race less. No, of course not, but race is not a huge factor, I mean, it has been in the election, but all types of people can relate to him.

I really believe that Michelle Obama is someone that the opponents are now kind of focusing on. If, they really can't make Senator Obama seem angry, now they're focusing on Michelle Obama.

MARTIN: Why, though?

Ms. COLE: Because they'll do anything they can.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROBERTSON: Yeah, and I think like I say, it doesn't really stick with Senator Obama. You know, he transcends it seems, like race in some ways. But, Michelle Obama is I guess, the next, you know, best.

MARTIN: Both of your publications have been interested in her. I mean Tatsha I have to say, Essence did a set of interviews with the candidates a while ago, but your interview with Michelle Obama ran before that.

Ms. ROBERTSON: Absolutely . We were, I think, we were one of the first to really look at Michelle.

MARTIN: Yeah, why is that? What were you interested in?

Ms. ROBERTSON: Well, we're black on ones publication. I mean most of our readers are African-American women. But this is the real reason is, because black women are going to be so important to this election. We're talking like, six out of 10 black voters are African-American women.

Ms. COLE: And you know Michel, we talked about their relationship. You know it was our love issue, and we held them up as one of the hottest couples, but in talking to them about their relationship, it is so interesting now, looking forward to see here's a couple who genuinely love each other.

Every time we would watch the two of them on stage through this whole primary cycle you would see it. It was tangible that they love each other, that they are connected. And to me that makes Michelle more interesting. But also it makes their relationship dynamic, interesting for our country in that we live in a country where there are so many fractured marriages.

Where, you know, for African-American couples you often don't see a male in that partnership, and here we see a marriage, a family, and a family committed to the greater cause, to America. But all the while you see love on stage. That is very powerful.

MARTIN: Tatsha, veteran Journalist, and my dear friend, Gwen Ifill, wrote the Essence story on Michelle Obama.

Ms. ROBERTSON: She did a wonderful job.

MARTIN: I think so, too. The story describes her as having a commanding presence at her husband's events. But now, somehow that has become described by some as intimidating. Why is that?

Ms. ROBERTSON: That's been really interesting to me how things shifted. You're right, back when Gwen followed her in New Hampshire and Iowa, people loved her. I mean, the women just love the way she talked about, you know, how she was so tired after, you know, playing with the children or going to the grocery store, or going to Target. The audience loved it.

And, really people thought of her as, you know, someone like them, they could relate to her. And all of a sudden I really think things have changed, and I really believe part of it is, Obama is now, you know, he's now the nominee. And like I said earlier, they really can't get to Senator Obama, and I think the next best thing is really to scrutinize Michelle Obama.

MARTIN: What about the comparison between the media's treatment of Michelle Obama, and Cindy McCain. I mean, one does not see, I think the same level of discussion, about Cindy McCain.

Ms. COLE: In an interesting way I think it is apples and oranges. In that Michelle and Barack are new to the cultural landscape, and the fact of the matter is they're an African-American couple. Now at the forefront of, you know, this international stage, because America is bigger than a national stage.

Now, also Cindy McCain, you know, she's not a threat in the way that we often think of a black woman to be. If we look at stereotypes and this is what I wanted to get at. What is happening in painting the picture of Michelle Obama, quite a bit is - painting her into a stereotype. There is a stereotype, of the angry black woman, and it's been part of our cultural heritage for many years.

And, I think that you're right, Tatsha. That if we can't get at Senator Obama, let's gets at his wife and use a stereotype that sets off all kinds of reactions. And I think, though, it's not going to work. Because, as we saw on The View, you got to see Michelle Obama in a dress, smiling and talking and laughing. And by the way on Larry King Live we saw, what's the woman from The View?

MARTIN: You're talking about Joy Behar, from The View.

Ms. COLE: Thank you. Talking about her being in the studio with Michelle and being on The View with Cindy McCain, and what she said is she would like to hang out with Michelle.


Ms. COLE: Because she was very real, she was very down-to-earth, she felt that she could let her hair down being in Michelle's company, and that Cindy, while very, very nice, was very reserved and conservative, but she's very rich.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But, maybe it's a Democrat problem though, in the sense that like - again have to go back to the comparison with Hillary Rodham Clinton when she was - her role in the campaign was the spouse. And all of her writings from law school were dug up. I mean... ..TEXT: Ms. COLE: That's true.

MARTIN: ...her work for the Children's Defense Fund were dug up. And I just wonder is there something about the fact that women on the Democratic side are somehow seen as in the forefront of the culture wars in some way. In a way that Republican women are not. Or is it a racial thing? Where it's like if you're a black woman, you automatically have to get, you know, your finger in the air, and the head, neck going.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know.

Ms. ROBERTSON: Well, I think Clinton and Obama married two very strong women. Who, you know, they're very smart, they had great careers, they still do. So, I think that's part of it. Laura Bush, she was a librarian, but she did not have a really high-powered...

Ms. COLE: A more traditional wife.

Ms. ROBERTSON: Exactly. She did not have this high-powered job. So, I think in a way, I really believe part of that is the issue. You know people started - they really scrutinized these two women because of their career choices. I mean that's part of it.

Ms. COLE: And I really, you know, because Hillary's presidential campaign was so, so powerful, it erased the memory for me of when her husband was running. So I do agree with you that she was scrutinized. I will say this, though, I don't believe that the intensity was the same.

Ms. COLE: No.

Ms. ROBERTSON: I think that what's happening, that there is a belief out there on the right, let's say, that if they scrutinize Michelle enough, that she could bring her husband down.

Ms. COLE: Yeah.

Ms. ROBERTSON: And I don't know that that feeling is the feeling that we had as observers, whether in the media or not, when Clinton was originally in his first run. I think the stakes feel higher now.

Ms. COLE: They absolutely do, and it does seem like the scrutiny is really, really intense. But I do think the Obamas and his camp, he has a really strong camp, I think they're totally aware of this.


Ms. COLE: I think, you know, they have top, top woman who is now...

MARTIN: Stephanie Cutter.

Ms. COLE: Cutter who is just brilliant. I mean I worked for the Boston Globe for years, and she was Kerry's, you know, top aide. And she was with the Kennedys. So she's a veteran, she knows what's going on here. So I really think they're going to have a hard time.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. And I'm speaking with Harriette Cole of Ebony magazine and Tatsha Robertson of Essence Magazine about Michelle Obama's image. And we want to ask you, do you think Michelle Obama is being portrayed fairly by the press, as unpatriotic, intimidating, supportive, loving?

What about Cindy McCain? Is the coverage balanced between the two? How much, if any, will the spouse of a candidate factor into your vote for president? Not an issue? To Tell us more about what you think and what other listeners are saying, go to the Tell Me More website at You can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That number again is 202-842-3522.

OK, back to you Tatsha. You were just mentioning that the campaign just brought on Stephanie Cutter to work as Michelle Obama's chief of staff. Obviously because he's the presumed Democratic nominee, she is now going to have staff. But do you think that this is a harbinger of some kind of makeover to come? Is a makeover needed, and if so, what form should it take?

Ms. ROBERTSON: No matter what they say, I definitely think it's happening. Like you said earlier on, she was looked at this person that people could relate to. Now it's different. Regardless of who she really is, if the opponents continue, continue to beat her down on certain issues, you know, people are going to finally see her as that. And I think her camp, they're going to work to stop that. But I do think she needs to do certain, you know, certain things. You know, previous first ladies have had some type of political platform, I mean even if it was something simple I mean on drugs, you know, I really do think there has to be something like that. You know, she's a smart woman, I think that's important. I don't know...

Ms. COLE: Well...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Harriette.

Ms. COLE: I would say I do not think that what's happening is a makeover. I think that what's happening is a refinement of her presentation, which is different. A makeover is you kind of go in the back room and you take everything off and you get new clothes, you get a new look, you get a new way of communicating. I don't think that's happening. I think that what's happening is a recognition that the stakes are very high, that in this land of the internet and YouTube, and you know the immediacy of any word that you may use being repeated in perpetuity, that there is a finer point being put on the - what Michelle decides to say and do. And I think that's different from a makeover.

I think it's being called a makeover because again I think even that term makes it seem like there was something wrong with her. But I've spent a lot of time talking to her. I firmly believe that it's us getting to know her, you know America getting to know her, because she's more in the national forefront, because now all these magazines are talking to her. She's talking on national television more than just in, you know, at a particular location on a campaign trail. And how she is presenting herself to America, she's refining.

Ms. ROBERTSON: Yeah. I think there's a slight makeover, I really do. I mean when you think about Michelle Obama early on, she was talking a lot. I mean, in a very good way, she was very down to earth, very blunt. That has stopped, I really do believe that.

Ms. COLE: You don't think she's blunt? She doesn't wear pantyhose. That was blunt!

Ms. ROBERTSON: That's not blunt, a lot of us here don't wear pantyhose.

Ms. COLE: But we don't say it. Interestingly, that particular point, which one might think is benign, has caused all kinds of discussion, you know, is she too left because she doesn't wear pantyhose?

Ms. ROBERTSON: I think she's being more careful.

Ms. COLE: Yes.

Ms. ROBERTSON: And I think like you said the stakes are higher, and I totally understand. But I really do believe there's a slight makeover. They are refining things.

Ms. COLE: Yeah.

Ms. ROBERTSON: But I really do believe they're really looking at the larger picture and they don't want her to, you know, make a mistake.

MARTIN: We only have a couple of minutes left, I cannot let each of you go without asking about your issues out on the stands now. Harriette, you have Serena Williams on the cover of Ebony this month.

Ms. COLE: Yes we do!

MARTIN: Why is she your cover gal?

Ms. COLE: Well we decided to do a summer's best issue where we talked about all the fun things that you can do this summer because all of us work probably too hard, too long. And we wanted to inspire our readers to go out and have a great time. And in thinking who would represent fun at its finest, we thought of Serena Williams.

This is her time of year, you know, and she does it at its best, you know, playing tennis. Even in the midst of working, like on a photo shoot, because she was there on time and she was focused, we all had a great time. And that was something that I really wanted our readers to know, that she's an example of what can happen. When you want to have fun, make sure you show up on time and you do things the right way, and then the whole experience can be fun.

MARTIN: All right. Interesting, Tatsha, you had Gabrielle Union on your cover this month. She has a new do. And she also was on your cover last year. So why did she make the cut again this year? And I have to mention, I somehow have not made it, I don't understand why not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROBERTSON: I want to tell Angel about that, you got to, you know, you got to rethink this.

MARTIN: Anyway, tell me about that.

Ms. ROBERTSON: Well, readers love her! I mean she is absolutely gorgeous, she's smart, she's become this solid business woman. I mean, she is you know a great actress, but she's also, you know, you know she has great friends in Hollywood, and regular friends. You know, she's very health-oriented and she's just very business-minded. So I mean our readers absolutely love her.

MARTIN: All right.

Ms. ROBERTSON: So we listen to our readers.

MARTIN: OK. Tatsha Robertson is the news editor at Essence magazine. Harriette Cole is the creative director of Ebony magazine. They both joined us from our New York bureau. Ladies, mavens, thank you so much.

Ms. ROBERTSON: Thank you.

Ms. COLE: Thank you.

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