Why does Vanity Fair happen to good people?

TutuThere’s something vertigo-inducing about Bono’s editing an issue on Africa for Vanity Fair. The visual conflicts abound: Alongside Bono’s Guest Editor’s Letter about how many African children die from preventable diseases, a nude threesome promotes a Dolce & Gabbana purse; at the end of an editorial spread about 20 innovative covers shot by Annie Leibovitz, Dolce & Gabbana returns, using a piece of beefcake in a thong to promote a cologne. This is like reading an article in Playboy that condemns female genital mutilation.

About those innovative covers: If it seemed unlikely that President Bush would sit passively as Archbishop Desmond Tutu prayed (presumably for Bush’s soul), that’s because it didn’t happen. As Daryl Lang of Photo District News reports:

Bush was photographed April 13 in Washington while Tutu was photographed April 28 in Kobe, Japan.

Vanity Fair is making no secret of this, having posted Leibovitz’s impressive travel schedule online. The schedule reveals that none of the subjects who appear together across the 20 covers actually posed together except Bush and Condoleezza Rice.

… The print magazine, in which all the cover photos are reproduced inside, offers clues that portraits are composites, but never says so directly. “We decided that 20 different covers had a nice ring to it. That meant 20 individual photo shoots,” Graydon Carter writes in his editor’s letter.

It would be hard for a casual reader to realize that, to take one example, Sen. Barack Obama didn’t actually sit down with Muhammad Ali. Through the magic of retouching, some of the subjects actually appear to be interacting — Madonna caresses Maya Angelou’s arm, Chris Rock tugs Buffett’s ear, and Tutu actually embraces Brad Pitt. The portraits are edged with a black film border, making them appear to be processed directly from a negative.

Tutu did interact with Pitt for an interview. It starts at a parodic level of flattery:

Brad Pitt: It’s a real pleasure for me to get to speak with you.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: You don’t know — I mean, my stock has gone up. When people knew that I was going to speak to you …

B.P. Let me say, I’ve seen all your movies, and I’m a big fan.

D.T. Thank you. God bless.

Soon enough, Pitt begins asking questions — well, really, they are declarations that sometimes end in question marks:

What is it about the great religions? Why can’t the great religions play well with each other? What are they defending? I’ll tell you my interpretation: it signifies a lack of faith to always be threatened and always to have to prove your way is the best. It seems again to be antithetical to the teachings of the individual religion.

… So certainly discrimination has no place in Christianity. There’s a big argument going on in America right now, on gay rights and equality.

… You have talked about Nelson Mandela and how he had every right, as well as South Africa itself, to come out of the apartheid machine embittered and wanting revenge and retribution. You guys came up with this radical idea — the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Quickly, you had two known routes. You could go for justice, retribution justice, as in Nuremberg. Or you could get blanket amnesty. But you came up with this idea for healing the country and a new definition of justice called “restorative justice.”

Tutu answers Pitt in a spirit that’s every bit as cuddly as the faux cover showing Tutu hugging his interlocutor.

Bono solicited several interesting essays, including a report on economist Jeffrey Sachs’ work, self-promoting details on how Bono’s (Product) Red sales have made a difference in Africans’ lives and a fascinating study of how everyone’s DNA ultimately points back to Africa.

“… I’ve always imagined that I hadn’t been a singer I would have been a journalist,” Bono writes in his Guest Editor’s Letter. “But, in truth, my bandmates saved me from disappointment, as I’m no natural editor.”

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  • norman ravitch

    Africans seem good at only one thing: impregnating one another, giving one another AIDS, killing one another in brutal civil strife, and starving to death. I suggest we forget about Africa.

  • Shocked

    Is the poster serious? And you let the poster post this offensive post….?

  • Dan Berger

    It’s particularly offensive that Mr. Ravitch can’t count beyond one.

  • Dan Berger

    Sorry… meaning that if he can’t count that high, perhaps he should think about whether his opinion is worth anything.

  • http://stevegriffin.no-ip.info Opie

    I had a comment deleted off of here once and I never said anything nearly as sick as that.

  • Stephen A.

    What’s more offensive is spoiled brat Hollywoood actors, no-talent poets and hoodwinked billionaires and desperate politicians allowing themselves to be Photoshopped onto the cover of a rather worthless magazine.

    Sadly, photographic fakery is neither “innovative” nor new. If the event was so important, they can surely get some of these comedians and actors into the same room with big shots if they were so desperate for publicity. But I guess they couldn’t fit it into their schedules. Says a lot about the “importance” of the latest Hollywood Crusade.

    The “journalism” here, as exemplified here by the Pitt “interview” is pathetic beyond words. When are people going to stop listening to these Hollywood morons as if they have something important to say?

    The hypocrisy of the entire piece was DELICIOUSLY highlighted by Douglas here. The Hollywood elite would riot in the streets if they didn’t get their lattes every morning or weren’t seen carrying the newest handbag by this rag of a mag, which creates demand for this crass filth and cheapens our culture. Where’s the expose on THAT? (Oh, I forgot, they’re advertisers. Oops. We never will see it, I suppose.)

  • Stephen A.

    What Norman *might* have said to make what his comments more productive was: Why isn’t the media reporting on which RAT HOLE the money went down from the last big “Crusade against poverty?”

    The answer is that many suspect it went to corrupt African dictators who care little about their nations, but DO care about their Swiss bank accounts. Take Sudan for instance, or Zimbabwe’s racist thug of a leader, whom Europe and China are doing a great job of ignoring and excusing, where people are dying and starving for no particular reason, other than a lust for power.

    The rest of his rant was simply immature and poorly thought-out (or not thought through at all.)

  • VoxDilecti

    As an African I can express shock at the first poster’s comment. It is expressly rascist I feel because even though he highlights the problems afflicting the continent, he seems to be ignoring the fact that the same thing goes on in every single continent, just not to the same scale. Should we have forgotton about Europe when they were plunged into another wave of catastrophic wars in the early 1900′s by autocrats as greedy as african dictators? Should we have forgotten about the rest of the world as it was ravaged by smallpox? Should we have forgotten about those starving to death in the American Southwest during the one-two punch of the infamous dustbowl and the great depression?

    Mr. Ravitch if you would have the courage to come back here and further explain yourself I would like to know from you a). who do you mean by “we”
    b). has this “we” never suffered or perpetrated any of those things you seem to thing are only applicable to Africa?

    I’m not angry at you, I pity you.

  • VoxDilecti

    Excuse my spelling, I mean “seem to think”

    I think the only way you can redeem the fact that your conclusion is profoundly flawed Mr. Ravitch, is if you prove that you are not human. Otherwise, I believe we are all in this together, all peoples have suffered all of these things, not just Africans.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    I am awfully sorry that Norman’s comment made it onto this thread and stood for so long on Sunday.

    I was away from keys all day Sunday after posting this item. As so many comments have been about Norman’s comment, I’ll let them all stand. Be assured that if I had been online when Norman posted his comment, it would not have remained in this space for long.

    We do try to live by the standards expressed in our Comments/Trackback policy, which I commend to everyone as timely reading.

  • Dennis Colby

    It’s a shame this thread has been devoted to the racist garbage spouted by the fool in comment #1, because I think the Vanity Fair issue is interesting. I haven’t picked it up – I’m not sure how much Bono I can take – but I’m curious to see whether there’s any specific discussion of religion in Africa. I’m particularly keen to learn whether anything in the issue – whether by celebrities or normal people – weighs in on the “zero grazing” policy that’s had so much success in reducing HIV infection in parts of the continent.

  • Larry “Grumpy” Rasczak

    Stephen A says “Zimbabwe’s racist thug of a leader, whom Europe and China are doing a great job of ignoring and excusing, where people are dying and starving for no particular reason, other than a lust for power.”

    Surely you don’t mean Robert Mugabe? The darling of the Manchester Guardian, the man who was supported by the UN, virtually every major newspaper on the planet and Jimmy Carter? Not the Robert Mugabe for whom Jimmy Carter defied Congress when he declared the first multiracial Rhodesian elections invalid because the guerrillas fighting the white minority regime in Salisbury had not participated in them?

    Not Robert Mugabe, the Marxist who replaced Archbishop Abel Muzorewa (for those not in the know, think of Muzorewa as the 1.0 edition of Archbishop Tutu) as leader of Zimbabwe?

    Surely not Robert Mugabe, leader of “guerrillas” (who would have been deemed terrorists had they been in Central America or Iran or Palestine) who the international press portraied as freedom fighters?

    Western newspapers used oceans of ink on stories about how great Mugabe is, how he and he alone is the man the people of Zimbabwe want, how no election without him in it can possibly be legitimate, and especially how ANYONE who opposed him was a racist (if not a Nazi… see P.K. Van der Byl for example).

    Admitedly these stories were all written back in the late 70s… before Mugabe brought in North Koreans to commit genocide on the tribes that opposed him…but surely they can’t ALL be wrong? I mean they were written by enlightened, liberal, educated, intelligent REPORTERS who work for big name NEWSPAPERS.

    How could they be wrong?

    Why surely if Mugabe were as bad as you say, why wouldn’t the UN and Jimmy Carter and the Guardian and the NYT be out there trying to expose him?

    I mean sure, they went on the record supporting him and helped put him into power in the first place, but surely that wouldn’t make them turn a blind eye to racisim, genocide, politically induced famine…. would it?

  • Don Neuendorf

    Vanity Fair is aptly named. I think the real question raised by this article is, “Why don’t people think that serious journalism can also be entertaining?” Evidently Vanity Fair doesn’t think it can – so they go in for saccharine pieces like the Brad Pitt interview.

    The poverty and hunger on the African continent have gone on for much longer and are much, much deeper than our Great Depression. The wars constantly brewing there have been brutally destructive, especially for civilians. The epidemic in AIDS and in malaria have an almost incalculable cost. In the face of all this, wouldn’t you think that a “serious journalist” could have had a gripping interview with Desmond Tutu?

    Instead, Bono chooses Pitt to do the interview because he’s a “celebrity” – which effectively gives Bishop Tutu the same low status. Like ‘People’ magazine, they become just two people talking about themselves, their personal achievements or ‘issues’, and their feelings.

  • Stephen A.

    Larry, that’s EXACTLY the same Mugabe I meant! ;-)

    It’s too bad the mass media missed all of these valid points you made about him. Maybe after Paris Hilton’s released from jail, and the furor over that important episode dies down, they can turn their focus to more trivial things, like these thuggish dictators who are causing much of the starvation and suffering around the world.

  • Larry “Grumpy” Rasczak

    Gee Stephen…. next you will be telling me that Pol Pot is not just a misunderstood nationalist who wants land reform and to clean up a corrupt bureaucracy! Are you going to say Noam Chomsky could be wrong too?? I mean The New York Times called him “arguably the most important intellectual alive.”The Guardian declared: “Chomsky ranks with Marx, Shakespeare, and the Bible as one of the ten most quoted sources in the humanities—and is the only writer among them still alive.”

    Gee… if this keeps people will start to loose trust in the media….(http://formerspook.blogspot.com/)

    Don asks ““Why don’t people think that serious journalism can also be entertaining?” Well it can be… P.J. O’Rourke makes some very serious points on occasion, while still being laugh out loud funny.

    I think though your point about “celebrity” is VERY correct taken. In a climate of moral relativisim, where everyone’s “Truth” is equally valid, well then it logically follows that nobody’s “Truth” will be more valid, more correct, or more insightful than anybody elses. When you reach that point it is logical to simply default to the pretty and the famous… if Cameron Diaz’s opinon on Maoist Insurgency carries as much intelectual weight as Henry Kissinger’s or Jim Dunnigan’s, well then why not listen to the pretty blonde girl?

  • James

    Hollywood is just junior high with money, and this Vanity Fair issue is like the school rag on glossy paper…complete with bad writing and hideous amounts of pretention.

  • Larry “Grumpy” Rasczak

    “Hollywood is just junior high with money”

    Oh that is CLASSIC!!

  • Dennis Colby


    Just a quick point: the NY Times quote about Chomsky called him an important intellectual for his work in linguistics – and then the article proceeded to trash his political views. The Times is no friend of Chomsky’s.

  • Dennis Colby

    Also, since you brought up Cambodia, you surely know that “The Killing Fields” was based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting from Cambodia by NY Times scribe Sydney Schanberg.

  • http://www.sfgospel.com Gabriel Mckee

    I know it’s a tangential point, but why would it be strange to find Playboy condemning genital mutilation? It’s cliche to mention them, but there actually are articles in there, too, and they frequently talk about human rights and civil liberties.

  • Brian V


    Google “cosmetic labiaplasty” and decide if the Hefners oppose all female genital mutilation or just the traditional forms.