UPDATE (11/11/2016): ThinkProgress has obtained a copy of the internal memo People editor in chief Jess Cagle sent to the staff regarding the Trump cover:
This week the PEOPLE cover story is about president-elect Donald Trump, and as you may have seen, we are getting some heat for it. We’ve been called out for trying to pander or “normalize” Trump, just weeks after we published a story, by former PEOPLE writer Natasha Stoynoff, about being physically attacked by Trump in 2005.
I assure you that the cover on the president-elect is in no way a celebration or endorsement of this deeply polarizing figure. And we continue to stand steadfastly by Natasha. Her attack is of course recounted in the cover story. Last Friday, we posted a video in which she again discusses the attack and responds to the nasty things Trump has said about her recently. We will never forget what happened to Natasha, and frankly we don’t want our audience to forget, either.
Some readers are sickened to see Trump on the cover. Others are thrilled by it. In any case, it seemed wrong to put anyone other than the president-elect on the cover this week. He was elected president. We can’t pretend it didn’t happen. Some of you have been criticized on social media for my decision. This is unfortunate and unfair to you. Some of you may personally disagree with the decision. I’m here if anyone wants to talk.
Let me assure you that no matter who is in the White House, PEOPLE celebrates tolerance and inclusion. We strive to entertain, empower and inspire our audience. We will continue to do all the things that make us proud. Our campaign against gun violence, for example, will continue with renewed fervor.
Thanks for listening, and thanks for the great work you’re doing.
Life comes at you fast. Less than a month after People magazine published and defended reporter Natasha Stoynoff’s account of being assaulted by Donald Trump, the magazine is toasting our nation’s president-elect with this glowing cover:
“It was a pretty glam treatment,” Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post media columnist, told ThinkProgress by phone. Trump looks backlit, sun bouncing off his shoulders. His tie is swinging, and his hands are apparently so big they can’t even fit on the page.
Stoynoff was on the Trump beat for People in the early 2000s. She went public with her story about Trump grabbing and forcibly kissing her just after the publication of an Access Hollywood tape in which Trump, now the President-Elect of the United States of America, can be heard bragging about his proclivity for “grab[bing] ’em by the pussy” and how, upon seeing beautiful women, “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
It turns out, you can do anything. You can even win a presidential election.
During the second presidential debate, just days after the tape was released, co-moderator Anderson Cooper asked Trump to confirm that he “did not actually kiss women without their consent.” Trump replied, “I have not.” Cooper also asked Trump if he understood that what he was describing in the tape constituted sexual assault; Trump assured Cooper that his comments were merely “locker-room talk.”
In her essay, published October 12, Stoynoff detailed the incident with Trump and his wife Melania at Mar-a-Lago, which occurred while she was visiting them for an interview in December 2005 in the midst of her ongoing coverage of Trump, his television show, and his social life. According to Stoynoff, Trump led her into a room alone, closed the door behind her, and “within seconds he was pushing me against the wall and forcing his tongue down my throat.” Stoynoff says Trump later told her, “You know we’re going to have an affair, don’t you?” and alluded to his reported sexual prowess.
Trump has denied Stoynoff’s allegations, along with every other sexual assault accusation against him, calling them “lies.” Melania threatened to sue People on the grounds that Stoynoff inaccurately portrayed their relationship. (“The two were not friends or even friendly… At the time in question, Mrs. Trump would not have even recognized Ms. Stoynoff if they had encountered one another on the street.”)
Still, the new cover is not at all that surprising. Of course People is going to put the newly-elected president on the cover. The president and first family are among the most prominent public figures in the world; they’ve been the subject of People cover stories plenty of times before and surely will again.
“It has me thinking about a question,” Sullivan said. “How the news media, which includes the entertainment press as well, does two things: acknowledge that the voters have spoken, and there’s going to be a new president; and also, not normalize the things that [Trump] has said and done, which, in many cases, are unacceptable.”
In addition to the fluffier stuff —What were Melania’s best style moments on the campaign trail? Will the White House be decorated in all gold everything? How cute is Ivanka Trump’s family?— People has also reported on the thousands of people nationwide who protested Trump in the wake of the election and how Trump’s legal battles could prevent him from actually ascending to the presidency.
There’s a way to see the Trump cover as being carefully designed so as to convey as little enthusiasm as possible. Look at it again: The toothless smile, the conspicuous (for People) absence of an exclamation point, the use of the word “astonishing,” which one can read to mean something great or terrible. For context, compare it to this cover announcing President Obama’s victory in 2008:
Considering People’s role in the entertainment-journalism ecosystem, one could ask, what choice did the magazine have? (Reporters for People did not immediately return ThinkProgress’ request for comment.)
“People magazine, as well as most media organizations, exist in a commercial, for-profit world, and that is an undeniable reality that will drive some of what they end up doing,” Sullivan said. “So, could they have said to themselves, ‘We know something here that is very important, and we are not going to go out of our way to lionize and celebrate him?’ Yes. I don’t think that means they can ignore his existence.”
“They are People magazine, after all,” she said. “And they didn’t have a story that said, ‘Here’s Donald Trump, probably the greatest president we’ll ever have!’”
What makes this Trump cover especially jarring is that, when both Donald and Melania Trump called Stoynoff a liar, People stood by Stoynoff and her story. Editor-in-chief Jess Cagle issued a statement expressing gratitude for Stoynoff’s honesty:
Ms. Stoynoff is a remarkable, ethical, honest, and patriotic woman, and she has shared her story of being physically attacked by Donald Trump in 2005 because she felt it was her duty to make the public aware.
To assign any other motive is a disgusting, pathetic attempt to victimize her again. We stand steadfastly by her, and are proud to publish her clear, credible account of what happened.
It is heartbreaking that her fear of retaliation by Trump kept her from reporting the incident when it happened. She has carried this secret for more than a decade, and we hope that by coming forward now she is relieved of that burden.
Maybe People feels the need to cozy up to Trump because a friendly-bordering-on-fluffy press may be the only press to get passes to his White House. Throughout his campaign, Trump revoked press credentials from news outlets he deemed unacceptable like Regina George exiling an out-of-line Plastic from her lunch table. On Thursday, he refused to allow a group of journalists join him on his first meeting with President Obama, a significant deviation from standard practice. As the AP noted, this call — to take a private jet from New York to Washington without a reporter pool — was one of Trump’s first public decisions as president-elect:
“News organizations had for weeks tried to coordinate a pool of journalists who could begin to travel with Trump immediately after Election Day if he won election. But his campaign did not cooperate with those requests and his senior advisers refused Wednesday, the day after the election, to discuss any such press arrangements.”
People is in a bind, and they’re not alone. During the campaign, the Huffington Post put an editor’s note at the end of every story about Trump that read: “Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.” But as Politico reported, the note is no more. Washington Bureau Chief Ryan Grim told staff in a Tuesday night memo that the note would be removed “now that he’s now president and we’re going to start with a clean slate.”
So while Samantha Bee can preface every mention of Trump’s name with the colorful, incisive epithet of her choosing, alas, we cannot all be Samantha Bee. What can readers reasonably expect People to do?
Much of what Trump has said and done since that fateful escalator ride has offended and, in some cases, outright terrified a significant — though not electoral-majority significant — segment of the country. And still, in 70 days, he will preside.
“There’s a tension there,” Sullivan said. “And that is going to be true for many media organizations.”