I picked up my first copy of Stop Smiling magazine at News World on K and Connecticut earlier this week. Behind the curve as always, I just learned about the Chicago-based publication from media critic Jack Shafer's gushing write-up on Slate. I'm always eager to get behind anybody in the Midwest out there trying to do their thing â€“ I am from Iowa after all â€“ and, despite blowing a bit too hard from time to time, I've usually found Shafer's aim to be near the mark.
I will say this. It's got all the interviews a well trimmed goatee could ask for. Just in this most recent issue you can find thoughtful chats with Dave Eggers, Garrison Keillor, and Kurt Vonnegut. With a lineup like that you're 20 questions with Jon Stewart and a few cheesecake photos of Sarah Vowell shy of assembling all the pieces necessary to reconstruct the brain patterns of every young, gifted and liberal male I met in my four years as a Chicagoan.
Standing astride a rooftop in spike heels and a short black skirt, Laura Dawn stopped me on page 27 with a new addition to the standard come hither pose: an Iowa Hawkeyes sweatshirt. A product of Pleasantville, IA, a small town outside Des Moines, Dawn is an aspiring rock singer who now lives in New York City and splits her time working for the Democratic activists Moveon.org. Writer Annie Nocenti describes Dawn as disarming, charming, inventive, successful, radiant, elegant, demure, classic and reminiscent of both Grace Kelly and Princess Diana. And that's just in the first two paragraphs.
Speaking as someone who's familiar with central Iowa, let me assure you that's not their typical vintage.
Because of all the purple praise, I almost gave up on the story at the jump, ready to dismiss it as just another hack profile on par with the sympathetic softies you expect to find in newsletters aimed at people who all think the same. But, in hopes of finding a few more juicy details about my home state, I soldiered on to the story's conclusion on page 116.
While I didn't come across anything more about Iowa, I did find a plug for a MoveOn-related book titled â€œIt Takes a Nationâ€ that Dawn helped to edit. After all the praise heaped her way by Nocenti, it was hard not to think this thing might be worth learning more about.
I didn't have to look far. But I did have to squint. The article concludes with a brief description of Nocenti that includes this disclosure, in a tiny font I'd estimate at around five points.
Nocenti is an editor at large for STOP SMILING and was a contributing editor on It Takes a Nation.
Then I visited the book's Amazon.com page and found another connection. The blurb describes the book as featuring a collection of work by photojournalist Carter Smith. The photo of Dawn on page 27 that caught my eye. Yep, also credited to Carter Smith.
Flaky profile or not, it always strikes me as problematic when a journalist has a professional connection with their subject. Are they serving my interests as a reader, or an agenda of their own? Considering how the book they worked on was commissioned by the political activists at MoveOn.org, the circumstances suggest Nocenti was assigned to cover the activities of a group to which she, because of her involvement in their book, may personally belong. How do I know this isn't propaganda? It doesn't help that she's elected to describe Dawn not just favorably, but lustily. Grace Kelly and Princess Diana.
I sent the magazine's managing editor, James Hughes, an email asking if his staff had put any thought into the matter. Here is his response:
Thank you for your concerns. Annie Nocenti, one of our editors at large, is a 20-year veteran of magazine publishing, and we trust the pieces she brings into the fold. We often have writers and authors expand on their personal interactions with their colleagues in print. In fact, we've devoted large portions of issues, like our "Publishing"" (22) and "Auteurs"" (23) issues, to writers/editors and filmmakers commenting on their collaborations with their colleagues. This is consistent with our editorial direction.
If we were a news source, this would have perhaps been handled differently. But we're an entertainment magazine. And we're independently owned and operated, so the outcome of Ms. Dawn's book or other such titles is not our concern.
While it's hard to get too worked up over a little magazine profile, I can't say I'm satisfied with Hughes' answer. Nocenti and the editors do deserve credit for disclosing the connection, but a small dose of transparency isn't enough to remedy my unease. The evidence of a conflict of interest creates a perception of the possibility of deception. Learning about their connection the way we do, it's hard not to be suspicious of the whole article being in bad faith. As far as I know, Dawn, Nocenti and Carter are best friends and political collaborators seeking to win me over with an air brushed portrait of their cause. On the other hand, I don't know that to be the case. Maybe they'd never met before their interview, despite the connection on â€œIt Takes a Nation.â€ There's not enough evidence available to pass judgment either way. My assumption is that Stop Smiling, despite being an entertainment magazine, aspires to instill more confidence than this in its readers. If so, I think this sort of thing ought to be of their concern.
But that's just me. What do you think? Am I being schoolmarmish? I'm not the only one feeling queasy about this sort of thing. Martha Bayne came down pretty hard in a recent review for the Chicago Reader.