Time's SARS Truth

Political correctness is alive and well and, as of a week ago, residing with almost comic visibility on America's newsstands, where it looked out at customers and passersby alike from behind surgical masks and above headlines of decidedly alarmist nature.

The May 5 issues of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report all did their lead stories on SARS (search). Each magazine, seemingly intent on frightening the consumer into making a purchase, featured a cover photo of a person with a face half-covered with fabric.

But on last week's Fox News Watch, Jane Hall pointed out something interesting about the cover subjects. They were all Caucasian. The disease is more prevalent in China than anywhere else in the world, yet Time and Newsweek displayed females of decidedly Western features under their banners, while U.S. News went with the face of Dr. Kevin Gough (search) from the Infectious Diseases Department of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. That, of course, made sense; several cases of SARS have turned up in Toronto, and the city was, for a time, a proscribed travel site.

But the Time and Newsweek covers did not make sense. Those of us on the panel had a chuckle about them, wondered why the two magazines had made such a mistake, and went on to other matters.

Except that it wasn't a mistake. It was political correctness. It was a deliberate lie told in images, not words.

Jim Kelly, the managing editor of Time, explained his thinking about cover girls as follows: "It was a very conscious decision on our part to pick a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman who looked like she got off the beach at Laguna. We wanted to go with a Western woman because we felt the disease was stigmatizing Asians unfairly."

Whoa. Wait a minute. Time out here, Jimbo. According to the latest figures released by the World Health Organization (search), there have been 63 confirmed cases of SARS in the United States — none of them on the beach at Laguna — and no deaths. In China, there have been 4,805 cases and 230 deaths. Perhaps Asians are being unfairly stigmatized by SARS, but it is the virus that is doing the stigmatizing, not the media that report the cases fairly and honestly. Which you, in choosing your southern-California-variety beach babe for the cover of the magazine, did not.

Let us imagine, for a moment, Mr. Kelly's explanation being made into a standing rule of journalism:

Let us say there is an earthquake on a remote island in the South Pacific, but we wouldn't want to stigmatize the residents of the island, so we take a picture of some Eskimos harpooning seals in the Bering Strait and put that on the cover. Make sense?

Or let us say some racist shoots a couple of blacks coming out of a church one day, but we wouldn't want to stigmatize people of color, so we take a picture of some Jews at a Passover seder and put that on the cover. Make sense?

Or let us say a new study reveals that drug use among professional baseball players has reached new heights, but we wouldn't want to stigmatize pitchers and catchers and infielders and outfielders, so we take a picture of the Harvard lightweight women's crew pulling their oars through the Charles River one morning and put that on the cover. Make sense?

It does if you follow Mr. Kelly's line of reasoning. It does if you take so crooked a path. It does if you are politically, rather than journalistically, correct.

Ultimately, the Time and Newsweek stories about SARS were more important than their cover photos, and both magazines did a respectable job of reporting the facts and putting the spread of the disease into perspective.

But Mr. Kelly's bizarre rationale for the gal from Laguna cannot help but raise questions. Will Time do this kind of thing again? Does it not see a problem in choosing a face that contradicts the facts? It is a short step from fearing the consequences of the truth to fearing — and thus avoiding — the truth altogether.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.. ET/8 p.m. PT .

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