Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Top 10 Most Absurd Time Covers of The Past 40 Years

Mr. Luce's mag does Satanism, porn, crack, Pokémon, and more!

From William Randolph Hearst's ginned up hysterical stories about marijuana to the "10-cent plague" comic book scare of the 1950s to The New York Times warning of "cocaine-crazed Negroes" raping white women across the Southern countryside, the media has always whipped up anxiety and increased readership via thinly sourced exposes of the next great threat to the American way of life.

And since the British sociologist Stanley Cohen defined the moral panic phenomenon in the early 1970s as hysterical overreactions to imagined threats to social order, no publication has done a better (by which we mean worse) job of scaring the crap out of post-baby boomer America than Time, the top-selling newsweekly that's dropping subscribers like the mythical meth mouth drops teeth. (Hot tip to Time: If you're looking for a cutting-edge panic to get those ad rates up again, we hear people have been freaking out about "sexting" lately.)

As a service to future historians of the long, slow death of the newsweekly, Reason offers this Top 10 list of the most horrifying, silly, irresponsible, or downright ridiculous Time cover panics from the past 40 years.

June 19, 1972: The Occult Revival

Why So Worried? Time warns that bizarre occult rituals involving black-draped altars, flashes of fire, and "goat-shaped images superimposed on purple pentagram[s]" are "being re-enacted all across the U.S. nowadays." The article describes "sex clubs that embellish their orgies with Satanist rituals," takes note of the Satanic followers of Charles Manson, and recounts two anecdotal news stories about a grave robbery and an alleged stabbing inspired by Lucifer.

Cue Ominous Music: "There is a taking the Devil too lightly, for in doing so man might take evil too lightly as well. Recent history has shown terrifyingly enough that the demonic lies barely beneath the surface, ready to catch men unawares with new and more horrible manifestations."

Oh, Just Settle Down: Time's warning that devil worship was sweeping the country was short on supporting evidence. While exact figures are difficult to come by, most estimates put America's Satanist population in the range of 10,000-20,000 people. The 1980s saw an explosion not of Wiccans and sorcerers, but of evangelical Protestants. But that only fueled the fear of Mephistopheles, as the decade saw America overcome by scares over the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, Satanic messages inscribed backward on heavy metal albums, and the persistent urban legend about the satanist origins of Procter & Gamble's corporate logo. In the early 1980s, a "Satanic ritual abuse" (SRA) panic swept America and Europe, during which Christian fundamentalists and repressed memory psychiatrists claimed Satanist cults were subjecting children to animal sacrifice, scatology, sexual abuse, and murder. Dozens of questionable prosecutions followed, including the infamous 1984 McMartin preschool molestation trials, in which seven people were charged with 321 counts of child abuse based only on questionable memories psychiatrists claimed to have recovered from children who attended the school. Subsequent studies showed the SRA phenomenon to be without merit.

9. April 5, 1976: The Porno Plague

Why So Worried? Porn, Time says, is sweeping the country, leaving our deflowered Puritan sensibilities in its wake. "The First Amendment may safeguard the rights of pornographers and their audience," the magazine posits, "but surely the majority of Americans who find porn objectionable have rights as well. Must they and their children be under constant assault by the hucksters of porn?"

Cue Ominous Music: The article quotes U.C.L.A. psychiatrist Robert J. Stoller, author of Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred, who warns that porn "'disperses rage' that might tear society apart, but also threatens society by serving as propaganda for the unleashing of sexual hostility."

Oh, Just Settle Down: Time was right about the increase in production and availability of pornography in the 1970s, it was just wrong about the effects. Two years after this cover appeared, the number of reported rapes in the U.S. began a 30-year free-fall, a period over which pornography became increasingly easier to obtain. Today, porn is more abundant and ubiquitous than ever, while incidence of rape in the U.S. is at its lowest rate since the government started keeping statistics.

8. August 6, 1984: The Population Curse

Why So Worried? Using an upcoming U.N. conference in Mexico City as its hook, Time engages in some Paul Ehrlich-style doom-mongering about overpopulation.

Cue Ominous Music: "The consequences of a failure to bring the world's population growth under control are frightening. They could include widespread hunger and joblessness, accompanied by environmental devastation and cancerous urban growth. Politically, the outcome could be heightened global instability, violence and authoritarianism."

Oh, Just Settle Down: Since Time's 1984 cover story, the world's population has increased from 4.75 billion to 6.78 billion people. This year, the World Bank's Poverty Analysis reported, "Living standards have risen dramatically over the last decades. The proportion of the developing world's population living in extreme economic poverty...has fallen from 52 percent in 1981 to 26 percent in 2005.... Infant mortality rates in low- and middle-income countries have fallen from 87 per 1,000 live births in 1980 to 54 in 2006. Life expectancy in [low and middle-income] countries has risen from 60 to 66 between 1980 and 2006." According to the peace advocacy group Ploughshares, the number of armed conflicts across the globe has generally been in decline since the mid-1990s (PDF). As for "authoritarianism," with the fall of the Soviet empire, a far greater percentage of the global population lived under such regimes in 1984 than do today. Even the massive population in China is freer (if not actually "free") than it was in 1984.

7. September 15, 1986: Drugs: The Enemy Within

Why So Worried?
This Time cover story simultaneously fans the flames of drug war hysteria while acknowledging it may not be all it' up to be. The article admits that a vanishingly small number of people actually die of cocaine overdoses (just 563 in 1983, out of tens of millions of users), yet still refers to the drug as a "taker of lives." After suggesting that the country might be overreacting to drug use and acknowledging the drug war causes far more problems than it helps, the article concludes, "If Americans are willing to say clearly—to their workmates and schoolmates, to their neighbors and friends, to their communities and to themselves—that drug use is not acceptable...then even all the hype and excess may in retrospect be worthwhile." No, Time, it wasn't.

Cue Ominous Music: "To a nation that espouses self-reliance, drug dependence has emerged as the dark side of the American character, the price of freedom to fail. It is as if America, so vain and self-consciously fit, has looked upon itself and suddenly seen the hideously consumptive portrait of Dorian Gray. The country, it seems, is awash with drugs. Fine white powder pours past the border patrol like sand through a sieve. On busy street corners and in urban parks, pushers murmur, 'Crack it up, crack it up,' like some kind of evil incantation, bewitching susceptible kids and threatening society's sense of order and security."

Oh, Just Settle down: Overall use of illicit drugs has largely remained constant over the years, though individual drugs go in and out of vogue. Crack in particular was singled out in the late '80s; Time called it "the most virulent" form of drug abuse, while one expert quoted in a similar Newsweek article called it "the most addictive drug known to man." As Reason's Jacob Sullum explains in his book Saying Yes, studies show that the vast majority of crack users never went on to become addicts. One 1994 survey, for example, showed that 93 percent of respondents who had admitted to trying crack weren't using the allegedly instantaneously addictive drug as much as once a month when the survey was taken. Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman even theorzied in the Wall Street Journal that it's actually the prohibition of cocaine that gave us drugs like crack, likening the intoxicant to the bathtub gin that soaked the black market during alcohol prohibition.

More to the point, drug scare stories like this one—and Time has run a number of them over the years (see, for example, this one about Ecstasy, also mostly overblown)—have contributed to mass public panics that gave us the nation's odious drug laws, which while producing mass collateral damage, have had little effect on the actual drug supply.

6. May 7, 1990: Dirty Words

Why So Worried? Citing gangsta rap and heavy metal lyrics, raunchy comedians, and radio shock jocks, Time worries that American pop culture has grown too vulgar. The "new crude," Time frets, is different from the old crude of people like Lenny Bruce, because the new crude has no redeeming social message. "Today's sex almost exclusively from the male-pig viewpoint," the magazine scolds, and it features ample helpings of racism, homophobia, and other bigotry.

Cue Ominous Music: Time quotes a woman who says that after sitting through a comedy routine by Andrew "Dice" Clay, "she felt like a Jew at the 1934 Nuremberg rally."

Oh, Just Settle Down: The Time story offered no actual data that America was getting cruder, much less that it's anything to worry about. Andrew "Dice" Clay, the article's main bogeyman, was last seen getting tossed from Donald Trump's reality show for D-list celebrities. That doesn't mean American society has gone PG. But it's hard to argue that pop culture's comfort with bad language is anything to fret about. Since the Time article ran in 1990, nearly every measurable social indicator has been moving in the right direction, from youth crime to sex crime to teen pregnancy. America has largely grown more tolerant, too, even as ethnic, sexist, and homophobic jokes are widely available on iTunes, the Internet, and basic cable, most notably via Comedy Central's airing of Friars Club roasts. Time would return to the "vulgar culture" theme in 1999, with the cover story, "Are Movies and Music Killing America's Soul?" (Conclusion: Maybe!)

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