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Shakur Coverage: Deadlines or Denial?

September 22, 1996|Steve Hochman

Was life on Mars bigger news than the death of rap superstar Tupac Shakur?

It was if you judge by Newsweek's choice of the Red Planet for the cover photo of its current issue--a topic that's been in the news for more than a month.

And Newsweek wasn't alone in relegating the rapper's demise to its inside pages. Time magazine gave its cover space to a new diet drug.

Though the news of Shakur's death broke late on Friday, Sept. 13, six days after he was shot in a Las Vegas ambush, both magazines had the option of changing cover plans over the weekend for issues that hit newsstands on Monday.

Newsweek did cover a story related to the April 1994 suicide of Kurt Cobain, whose cultural position and record sales were roughly on a par with Shakur's.

The situation doesn't sit well with some people. "I'm upset by this," says Alan Light, editor-in-chief of the hip-hop culture monthly Vibe magazine, which is going to the expense and effort to add a new wrap-around cover and an eight-page inside special section on Shakur to an issue that had already been printed and will be on newsstands next week.

"The big news weeklies . . . complain that they're losing the younger audience," Light says. "Well, when a story that speaks to the central issues of young people gets [slighted], I'm not surprised they're losing those people."

Newsweek Editor Maynard Parker says that he considered a Shakur cover, but wasn't confident that the story would support that placement, so he opted simply to add a banner to the cover referring to the death.

"To be quite frank, it was a difficult story to report . . . one for which few people were willing to talk on the record," Parker says. "I thought it was very important--witness the amount of space we gave it. But would we have enough on a very tight deadline to do the kind of cover we would want? And I thought not."

Time Public Affairs Director Robert Pondiscio says the coverage--a one-page report and analysis--is consistent with past coverage by the magazine. Cobain was not on the cover when he died, and the last time a pop music death made the cover was John Lennon's in 1980.

"I'm not sure how much we could have said about [Shakur] that was not already said in the dailies and on TV," says Pondiscio, who notes that even after the Kennedy assassination, new President Lyndon Johnson was on the cover, not JFK--part of a longstanding tradition at Time to avoid putting deceased figures on the cover.

A source at Newsweek who asked not to be identified says that there is a reluctance to put a figure like Shakur on the cover, given a perceived antipathy to rap among its readers. But he also says that part of the decision to stick with the Mars cover was a matter of timing: The news broke at the start of Rosh Hashana, leaving the magazine with a diminished staff.

Due to different matters of timing, Shakur was also aced out of the covers of the top two entertainment/celebrity weeklies, People and Entertainment Weekly, with their current issues printed before the rapper died. People has a story about the Shakur shooting, with a small photo of him in the upper corner of the cover. And at press time, EW was expected to feature him on its next cover.

"Because we closed [last week's issue] before he died, this week will just be a follow-up that he died," says People senior writer Steve Dogherty, who edited the publication's Shakur reports. "I hate to put it this way, but if he had died sooner, it would have been the cover story."

Both Rolling Stone and Spin, the leading music-oriented magazines, are currently developing Shakur stories--likely to be covers--for issues that are currently in progress, though neither will give the same extent of coverage it gave to Cobain's death.

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