MOST PEOPLE are not really worth talking or writing about. The people who are the subjects of Time Inc.'s newly launched weekly, People, are not exceptions, by and large. And when someone noteworthy appears in People, the magazine's editors and writers write nothing worth reading about him.
A more vapid excuse for a mass circulation magazine would be difficult to imagine. Americans supposedly have an unmet need for heroes. The astronauts did not pan out; the current president has turned out to be a criminal; Vietnam produced only careerists. People zeroes in on celebrities, not on generals and space cadets. And it tries to manufacture celebrities, too.
A celebrity is somebody of interest because he is famous, and while he may derive his fame from prowess in some particular field, a magazine, like People focuses on the personal and irrelevant sidelights of the celebrity, not on the wellspring of his fame.
People also puts the spotlight on people with no particular ability, but who are interesting either for being unusually pathetic victims or for being related to important people. "Interesting" is too strong a word to describe some of these people, though a word to describe some of these people, though, especially the ones like Tricia Nixon and Edward Cox or Claude and Paloma Picasso. Meeting Rabbi Baruch Korff might be intriguing, reading about him is not.
Another class of people in favor with People's editors might be called wierdos. Alice Cooper (who turns out to be a multi-millionaire golfer and Nixon supporter), Lt. Hiroo Onoda (guess who he is), an African beauty queen in General Amin's Uganda cabinet--these and many more grace this magazine's pages. And they are all featured in the same marvelous black and white photography, as the editors of People have artistically (as in The Last Picture Show) decided to avoid more expensive color shots. These and other cost-cutting measures make it possible to offer People to the general public at a news stand price only 35 cents above the magazine's value.
MAGAZINE and newspaper layout is in some sense an art, but it is a commercial one, and it can simultaneously be technically proficient and creatively sterile. People is easy enough to read, it is even reasonably attractive. The ragged right columns and the lavish use of pictures--some good and some so bad that they would never appear in Time--give the undertaking an informality appropriate to the spineless and pointless quality of the copy. The effort is an example of form literally without content.
And the presence or absence of content form this magazine is not even debatable. To attempt reading People for information is futile. To read it for entertainment is to define as pleasure an onanistic spasm at the dropping of somebody's name. Gerald Ford in a swimming pool and Raquel Welch in a purple blouse are not very stimulating. And so we reach the question of what the people at Time Inc. think they are offering, and why the people who buy the magazine think it is worth having.
A partial answer lies in many people's willingness to settle for a little bit of titillation. Their lives are so barren that merely reading about the slightly less barren lives of the momentarily famous offers a thrill. Time Inc., in keeping with its corporate tradition, has decided to profit from this sad situation. Peoplecertainly does little to improve the content of its audience's existence. Rather, it is an effort to exploit the sorry state of victims with 35 cents burning a hole in their pocket.
No one will detect any interest on the part of People's editors in filling the spiritual void apparently nagging at the American public's herostarved psyche. People does not make heroes. People doesn't even make celebrities, at least not yet. People is an attempt to profit from the celebrity status or strangeness of others.
Magazines ought to have some reason for their existence beyond their potential profitability. People just conceivably could be meant to provide entertainment. But if it ever does so, it will succeed by appealing to its readers worst instincts, their snobbish regressive ambitions to vicariously share in the tinsel elitism that Peoplecaptures with such fidelity.
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED lost money for years before breaking into the black. Time Inc. is a rich corporation and can afford to back the startup of a national mass circulation magazine for years. People is not and will not become a journalistic success. It is just a National Star for people who will not be caught alive reading that tabloid. Hopefully, People will not become a financial success, either, and Time Inc. will lose money on it for even longer than the company lost money on Sports Illustrated--a magazine so much better than People that it is worth reading.