Former Good Housekeeping Editor-in-Chief: How Women's Magazines Can Fight Second Phase of "Normalizing" Trump (Guest Column)

Mrs_Trump_Illo - THR - H 2016
Illustration by: Sam Hadley

Rosemary Ellis reveals the soft media's pending struggle to stay mass when the country is "divided down the middle" (and covers of Melania Trump's cookie recipes become inevitable).

For weeks now, every move made by Donald Trump — his victory, his appointments, his chest-beating tweets — have blared from the media. And however controversial his actions, the fact that Trump has gotten so much coverage has begun to normalize him; we're less shocked by his behavior than we were a month ago. Now comes the more insidious but inevitable Acceptance Phase?II. It's subtler and, for Trump opponents, more dangerous precisely because it's so benign. This longer-term normalization of celebrities and politicians traditionally has fallen to mass-market women's magazines, which for decades reached tens of millions of American women (and to a lesser degree still do), and, later, celebrity magazines. Witness the first salvo from People's special "President Trump" issue, which was criticized for "shameless pandering" because it glossed over the magazine's own reporter being assaulted by Trump.

As the former editor of Good Housekeeping, I interviewed Laura Bush and Michelle Obama multiple times (in fact, I was on the team that put Hillary Clinton on her first magazine cover, "Working Woman," in 1992, with the cover line "First Lady With a Career?"). While I never asked for cookie recipes, our interviews covered not only what readers care most about (education, health care, pay equity) but also included softer lifestyle questions, from how a White House marriage works to how to keep kids' lives "normal" in such an environment.

Covering the home life of the Trumps (there are at least four homes to cover, not counting the White House) will include the predictable reportage of which dishes are used for holidays along with endearing, possibly fabricated-by-the-press-secretary anecdotes about Trump as husband and father. In other words, what makes them relatable — only raised up to the highest office in the land.

First ladies or presidents have never sold a huge number of issues. When Good Housekeeping had its 125th anniversary, Michelle was on the cover. I knew she would sell fewer copies than a celebrity and that nearly half my readers wouldn't bother with the story. A few dozen wrote and forcefully told me so — and a couple hundred sent glowing letters of approval. It's American politics: divided down the middle, which means estranging half your audience when you do a "political" story.

Still, you are going to see Melania Trump gracing more than one women's magazine cover — and definitely next December, likely with cookie recipe in hand, standing next to the White House Christmas tree. And because there are more middle America readers of the "seven sisters" magazines (GH, Family Circle, Woman's Day, etc.) than coastal ones, Melania might even be slightly more popular than Michelle was. Even so, readers will want to know not only about holiday traditions but also the specifics of how President-elect Trump plans to replace Obamacare. Assuming those interests are mutually exclusive is to paint half the country with the same simplistic brush that created the election result.

Traditional White House coverage is, ironically, where the opportunity is right now. Women's magazines can use lifestyle reporting to create the framework for asking tougher questions and in doing so, give women — both those who feel they have the most to lose under this administration and those who voted for Trump — a more balanced view than they will find on, say, Fox News. Here's hoping they will.