The Infamous “Breastfeeding Mom” (2012)
The actual content of the cover story is reasonable enough, exploring the phenomenon of “attachment parenting” and why one pediatrician thinks “wearing” babies is good for them. The choice of cover art, however, was more questionable: in order to make up for the lack of actual shock value in the piece itself (baby wearers are all over the place, after all), Time opted to put an attractive blonde woman breastfeeding her three-year-old child on its front page. Not only was the cover a blatant (but successful) grab for attention, it also sexualized motherhood in a rather uncomfortable way and dragged a poor toddler into the national spotlight. There is no way that kid’s going to live down that photo come high school.
We’re All Special (2006)
Time‘s Person of the Year, once Man of the Year in less enlightened times, used to be a highly anticipated announcement. That was before Time gave an early indication that it was failing to adapt to the digital, not to mention millennial, age by delivering the world’s biggest cop-out for its 2006 Person of the Year. It was “You,” meaning “Everyone,” meaning basically “No One.” The cover made the magazine the butt of a thousand jokes, not to mention the source of a million inflated resumes.
Photoshopping O.J. (1994)
The worst part of this PR fiasco for Time is that the magazine didn’t have to do much to cause it — just make like Newsweek, copy and paste O.J. Simpson’s mug shot onto its cover, and call it a day. But for some reason, Time‘s graphic design team thought it’d be a brilliant idea to make the football player look considerably darker in skin tone than he already was, provoking a firestorm of racism and fear-mongering accusations that made them almost more reviled than the football player himself.
Swearing Is Ruining America (1990)
Unsurprisingly, Time‘s “kids these days” mentality didn’t start with the millennials (in fact, that’s one of the main reasons the story’s been catching flak). With this 1990 cover, the magazine collectively wrinkled its nose to declare that American culture was deteriorating into a morass of foul-mouthed rappers and relaxed censors. Turns out they should have been way more concerned about our level of political discourse than our level of cultural discourse: one is actually vital to our daily lives and whether the country actually gets things done, whereas the other has given us brilliant works like The Wire and good kid, m.A.A.d. city without corrupting the children.
Cats. Seriously, Cats. (1981)
There’s not much to say about this one, except that there is absolutely no way something more newsworthy than the relative merits of cats wasn’t going on in December 1981. C’mon, the corner teaser even looks like better cover material.
Satanism’s Baaaack! (1972)
Sometime in the early 1970s, Time decided to stop being a source of serious journalism for a while and start being your Sunday school teacher. You know, the one who wouldn’t let you read Harry Potter on account of the witchcraft. This cover story attempted to scare readers into believing that an epidemic of devil worship was sweeping the nation, and fresh off the tumult of the late ’60s, including the Manson murders, readers were all too willing to believe it. Needless to say, the country is still safely out of Satan’s clutches… but that’s probably what he’d want us to think.
Adolf Hitler as Man of the Year (1938)
We’ll give Time some credit and concede that Adolf Hitler’s title of 1938’s Man of the Year wasn’t meant as a ringing endorsement (just look at that ominous cover art), but rather a recognition of the sheer impact of the ascendant dictator’s impact on world affairs. Still, giving the single most reviled man of the 20th century a title with any kind of positive connotation leaves a bad taste in most contemporary mouths, especially considering just how bad things would become in the coming years. Next year’s honoree was the slightly — really, only a tiny bit — less controversial Josef Stalin, making 1938-9 something of a low point for Time‘s editorial staff.