Back in March 2011, Vogue ran a glowing profile of Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad by veteran journalist Joan Juliet Buck hailing her as “glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.” That very same month, news broke of horrific and escalating violence in the country as the government sought to quell public uprisings against the regime by massacring its citizens. The timing of the piece could not have been worse, but the media has been divided on whom to lay the bulk of the blame for the grievous misstep: Buck, Vogue, or the al-Assad’s PR firm, Brown Lloyd Jones.
Until recently, the former was under strict instructions not to speak to the press about the article, however in June the magazine chose not to renew her contract, despite her forty year history with Vogue. Thus untethered, Buck has written a lengthy piece for this week’s issue of Newsweek relating her side of the tale and attempting to unravel where, exactly, things went so horribly wrong. The headline contends “Mrs. Assad Duped Me”, a somewhat flippant way of saying that Buck was manipulated from all sides in the process of writing the Assad article, which is essentially the situation she illustrates.
The former editor in chief of French Vogue, Buck describes being approached with the story on December 1st, 2010, at which time she rejected the assignment point blank. “Absolutely not,” she told the magazine’s features editor. “I don’t want to meet the Assads, and they don’t want to meet a Jew.” She suggested they find a political journalist instead but, of course, this was not what the Assads had in mind. “We don’t want any politics, none at all,” the editor explained, “and she only wants to talk about culture, antiquities, and museums. You like museums. You like culture. She wants to talk to you. You’d leave in a week.” Her desire to visit the area and learn more about the regime won out in the end:
It was an assignment. I was curious. That’s why I’d become a writer. Vogue wanted a description of the good-looking first lady of a questionable country; I wanted to see the cradle of civilization. Syria gave off a toxic aura. But what was the worst that could happen? I would write a piece for Vogue that missed the deeper truth about its subject. I had learned long ago that the only person I could ever be truthful about was myself.
I didn’t know I was going to meet a murderer.
The piece goes on to describe a First Lady whose carefully-maintained image of civility and enlightenment (and thin, well-dressed, and polished appearance) was right in line with Vogue‘s values:
She was on show, “on,” and delivered a well-rounded and glossy presentation of a cozy, modern, relaxed version of herself, her family, and her country to an American fashion magazine. With a London accent.
It is not hard to imagine this kind of charade fooling a rookie journalist. But, of course, that is hardly what Buck was at the time. She goes on, however, to reveal further manipulation by those surrounding the Assads, including a hacked computer, carefully-monitored cell phone given to her at the start of her trip, and leaked emails between PR reps discussing the need to conceal any potentially damaging information. None of these points were mentioned in the profile, which when it ran, was accompanied by the “excruciating” headline “A Rose In The Desert”. Instead, 3,000 words were spent raving about Asma al-Assad elegant wardrobe, posh stature, and democratic parenting style. It was only after the piece was written that Buck expressed her growing doubts to Vogue about publishing the piece:
“The Arab Spring is spreading,” I told Vogue on Jan. 21. “You might want to hold the piece.”
Vogue, apparently, “didn’t think the Arab Spring was going anywhere, and the piece was needed for the March ‘Power Issue.'” The magazine, of course, was seriously mistaken about the course the revolutions would take, and Buck’s tale imparts troubling insight into the priorities and management of the magazine:
I asked Vogue’s managing editor if we could meet to discuss how to handle the Assad piece. A meeting was held, without me. I was asked not to speak to the press.
Yes, usually Vogue does not deal with such heavy matters as dictatorships or violent uprisings, but out-of-touch leadership at the world’s best-known fashion publication can clearly have serious consequences and affect the reputation of an entire industry. While the magazine pulled the piece from its website in May (“Oops,” says the error message now found at the page address) and Wintour finally commented on the debacle just last month, it remains in print as a beacon of Vogue‘s veneration of anyone chic, thin, and wealthy enough to deserve its glowing and untempered praise.