Amal Clooney's Baby Bump and the Awkward State of the Media Brand

A Time story got pilloried for focusing not on the speech the human rights lawyer delivered to the U.N., but on her “baby bump.” It deserved the mockery … and, in another way, it didn’t.

Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, right, and her client Nadia Murad, left, a human rights activist, Yazidi genocide survivor, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, along with Amal Clooney's baby bump, out of frame, listen during a United Nations human rights meeting called "The Fight against Impunity for Atrocities: Bringing Da'esh [ISIS] to Justice," Thursday, March 9, 2017 at U.N. headquarters.  (Bebeto Matthews / AP )

On Thursday, the human rights lawyer Amal Clooney made an appearance at the United Nations to participate in a meeting titled “The Fight Against Impunity for Atrocities: Bringing Da’esh to Justice.” Clooney was in attendance at the gathering specifically to deliver a speech to the international body in an attempt to persuade its member states to take legal action against the atrocities committed by Da’esh, better known to Americans as ISIS. She was, in that appearance, accompanied by one of her clients, Nadia Murad, a human rights activist, a survivor of Yazidi genocide, and a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. The pair, via Clooney’s urgently toned address, warned the U.N. members thatyou must take the initiative to secure accountability in other ways available to you under the U.N. Charter.” The speech concluded:

Don’t let this be another Rwanda, where you regret doing too little, too late. Don’t let ISIS get away with genocide.

Clooney’s appearance at the U.N., unsurprisingly, made headlines in news outlets around the world. One of those outlets was Time, which on Thursday published an article about Clooney’s U.N. appearance to its women-oriented Motto channel, linking that appearance to International Women’s Day and effusing about the “chic pregnancy look” Clooney sported in the run-up to her speech. (Time’s article has since been updated, removing the mention of Clooney’s maternity style but keeping, in its second paragraph, the fact that she “stepped out outside the United Nations headquarters in New York City on Wednesday, showing off her baby bump in a dark gray pencil skirt and matching cropped blazer.”) Time tweeted its story with the text, “Amal Clooney shows off her baby bump at the United Nations.”

The magazine was, for all this, roundly—deservedly—mocked. “Maybe it’s ‘Time’ people started valuing brains over baby-making potential,” the New York Daily News scoffed. “No, Amal Clooney Wasn’t ‘Showing Off Her Baby Bump’ at the U.N.,” the Huffington Post put it. “A lawyer named Amal Clooney gave a powerful speech at the U.N. Some only saw her baby bump,” the Washington Post reported. Mashable summed things up like so: “Time is getting dragged for this weird tweet about Amal Clooney’s baby bump during her speech on ISIS.”

Time’s tweet was, to be sure, unfortunate. So was the story it linked to, which blithely prioritized Clooney’s status as a celebrity wife and a mother-to-be and a fashion icon before her status—the status, of course, that occasioned her appearance at the U.N. in the first place—as a celebrated lawyer.

What’s striking, though, is how similar Time’s take on Clooney’s U.N. appearance was to—indeed, how nearly indistinguishable it was from—the takes of many, many other media outlets. “Amal Clooney Stuns in Yellow While Delivering Passionate Speech at the United Nations,” Entertainment Tonight had it. “Amal Clooney is a vision in yellow as she shows off hint of baby bump in chic dress,” the U.K. Mirror reported. People placed its own take on the news—“Amal Clooney Steps Out at United Nations to Speak Against ISIS”—under the rubric of “Baby Bumps.”

The difference, and the source of the public outcry against Time’s baby-bumped tweet, is that Time’s tweet came from Time. Audiences have different expectations for the storied newsmagazine than they do for Entertainment Tonight. Time is not a celebrity gossip site. It is not focused on fashion.

Or, maybe it is? The Clooney story, in this case, was part of Time’s Motto section, a platform aimed specifically at millennial women. Here’s the explanation Time provided of that section, on the occasion of its launch in February 2016:

Over the last two years, TIME’s digital audience has expanded dramatically, and close to half our readers are millennials. They are drawn not only to TIME’s coverage of the world but increasingly to TIME’s content on how to live a richer, smarter, more meaningful life—how to negotiate a raise, how to manage your inbox, how to actually unplug on vacation. It was, we discovered, millennial women who were most passionate and most engaged with that content, and they were looking for more.

So we’ve created Motto, a new platform from the editors of TIME dedicated to empowering the next generation. It’s about offering the advice and support to blaze new trails and redefine success in the fundamental aspects of our lives: how we work, play, and live (and you’ll see that we’ve organized the site around these three sections).

Which is instructive. On the one hand, the “dragging” Time is taking is a reminder of the very particular ways that media outlets organize themselves—into verticals and sections and channels, with different editorial structures and production strategies—and of the ways that those organizations are often nearly meaningless to audiences. Time may publish to Motto, and that distinction may mean something to Time; it will mean very little, however, to most of Time’s readers, particularly when they are members of that fly-by “digital audience” Time seems to be seeking.

But the tweet and the backlash are instructive for another reason, as well: They highlight the potential pitfalls of the new kind of media convergence taking place at the moment—not just the merging of media platforms and technologies, but also the merging of topics and sensibilities within the seething stew of “information.” It used to be, in the world whose sense of itself was generally organized by newspapers and TV news segments, that “news” and “entertainment,” and indeed “politics” and “culture,” were easily demarcated. One topic here, the other there, each covered in its own way. Under that regime, Amal Clooney’s appearance at the U.N. might be covered as a politics story and/or as an entertainment one, with the former focusing on the content of her speech and the latter focusing on her Chic Baby Bump. The latter might be a little demeaning, but, hey—it’s entertainment. Style over substance is the fun of it.

But we are living, at this point, in a new regime. A reality TV star is president. Teen Vogue is covering politics and policy. The Atlantic is covering the Kardashians. It is difficult—indeed, it is pretty much impossible—to find the line that divides politics from culture. Again: Convergence. Which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily—life is complicated and messy, and to divide its happenings into neat, newspapery columns was never fully true to that disarray—but it means that news organizations will need to be much more intentional about the way they present their stories to the public. It’s one thing for Entertainment Tonight to effuse about Amal Clooney’s baby bump. When Time does it, though—Time, which has spent years branding itself as a fairly straight-ahead summarizer of human events—the effusion will read as an insult, to Amal Clooney and to readers. Because convergence. And because Amal Clooney may be fashionable and beautiful and the soon-to-be mother of her celebrity husband’s children; when she gives a speech to the U.N., though, the only thing that matters is that she is delivering that speech as a lawyer.