As a member of the vaunted Time Inc. magazine empire, People has always stood a cut or two above most celebrity magazines, ethically speaking. But Angelina Jolie is "scary smart," in the words of celeb-mag editor Bonnie Fuller, and the actress seems to have had little trouble corrupting People's soul. Set aside the now-common practice of paying for baby pictures. Judging from a Times exposé, Jolie also banished the word "Brangelina" from People's pages, dictated coverage of her charitable work in Cambodia and won from People the "positive" tone she demanded. She seems to have pulled this off with a little editor-source dance that gave People plausible deniability.

" The magazine does not determine editorial content based on the demands of outside parties," People told the Times in a statement. So much wiggle room: The denial does not preclude making promises to sources like Jolie or outlining plans for them in advance.

Here's how Jolie gets what she wants from magazine editors while allowing the editors to pretend they have not sold their souls, judging from the template of People's 2006 coverage of Jolie's first child:

  • A third party circulates a memo to editors outlining what Jolie wants to see in coverage, then asking about coverage plans. (In 2006, Jolie's "philanthropic adviser" said in a memo to editors the celebrity wanted coverage of her Cambodia charity work and "invited" information on their plans.)
  • Magazines come back with an outline of their "plans," along with the all-important monetary photo bid.
  • The "plans" (especially the successful ones) just happen to correspond closely to what the the celebrity wants.
  • The magazines can claim their "plans" are based on their own prerogatives instead of Jolie's requirements. Happy coincidence, you see.
  • The magazines can also claim they never promised anything, only outlined the plans as they stood at that moment.
  • And yet Jolie's people can claim to have extracted editorial concessions: "Part of why we wrote that memo is that we wanted to use the interest in her personal life to influence people to pay attention to important issues," her 2006 philanthropic adviser told the Times.

People's coverage in 2006 was scandalously conformant to Jolie's wishes:

“While Angelina and Brad understand the interest in their family, they also expect that the publications who purchase these photos will use them in a way that also draws attention to the needs of the Cambodian people,” Mr. Neilson wrote in a December 2006 memo to editors...

Time Inc. won the photos, paying an estimated $750,000. In the Jan. 8 issue of People came an article headlined “Angelina Jolie: Mission to Cambodia.”

In its coverage of Jolie's latest birth, to twins, People never once used the term "Brangelina," a word the couple hates. It's not clear if the magazine acceded to Jolie's other demand that she get positive coverage "not merely in that instance but into the future," as the Times put it.

Celebrities like Jolie get admiration for such effective flacking, which in this case worked not only on People but Us Weekly and others. The publications, though, (especially People) look more and more like publicity brochures crafted by the celebrities they cover, and increasingly undifferentiated from the morass of celebrity coverage online.