Time magazine has gone reality one better.

This week's cover features a grim mug shot of O.J. Simpson -- looking darker and more sinister than in the same picture on the cover of Newsweek. That's because the Los Angeles police photo was electronically manipulated to create what Time, in small type on the contents page, calls a "photo illustration."

"It's certainly not meant to mislead anyone," Time spokeswoman Nancy Kearney said yesterday. "To classify it as intentionally misleading, sinister or racist is irresponsible, and insulting to the magazine and the artist."

Time's rivals deplored the practice. "We as a matter of policy do not manipulate news photos," said Merrill McLoughlin, co-editor of U.S. News & World Report. "Had Time alone done it, the public probably would have believed that's exactly what the picture was, and that's what's so scary about electronic manipulation. I did think it was a darker, more sinister approach."

Richard Smith, Newsweek's editor in chief, said: "We don't mess around with news pictures. I'm just very surprised. The power of the real picture was certainly enough for us." He said Time "didn't change it enough to make it clear it was an illustration."

Sheila Stainback, a CNBC correspondent and vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists, sees a racial aspect to the photo doctoring. "African Americans are particularly sensitive to complexion," she said. "Why did he have to be darker? I think it plays into the whole menacing-black-male portrayal."

Time Managing Editor Jim Gaines did not respond to a request for comment.

This is the third time in a year that Time has sparked controversy with its photos. In March, the magazine illustrated a Whitewater story with a White House photo of President Clinton and aide George Stephanopoulos that had been taken months earlier, was darkened and was cropped to exclude Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers. Last year, Time published purported photos of child prostitutes in Russia but later apologized, saying the pictures had been staged.

Time's cover on the double murder charges against Simpson ("An American Tragedy") makes him appear to have darker stubble on his face, and the size of police identification numbers at the bottom were reduced.

The photo was altered on a computer by freelance artist Matt Mahurin, who has done seven previous covers for Time. Kearney described his work as "somber, moody, sepia-toned." Mahurin said he was "completely shocked by the whole reaction to it" but declined to comment further.

"It's a widely distributed public photo that had been used repeatedly, and we just wanted something different on the cover," Kearney said. "We decided to use the mug shot as a basis for the illustration and come up with an image that was a visually compelling element to the overall story."