Gay Talese’s Basement
|Evan Smith, the editor of Texas Monthly, also believes a publication can cover the war without taking an editorial position. This, he further claims, is the best way to insure the magazine’s bottom line. When Smith published a special “Texans at War” issue in March 2006, featuring a cover reminiscent of the movie poster for “Full Metal Jacket,” depicting a helmet with bullets tucked into the strap, a Texas state flag pin (instead of the peace-sign pin as seen on the poster) and the words “God Bless Texas” handwritten on the helmet, he said he made sure the cover betrayed neither a pro- or anti-war stance. Instead, he said it reflected his magazine’s mission to report “the shared experience of being a Texan,” by covering the war with an approach that would appeal to all Texans. He also stressed that the magazine’s most important mission is to sell magazines. Calling that requirement “Rule No.1,” he intimated that neutrality not only helped to include all Texans in the issue but was also a more profitable position than choosing sides.
Cosmopolitan treats Rule No. 1 less like a rule than a Commandment. The magazine follows a strict formula of women’s shopping, sex and diet, and with nearly 3 million readers a month, the formula is clearly working. But even Cosmo mentions Iraq 14 times between Feb. 1, 2003, and Feb. 1 of this year, according to an online search. After initially reporting on “fun, fearless female” soldiers serving in Iraq and the “hunkiest hunk” soldiers who had just returned, by February 2005, Cosmo began to focus on casualties and fatalities in Iraq and the families left behind.
A question-and-answer session with an Iraq correspondent and former model, Lara Logan, published in Cosmo in July 2003, focuses on her “risk-taking personality.” The questioner wonders whether being a former swimsuit model has made it difficult for colleagues to take her seriously. By February of 2005, however, Cosmopolitan published a piece titled “Her Fiancé Was Killed in Iraq,” indicating a consciousness of the wartime carnage that was clearly missing in the interview with Logan.
Cosmo is not alone. Since early 2005, several women’s magazines have regularly published accounts of loved ones pining for soldiers who have been sent away. “Half My Heart Is in Iraq,” which appeared in Redbook in February 2005, profiles three military wives who “maintain their homes and jobs, raise their children—all while praying that their husbands return home alive.” In a section titled “The Waiting Wife,” one of the women explains how difficult it is to be separated from a spouse for a year or more. “Nicole began a journal the day after Matt left for Iraq. She was supposed to hear from him when he landed, but he was unable to call her. …”
Vogue published a white-collar version of the Redbook story in December 2004, when journalist Vicki Woods wrote a first-person account of her worry over her son, also a journalist, who had decided to go to Iraq. “As a journalist, Vicki Woods supported her son’s decision to go to Iraq to help launch a free press in Baghdad. As a mother, she fears the worst,” reads the subhead.
Even magazines dedicated to celebrity gossip—as opposed to real people—have something to say about the war. In April 2003, Us Weekly published its list of six star war correspondents—“Talk about shock and awe! These six on the front lines are keeping you tuning in.” A May 2003 Us interview with singer Sheryl Crow contains the finest example of a non-news magazine’s slaphappy first brush with Iraq coverage. After going through the congratulatory motions of asking Crow what it was like to work with Kid Rock on their hit song, the interviewer, Shirley Halperin, makes a hairpin turn into political territory. “You’ve spoken out loudly against the war with Iraq,” she says. “Now that the war is almost over, what are your thoughts?” Us Weekly certainly got the “Mission Accomplished” memo.
It also covered reactions to the war, printing this piece of gossip in April 2003: “Jennifer Lopez prefers to keep her views of the war in Iraq to herself. A source who recently attended a party at the home of Ben Affleck’s mother in Cambridge, Massachusetts—where politics dominates the dinner conversation—went up to Lopez and asked, ‘What do you think of the war?’ The source says Lopez, 32, answered, ‘I don’t think about that stuff. I leave it up to him,’ pointing to Affleck … The source then told Lopez: ‘You’d better get an opinion because people are going to be asking you what your stance on the war is.’ But J. Lo, who has performed for the troops … chose not to stick her neck out. ‘She just smiled.’ ”
Ironically, because they don’t take their subjects seriously, it turns out to be easy for gossip editors to work war coverage into their magazines without worrying about whether or not they appear neutral. Most of their reporting on the war consists of repeated celeb sightings. All they need to do is spot them entertaining troops at a base near Tikrit instead of entering Forty Deuce in L.A.
But what about magazines that take a more serious, almost reverent, approach to entertaining subject matter, such as sports magazines? The editors of Sports Illustrated seem to have realized that more maimed soldiers are returning home than ever before, and the magazine has seized the opportunity to report on these soldiers’ struggles to return to civilian life. Both pro- and anti-war activists have had sympathy for U.S. troops from day one of the war, and when a magazine covers a soldier, it does not feel a need to justify his mission. Sports Illustrated published “Run to Daylight” in December 2005, which relates the individual stories of a group of Iraq war amputees running a 10-mile race. Like the coverage of a “war hero” amputee in Popular Mechanics, Sports Illustrated’s story reflects the torturous recovery process the amputees involved in the race had to go through and the alienation they felt when they return to the States. However, unlike Popular Mechanics, the sports magazine chose not to refer to the soldiers in the story as heroes, opting instead to emphasize their averageness as G.I. Joes and Janes.
“Run to Daylight” lets the soldiers tell their own stories of the war, but the article doesn’t draw any conclusions. SI may be, as its managing editor, Terry McDonell, put it, “the conscience of sport,” but that conscience does not extend into politics. Like J. Lo, non-news magazines avoid sticking their necks out, shying away from taking sides. They have used the war to sell magazines and have shaped the narrative in ways that best suit their own missions. But their coverage of this story also reflects the ambivalence Americans feel about the war—and reflects it as well as, if not better than, news magazines. Because they can leave aside reporting on carnage and policy, they can focus on reporting to us that the war, as it drags on, is eating away at the hopes of readers of news and non-news magazines alike who wanted to see its quick and easy resolution.
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