Wednesday, August 12, 2009

November 8, 1968 One issue of LIFE Magazine, two different covers. Spinning the election?

As a daily reader of the New York Times, I’ve watched the home delivery issue get thinner and thinner, while at the same time the paper’s news stories play up conflict throughout the world. It is as if the imploding world of the mainstream media needs the planet itself to reflect its disarray. One could cynically argue that if the advertisers would come back to the print media and huckster their goods again, the world might suddenly seem a quieter place.

But desperation makes strange bedfellows. And so the front page of the New York Times Wednesday August 12, 2009, fans the flames by showing a thug waving a piece of paper, Joe McCarthy like, at Senator Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania.

At moneyblows books and music, we are constantly reminded of nothing new under the sun. By re-arranging the detritus of the 20th century—books, vinyl records, magazines, and other things—we daily affirm that tired maxim of “history repeats itself.”

From the 1930s onward, LIFE Magazine was a flagship of the Time-Life media empire, a weekly magazine with dramatic photographs that drove home many world events in dramatic pictorials. They really excelled during wars, especially with photographers such as Larry Burrows who risked life and limb--- and died in 1971 covering the war in Laos for the magazine.

But, by 1971, LIFE Magazine was a dead man walking. The phrase wasn’t used, but “pull the plug on grandma” was the thinking of its owners, and morale within the magazine’s ivory towers had never been lower.

During the election campaign of 1968— which stands as a major news year in American history— Republicans were doing the same thing they are doing now, attempting to disrupt the efforts of their opposing party. They were not going to let LBJ’s administration end the Vietnam War, and must have been worried (as they are now about Obama’s health care plan) that circumstances might favor the incumbents. They had one strong weapon: the Republican nominee for President, who would use the turmoil to turn the election in his favor.

In its issue of October 11, 1968, the failing LIFE magazine cast its lot with the man who would later disgrace the Office of the Presidency. The writer Brock Brower wrote an article headlined “A Vision of Victory at Last within Reach.” It was a happy talk with Nixon announcing his victory in advance, with nary a hint of how he was playing his “future president” card with foreign governments.

As Anna Chennault, Henry Kissinger, and John Mitchell worked behind the scenes to complicate LBJ’s efforts, the Paris peace talks were orchestrated to fail, and South Vietnamese president Thieu pulled out of the bombing halt talks. LBJ, reeling from accusations that he was trying to halt the bombing to win the election for Vice President Hubert Humphrey, realized he could not end the war while he was President. His successor Nixon publicly took the high ground while he set up the Democrats for failure.

All this is ancient history by now, until we discovered the two issues of LIFE Magazine that preceded and succeeded the election of Nixon. In the victory issue of November 15th, LIFE reported that on October 30th, the Thieu government of South Vietnam had balked at the peace talks, even though it had approved them the day before. An article called “The Bomb Halt Decision” ends with a surreal photo of three television screen close-ups on LBJ announcing the bombing halt. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these are several thousand words on the President’s Halloween speech announcing a halt to the bombing in North Vietnam. Reading the “fine print” of the article though, the reader realizes that the picture is showing an advance videotape of a speech that was never delivered. The bombing was halted, but without the cooperation of Thieu, who had been negotiating secretly with the incoming Nixon administration. American citizens would never hear the President’s announcement speech. If this is any indication how the desperate media makes its own news, we roll back one week to the issue of November 8.

We have two different LIFE Magazines with that cover date. Orangutan. And Tron.

The issues may be substantially the same, but the covers and contents pages are different in the two issues here at Moneyblows Books & Music. A 12 page photo essay by one of Life’s star photojournalists, Larry Burrows, featured a 12-year old Vietnamese “girl named Tron” who lost the lower half of her right leg to American helicopter fire. Showing the limitations of weekly journalism, the lede (or lead paragraph) of Vol. 65, No. 19 was slightly different in each issue.

In one, it read, “The U.S. and North Vietnam last week came to an agreement. Not much later, Americans went to the polls to choose a President.”

In the other issue, it said, “The U.S. agreed last week to halt all bombing of North Vietnam. Not much later, Americans went to the polls to choose a President.”

Although this article was written in the past tense, the magazine of course was prepared and distributed before the election. If you have a passing interest in deadline journalism, you know that shelf life of an article is important, so much so that a lead paragraph is designed not to be outdated if possible. And this is a tall order in weekly journalism.

Don’t know if there was a “stop the presses” or if there may be other versions of this article out there, but we have these two. Both are dated November 8, 1968.

It’s probably fair to assume that the more detailed lede came later, e.g. “The U.S. agreed last week to halt all bombing of North Vietnam.” It also hints at the fact that South Vietnam was not part of this agreement. But due to classification of documents, it would be years before Americans would discover the sickening reality that the President they’d just elected, and thought would take office in January, had already taken over foreign policy, by negotiating with South Vietnam as a candidate and promising them favors when he was in the White House.

Now we turn to the table of contents blurbs of the two issues. In the one we are calling “earlier”, the Tron story is blurbed, “The Hope of Peace: As statesmen bargain, a girl named Tron in a Vietnamese village called Andien tries to readjust to the loss of her leg.”

In the issue with the more detailed story lede, the blurb reads: “The Edge of Peace: As the U.S. and North Vietnam reach agreement, a girl named Tron….”

From the “hope of peace” to the “edge of peace”, hours or days between them, a lot was going on behind the scenes. And yet, no peace was in sight as American casualties in southeast Asia would continue to mount.

It was not enough for the desperate editors of LIFE Magazine to influence their story spin while failing to cover what was truly going on behind the scenes. They also changed the covers of the two magazine issues with the same cover date. In what we think is the earlier printing, the magazine cover shows a zoo orangutan inert and morose, with the headline: “New knowledge about wildlife reveals that Zoos Drive Animals Psycho.” It was typical of LIFE Magazine to feature articles about nature, social mores, and entertainment, in addition to politics. Knowing far in advance that this was the issue coming out before the election, I suspect this cover was prepared in advance as the “neutral” cover while the Time-Life editors and owners tried to come up with something more immortal than an inert and morose orangutan.

In fact, their second cover also featured a zoo animal—the human kind. On its own, it’s a wrenching story and one of many incredible spreads by the late photojournalist Larry Burrows. The headline read “As the bombing stops—This Girl Tron. Nguyen Thi Tron, 12, caught in the war, watches her new wooden leg being made.”

From orangutan to Tron is a speechless journey that reinforces the sad cynicism and desperate plight of a dying magazine, to wrench emotion from a still photograph as the competition, television, stole all its advertisers. Yes, it was a picture magazine, not designed for nuance. The Time-Life organization would show how it could play both sides of the fence, announcing the bombing halt while giving Nixon a poster girl for continuing the war. Typically perhaps of the profession, they cheapened themselves by using sentimentality in the service of warmongering.

America in 1968. Two covers of the same magazine. A war we eventually lost big time. Woodstock still to come.

1 comment:

michael pellecchia said...

Culminating the "bombing halt" article in "Tbe Nixon Era Begins", LIFE November 15, 1968, is the staged photograph, pp. 96-97, of three TV screens purporting a broadcast of LBJ's bombing halt speech.
The LBJ Library site describes the circumstances of the speech as follows:
"NOTE: The President recorded the address on October 30, 1968, in the Family Theater at the White House for broadcast over nationwide radio and television at 8 p.m. on October 31."
It is difficult to find out on the Internet if the scheduled broadcast actually occurred. I would welcome some confirmation that the President's bombing halt address was carried by any of the 3 national news networks, CBS, ABC, or NBC.
The LIFE Magazine photo is haunting because it shows his 1 year old grandson kissing the screen. The more I look at this image, obviously staged for the LIFE magazine photo spread, the more I think of the dramatic photo of the Nixon "kitchen debate" with Nikita Kruschev, about a decade earlier. Each photo uses a common household appliance as a prop to convey a complicated propaganda message. The kitchen debate was staged by William Safire, for whom Nixon was the perfect client. Safire had joined the Nixon campaign in 1968 and later became his White House speechwriter. I would welcome knowing whether or not Mr. Safire was involved in the LBJ/Lyn Nugent photo or the switchout of the LIFE Magazine covers dated November 8, 1968.