- The Weekly War: Newsmagazines and Vietnam
James Landers' The Weekly War: Newsmagazines and Vietnam will serve as a useful resource to anyone studying America's failed war. Landers rightfully points out that the role of the three major weekly newsmagazines in coverage of this pivotal national experience has been largely overlooked. Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report were not included in Daniel C. Hallin's The "Uncensored War": The Media and Vietnam (1986), which focuses on The New York Times and television. Yet, as Landers documents, the large and educated readership, the interpretive point of view and engaging narrative structure, and the attention paid by the White House and policymakers to these magazines made them a major factor. No other book has been devoted to their coverage of the war, and Landers has performed that task with thoroughness and clarity. Landers earns the trust of the reader by a comprehensive scope, thorough illustration and documentation, and an admirably objective and judicious perspective.
Landers makes assertions about the impact of the newsmagazines relative to that of television that are less cautious and which are open to challenge. He argues for instance that the popular phrase "the living-room war" (from a 1966 New Yorker column) and the "common misperception" that television brought "nightly horror" into American homes "abetted an obsession with television coverage" of the war, thus underrating the role of weekly newsmagazines (2). However, his emphasis that the "amount" of combat and violence on television news is an erroneous postwar memory fails to consider the impact of "some terrible scenes" that he acknowledges did appear on the screen in Americans' living rooms. "A picture is worth a thousand words" seems appropriate here, especially when such images were at that time unprecedented. Indeed, one page later Landers essentially contradicts himself by saying, "Despite their rarity, such scenes obviously made an impression on viewers" (3). Landers also observes that television mainly showed repetitive images of helicopters loading and unloading troops, warplanes dropping bombs, and infantry on patrol, but he does not consider the impact those repetitive images may have had on the growing sense that the war was going nowhere.
Such questions about the validity of Landers' assertions concerning the role of television open up the limitations of the approach of his [End Page 226] book to his own subject, the coverage in the newsmagazines. His empirical and largely quantitative approach (Landers is an assistant professor of journalism and technical communication) seems appropriate for his measuring of newsmagazines' accuracy (he compares articles to the historical record) and tone (he employs discourse analysis to classify thematic focus and record textual symbols). When he turns to the impact of the newsmagazines, however, his methods limit him to documenting policymakers' responses to coverage and their attempts to influence it as well as to recording how a significant shift of readers away from Time to the more liberal Newsweek compelled the former to modify its hawkish point of view. While The Weekly War superbly classifies, quantifies, and illustrates what Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report showed readers during the Vietnam era, it is less revealing in considering what readers may have brought to that material or even what deeper images may have been presented to them by it. For that reason, it is limited in its consideration of what readers may have seen both in what they observed on television and read in the newsmagazines. Here an anthropological or literary approach, such as Richard Slotkin applies in his analysis of news in portions of Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (1992), would be more helpful. Landers does devote a chapter to showing that both "our" Vietnamese and the "Other" were depicted according to "stereotyping of Asians long associated with American thought" (266), and he draws persistent attention to the role of ideology and subtly interpretive language, but in general he is restrained in paying attention to embedded historical metaphor and cultural myths shaping the newsmagazines' articles and to how contemporary events...