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Between Sex Tips and Shop Talk…

Some unlikely magazines reveal how Americans really feel about the war

by Maggie Frank

I have watched the third anniversary of the start of the Iraq war come and go on TV, on the radio and in Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report and The Economist, among other news media. In fact, since March 2003, it seems hardly a week has gone by when the Iraq war hasn’t made the cover of one of the newsweeklies, The New York Times Magazine or some other news periodical. But news magazines aren’t the only place to go to get news about the war. Other, guiltier magazine pleasures have also brought many Americans news about the war on a regular basis.

Take, for example, magazines in such unlikely categories as service, regional, women’s, gossip and sports—magazines whose recent headlines, reflecting their traditional subject matter, have included: “DIY: What’s That Smell?” (Popular Mechanics), “Happy Trails” (Texas Monthly), “What His Tattoo Says About Him” (Cosmopolitan), “Fashion Police: Lisa Loeb” (Us Weekly) and “Vikings Coach Says Culpepper Reminded Him of T.O.” (Sports Illustrated).

These magazines have also been covering the war, and it’s no surprise that they would—they are in the business of selling magazines, after all, and Iraq is the biggest story of the past three years. But what they report is almost never neutral. While their editors insist that they are not taking sides, non-news magazines are, in fact, on the side of their readers, serving as a moving barometer of public sentiment on the Iraq conflict. Each of these five magazines has followed a trajectory of coverage that closely parallels the evolution of the prevailing views of the war: from foolishly optimistic in 2003 to cautiously skeptical in 2004 to bitter and bewildered by the end of 2005. Because non-news magazines can cover Iraq without parroting the administration’s—or anyone else’s—point of view, they have the potential to bring news to readers about the war that they can’t get from newsweeklies.

Take Popular Mechanics, a magazine whose editor asserts that its war coverage remains firmly in the center. The magazine has been around for more than 100 years and is known primarily for tracking science and technology for the average gadget nut. Jay Leno, the late-night talk show host and zealot automobile collector, writes an especially popular column on cars.

As I flipped through back issues looking for maintenance tips for my 2003 Corolla, I found a trend—periodic reports on the weapons and equipment used to fight this war. “Birds of Mercy,” published in October 2005, follows an air ambulance company as it responds to harrowing calls for medical attention in and around Baghdad. Several other articles written by embedded journalists tell the stories of soldiers and the weapons and equipment they are using to fight in Iraq. In September 2003, an editorial note by PM’s editor at that time, Joe Oldham, argues that the U.S. is no longer just a superpower, but “in terms of military might, we’re a megapower.” The banner across the top of the December 2004 cover reads: “Back from Iraq: A Hero’s Story.”

When I innocently asked PM’s current editor, James Meigs, whether such coverage wasn’t a political diversion from PM’s mission of explaining how the machines of war work, he observed that the headline gives the marine profiled “the respect he’s earned,” adding: “You don’t have to have a political viewpoint” to be curious about how the Iraq war is being fought. “The Popular Mechanics angle is: How are we fighting? It’s not about why we are there, but how.”

Perhaps because Popular Mechanics narrowly focuses on the weapons of war, the magazine has done some surprisingly compelling reporting on the fighting itself. PM writers have been willing to embed with soldiers, and indeed, long after most reporters for major news organizations have given up trying to document the daily conditions of the war from a U.S. soldier’s perspective, PM has reported exactly how soldiers fight, get injured and die. Although Meigs claims PM is neutral, deciding to embed with troops and reporting on the success and failure of troop movements in Iraq makes a statement on the war whether or not the editor means to do so.

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