Magazine war coverage: Time is the enemy

Special to The Times

It's no surprise David Remnick sounds a little harried this week. Within his duties as New Yorker editor, he's suddenly running a war bureau, fielding constant calls from his scattered platoon of six reporters in the Middle East, such as Jon Lee Anderson, who covered the war in Afghanistan, calling from Baghdad, and Isabel Hilton checking in from Jordan. The intensity isn't quite what it was during his decade at the Washington Post, but it's close.

"The magazine has been quite different since the Sept. 11 period, when we could hardly pretend the roaring '90s were still going on and we were responding to a period of crisis," Remnick says, and part of that change involved dispatching reporters to cover the region with a new focus. "But the all-at-once-ness now is the difference," he says, pointing out that the magazine came of age, in a sense, in its coverage of World War II.

But that war was a long one, something that could be covered by a weekly magazine in regular intervals. This war, says Peter Beinart, who edits the New Republic, another weekly, "could be done within two issues." And with the 24-hour news channels leaving even dailies in the dust, it's a challenge to determine how to add to what's being offered by the instant-response outlets that are saturating a news-hungry audience with constant coverage.

In addition to the half-dozen journalists who are on contract for the New Republic in the region, the magazine has sent Elizabeth Rubin -- a rising star after reporting from Afghanistan last year -- to file descriptive literary pieces from the region to add to the magazine's analysis from Washington. And the magazine is taking advantage of its Web site to fight the necessary wait for weekly publication and to run what Beinart calls "the stuff you have to read before the war is over." This includes two new glossy-print-caliber Web-only columns, a daily analysis of military strategy and tactics by Greg Easterbrook, and an ongoing diary by Iraqi dissident and "Republic of Fear" author Kanan Makiya about the conflict through his eyes. "It's how we get around being a weekly," says managing editor Sarah Blustain.

Of course, the challenge to monthly magazines is much greater. Most are closing their June issues now, editing stories that came in before the war began and that probably will hit newsstands long after this leg of the conflict is over.

"We don't let long lead times bother us. If we did, we wouldn't be working here," says Cullen Murphy, managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly. He's expecting stories from maverick writer P.J. O'Rourke, who will be "following his nose" for the magazine, as well as Michael Kelly, who won accolades covering the Gulf War for the New Republic. Until recently, Kelly was editing the Atlantic -- apparently he preferred desert sand and cammies to a desk and a suit. Kelly is with the 35th Infantry Division, the same division William Langewiesche has covered for the magazine in the past, and that sense of long narrative history is what the magazine is counting on -- Kelly won't aim to publish his current work until the late summer or early fall, says Murphy, "something with a long shelf life."

Even if wartime isn't the norm for magazines such as these, they're still where many people look for compelling narratives and careful analysis of world events. But what happens if you're editing a magazine that often represents respite from the heavy world to readers? How do you make sense of fashion spreads, celeb interviews and humor columns during these dark days?

At women's magazines, editors are working to balance an awareness of the conflict with couture, all within a three- month lead time. Elle is devoting a large amount of space to a lengthy book excerpt by an anonymous Basra-born writer who has spent the decade since her father was murdered by Saddam Hussein infiltrating terrorist networks here and in the Middle East. Other related stories are in the works for future issues. "Listen, I work at a fashion magazine, so I know we'll have 50 pages of fashion," says executive editor Laurie Abraham, "but it's part of our responsibility -- we write about what women care about, and while we haven't sent anyone there to report, that isn't just on the level of what we're going to wear tomorrow."

Crossing the gender divide to men's magazines, you'll find quite a high-school-corridor range of personas, perspectives and plans.

"Our war bureau consists of three dresser drawers stuffed with soft pornography," jokes Greg Gutfeld, who edits Stuff, one of the more laddish of the lad-mags. That's not to say he's not interested in covering that war -- sort of. "I want to know where you get a cheeseburger in Baghdad. I want to know the best bars. You're not going to find that in the New Yorker, are you?"

As far as narrative journalism goes, Gutfeld is interested in a story about how petty he thinks journalists can be, "the pomp and circumstance that goes on with foreign correspondents in their new safari jackets," he says with a chuckle.

Gutfeld may inadvertently be sticking it to his big brother, Maxim (which spun off Stuff a couple of years ago), where editor Keith Blanchard is in touch with reporters and photographers in the Gulf region, planning to add some classic men's magazine war feature reporting to its "Man Show" mix. But Blanchard says the magazine is thinking of itself as a publication for the troops as well -- they were the first to donate thousands of issues to stationed readers -- running related humor stories (look for a beret-snatching laugh fest at France's expense) and a column of letters from the troops, in addition to the usual babe-fest.

"Maxim has always been escapist, and we trust that people need that escapism more than ever, in addition to the gritty war story," says Blanchard.

Esquire, on the other hand, made its name in part in great war coverage. In fact, as editor David Granger points out, the term "embed," used to refer to a reporter traveling with a military unit, was created for Esquire's renegade war reporter John Sack, who has covered every conflict from Korea through Afghanistan. Sadly, Sack will have to sit this one out as he recuperates from a bone marrow transplant while Esquire contracts out to two freelancers in the Gulf.

Granger admits to the irony of having a flotilla of freelancers without employment-sponsored health insurance making up the bulk of reporters at the front lines, but he says he didn't want to risk any of his own reporters in the dangers of war.

"So often you see the cult of the war reporter," says Rolling Stone Managing Editor Ed Needham. "There's a certain amount of performing a role, which distorts a story, which is really a double distortion when you add the military's number of controls and restrictions placed upon reporters." Evan Wright, whom Rolling Stone has contracted to be its main man in the Gulf, is planning to play to those restrictions while traveling with the Marines, says Needham.

"We're more interested in the soldier's experience than the big picture of general pushing flags around a board," he says. Like Esquire, Rolling Stone was once known for its great war coverage, shattering the old boundaries of what was expected of a music magazine. "In the golden age of Rolling Stone, social change and military conflict and rock and roll were all part of the same bundle. But the world has developed in a very different way."

Elsewhere on the music mag scene, Vibe features editor Serena Kim says the cultural shift has been in their direction. "Hip-hop fuels the rhetoric of resistance all over the globe," she says. "You'll see our stance on this war throughout the magazine from fashion to features." She says Vibe has a particularly high stake in covering this conflict because such a huge proportion of the military is their demographic: African American, and, of course, young. But Kim wasn't willing to share any of the magazine's particular plans, or discuss whether she had talked to anyone reporting from abroad -- in fact, she had never heard of the term "embed."

A term Kim could likely teach Fortune Managing Editor Rik Kirkland -- bling-bling -- is how he says the magazine is able to push the war front and center in its coverage. "It's a business story," he says. Life after the war -- already the cover story of the current issue, which went to press before the war began -- is "essentially a management story," says Kirkland. "International companies are playing roles. There are logistical and technical challenges as well as political challenges. The role of government in business is bigger than it has been in decades because of this war." And so even a business magazine has someone on the ground in Kuwait, and is readying to send a couple more within the week. (Business Week has done the same; Forbes hasn't.)

And then there's that infamous magazine that shares part of a name -- and nothing else -- with Fortune, one of the few non-news-oriented magazines that exists exclusively for armed conflict. Soldier of Fortune has been churning out detailed conflict coverage since soon after its publisher Robert K. Brown returned from his Vietnam tours as a Green Beret. And although Brown isn't planning to sneak his way to the front this time as he did in the Gulf War, using a camouflage suit and phony documents on stolen stationery to pass as a CIA operative and ride with the Saudi prince in Kuwait, he has three people filing combat reports under contract -- one newsman who is there on a big corporation's dime who will file under a hush-hush pseudonym, and two other freelancers in the thick of things.

Lead times don't bother Brown; he knows his readership won't find what Soldier of Fortune offers in many other places.

"When you see a cutline on a picture somewhere and it says 'this is an assault rifle,' well, we're the ones to tell you all about that assault rifle," says Brown. "You need a background for that level of information, and editors are sending people over there without any military background. See, press is just as vulnerable as troops -- they'll get shot at just as easily."

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