We Pledge Allegiance

The long run-up to the 9/11 anniversary has begun. Everywhere you turned over the Memorial Day weekend—a holiday that practically demanded the first major wave of look-backs—news outfits were offering retrospectives and tributes to the dead. If this test run is any indication, 9/11/02 will be almost as huge a media event as the day of the attacks.

As we close in on the big date, this is also a perfect time to glance back at what's happened to the news trade itself since last September, to see how it's been changed or not by the war. Don't expect the media to offer much help here. Journalists are good at analyzing just about everything except themselves.

As it happens, right now there's a terrific way to reflect on today's wartime journalism, by visiting a forgotten moment in wartime journalism past. Sixty years ago next month, something unusual started appearing on newsstands across the country and in the mailboxes of magazine subscribers: the American flag. All at once, as if by magic, it was there on the cover of every imaginable magazine, from Vogue to The Saturday Review of Literature, from Newsweek to Whiz Comics, from The New Yorker to Poultry Tribune. In July 1942, these and many other U.S. magazines featured the Stars and Stripes out front in some way, often as the central artistic element of their covers.

It was neither magic nor a coincidental outbreak of patriotism in magazine offices everywhere that made it happen. It was a plan dreamed up by a man named Paul MacNamara, a publicist for Hearst, in early 1942, shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. In those dark weeks, MacNamara reasoned it would be good for the war effort—and for business—if the magazine industry showed its patriotism with a concerted display of the flag. He sold the idea to the National Publishers Association, which put out the word to its members, many of whom went right to work. About 500 magazines ran the flag on their covers in July of that year.

The campaign was practically lost to history until Peter Gwillim Kreitler, an Episcopal priest from California, received as a birthday present an issue of a magazine dated July 1942, the month and year he was born. He noticed the flag and started collecting other magazines from that month, eventually amassing nearly 300. About a hundred of them are now on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, in an exhibit called "July 1942: United We Stand," which runs through October 27. (The online version, which is excellent, is at: http://americanhistory.si.edu/1942.)

This show would be fascinating at any time, if only for the way it displays, in visual shorthand, the wildly diverse tastes and interests that added up to American popular culture at one moment in time. Here is staid Harpers with a flag imposed solemnly on its normally all-text cover. There is Screenland with Veronica Lake, all come-hither in a red-and-white swimsuit on a blue background, pictured just a few teasing inches from a flagpole.

On the Wow Comics cover we meet superheroine Mary Marvel, "The Shazam Girl of America," soaring valiantly over the troops with Old Glory in her capable hands. Running your eyes across them all, it begins to feel like you're reading that other language of flags, semaphore, but here each image represents a different fragment of America.

Taking in this show right now, you also naturally get to thinking about the media's current encounter with patriotism. What hits you is that in this war, while patriotism is all around us, the way it's expressed in the media is generally much subtler. Society was deeply shaken by September 11, yet there has been no concerted effort by media companies to demonstrate their patriotism.

The U.S. Treasury Department was a partner in the 1942 campaign, organizing displays of the covers at more than a thousand retail stores around the country. The goal was to encourage the sales of war bonds, which had gone well immediately after Pearl Harbor, then dropped. Try to imagine any segment of the news business working today in such a hand-in-glove fashion with the Bush administration on its war effort.

One reason it's hard to do is that in this war there has never been a real sense, as there was in 1942, that the survival of the nation is genuinely threatened by the enemy—that an Al Qaeda conquest looms. We are a more powerful and secure society, generally and vis-a-vis our adversary, than we were 60 years ago, and we fret less about bond sales and shows of industrial patriotism. The absence of anything like the 1942 flag campaign may be, oddly enough, a sign of underlying mettle and unity.

Today, you won't spot many journalists with "United We Stand" bumper stickers on their cars: It's culturally incorrect. But that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of patriotic vibes floating around in the media. It's there in this week's newspaper memorials to the dead, and in the The New York Times' gripping reconstruction last Sunday of the final hours inside the World Trade Center. It was there several days ago when HBO aired its documentary In Memoriam: New York City, 9/11/01, an elegiac account of the attack on New York that featured a subtle black and white image of a translucent, waving American flag. It's not the same patriotism as 60 years ago. This one is insouciant, less emphatic, a sign not of fear, but of a confident and very modern kind of strength.