Academic journal article Journalism History

Between Silence and Self-Interest: Time, Life, and the Unsilent Generation's Coming-of-Age

Academic journal article Journalism History

Between Silence and Self-Interest: Time, Life, and the Unsilent Generation's Coming-of-Age

Article excerpt

As the 1950's drew to a close, Time Incorporated had become one of the most influential publishers in America. Both Time and Life, looking to the future, began to examine youth culture, providing ample space for the coming unsilent generation to address, and at times contest, dominant cultural values. As this generation grew vocal, stories filled with apprehension towards their ideals, but by the end of the 1960's, Life came to appreciate the hopes of this generation as America's war in Vietnam faltered and the nation's politics polarized. Time took a different path, linking failure in Vietnam with youthful dissent and the inability of the nation's collective will to remedy national problems. This article reconstructs Time's and Life's presentation of youth culture in the 1960s, demonstrating how both magazines sought to define the meaning of that generation's dissent in the wake of a rapidly changing social order.

Popular histories tend to describe the 1960s as a time when rebellious, left-leaning youth exploded onto the scene, grew militant as their disillusionment intensified, were then attacked by mass media and mainstream America, and finally faded from view with the coming of Richard Nixon and the silent majority. These analyses often take frozen moments from Time and Life magazines to support this narrative, perpetuating the false presumption that each did not actively interpret news from week to week.

With a combined readership of nearly one-third of the American public, Time and Life were powerful influences over popular discourse in the 1960s. Their coverage reveals a far more complex story regarding the impact of America's unsilent generation than historical memory typically offers them.1 In the late 1950s, both magazines showered this group with paternalistic rhetoric and mocked their silence. Their maturation under the specter of the cold war took on a troubled if not tragic tone by the early 1960s. As the decade continued, this generation's anti-establishment rhetoric and enduring passion for change, thanks in large measure to the war in Vietnam, gained the respect of both magazines. Nonetheless, Life was far more likely to sympathize with their social critique after their fervor spilled onto the streets. For all of their dismissive words, each magazine mourned the passing of the unsilent generation as a self-interested one replaced it in the early 1970s. Looking back at Time and Life throughout the 1 960s reveals how these prominent magazines, like many of their readers, reassessed their attitudes towards social change because of clamor from this emerging generation and found their faith in the democratic process forever altered by the fervor of the young as this tumultuous period ended.

Since it first hit newsstands in 1923, Time magazine has continued the tradition laid down by founders Henry Luce and Briton Hadden: concisely interpreting the week that was for its busy readers. Its emphasis on "happenings as news (fact) rather than as 'comment'" presaged a shift throughout the 1930s towards objective, positivist reporting, though its decision to "acknowledge certain prejudices" in its writing was rooted in a preceding era.2 In this same period, advances in photography and printing convinced Luce that the marketplace was eager for an image-centric weekly magazine that promised to "see the world."3 The result was Life magazine, which was first published in late 1936. Its unique photographic style, quickly welcomed by American readers, helped popularize visual communication across the globe.4 Both were firmly established by the end of World War II as mouthpieces of the American experience and the budding cold war consensus.

As television siphoned advertising dollars from established media during the 1950s, Time Inc. worked to adapt its magazines to the changing marketplace.5 Not only television, but rock and roll, comics, and specialized magazines such as Playboy, were participating in the "sexualization of mass culture" that sapped authences from traditional mediums. …

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