In this article, Ong uses the Luce publications (Life, Time, and Fortune magazines) as examples of modern sophistry, an argument that appears to be true but is actually quite deceptive.  Responding to an article called "The Picture Magazines" (John R. Whiting and George R. Clark, Harper's Magazine July 1943:  159-69), in which the authors discuss the development of the picture magazine movement and assess Life's place in the movement, Ong asserts that the Luce publications employ techniques which force readers to accept certain facts without questioning them.  Life, for example, uses the techniques of pairing together documentary photographs with copy stating simply what is already obvious in the picture while Time groups together stories from various parts of the world and historical periods to distort current news events.  The use of these techniques, Ong believes, cause readers not to question the content of the magazines or recognize the biases of the magazines.

While Ong's objections to the Luce publications are quite clear in the article, the piece to which he responds adds useful context for understanding Ong's argument.  In "The Picture Magazines," Whiting and Clark state that although the picture magazine tradition began in the mid-nineteenth century, with the Illustrated London News, the modern American version of this type of publication is unique.  Whiting and Clark trace the development of this phenomenon, focusing on two topics:  the new journalism, which whittled down copy to the minimum amount needed to express ideas, and the new photography, which tended to create candid, documentary shots.  After tracing this development, the authors concentrate on Life and its place in the movement.  Asserting that Life is the most successful of the American picture magazines (to the extent that other magazines such as Look and Click tried to emulate it), Whiting and Clark explain how Life operates:  while it has the brevity of new journalism and the documentary style of new photography, Life editors plan most of their stories far in advance, employing people to research the topic before the story is given to reporters and photographers and controlling much of what ends up in the final product by making strong suggestions about storyline and pictures to the numerous reporters and photographers who work on the story.

It is Whiting and Clark's comment--"Life's greatest admirers" (who, according to the authors, like the magazine because it treats readers as intelligent people) "are occasionally troubled by a quality in its pictorial journalism which is hard to pin down, but which might be called a subtle distortion of reality"--that Ong responds to most directly in his article.  But Ong's impetus for writing the article also comes from his Catholic perspective on the world, for in the first paragraph, before he mentions the article by Whiting and Clark, he asserts that Life and Time's coverage of events that interest and concern Catholics (such as the Spanish Civil War and Catholicism in French Canada) sometimes upsets this Catholic audience.  While most of Ong's article is firmly rooted in responding to and participating in a world wider than that of the Catholic Church, he discusses in detail Time's coverage of Catholicism in Italy and the distortion present in their coverage.  This article is a good example of how Ong seems to constantly engage what some call the "secular" world without acting as though this wider world is in opposition to or exclusive of Catholicism.
 

Return to Listings