November 14, 2004

L.A. Times Coughs Up New Marlboro Man (…Or: “15 Minutes of Flame”)


In an impressive act of exploitation, the LATimes has done its best to gets some mileage from the image of an unwilling GI.

After running a photo last Wednesday of Marine Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller that was picked up by over 100 newspapers, the Times ran a follow up story on Saturday about the popularity of their picture. Not to miss the chance to hype the image (at the expense of the soldier, not to mention the war), the Times unashamedly juiced the story from every promotional angle.

They dropped in references to John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, poster boys, and, of course, the Marlboro Man. They worked in some Muslim vilification (describing Miller as catching a smoke just before going after some Iraqi’s “holed up in yet another mosque.”) They added a plug for their photographer, Luis Sinco. Then they started in with unabashed hype for the picture itself.

Just consider this line:

The image, printed in more than 100 newspapers, has quickly moved into the realm of the iconic.

Of course, once the Times anointed their photo with icon status, the blatant sexualization was not far behind. Two lines later, the Times found the opportunity not just to plug itself, but to point out that Miller had become the object of lust.

The Los Angeles Times and other publications have received scores of e-mails wanting to know about this mysterious figure. Many women, in particular, have inquired about how to contact him.

As if they had the next Jessica Lynch on their hands (forgetting that the military generally designates who to deify, not the press), the Times implied (with attendant melodrama) that the image had achieved a widespread resonance.

The photo seems to have struck a chord, as an image of America striking back at a perceived enemy, or just one young man putting his life on the line halfway across the globe.

Then, in a blatantly patronizing act, the Times went to the military with the hype in order to ignite their enthusiasm. The results, however, were less than spectacular.

Labeling “the top Marine brass” as “thrilled,” the Times reported that Col. Craig Tucker, head of the combat regiment that includes Miller’s battalion, had gone so far as to have one of the pictures “blown up and sent over to the unit.”

Interspersed with all this b.s. is the sad fact that Mr. Miller is down-and-out, in the middle of a hellish battle, and can’t seem to understand or care why the Times has been playing him up.

Probably the most crass aspect about the photo and the article, however, involves the romanticization of smoking. In reality, Miller has a profound addiction to cigarettes. According to the article, the extent of Miller’s habit has “raised eyebrows,” even though smoking in the military is pervasive. Miller has a 3 pack-a-day habit.

(“I tried to get him to stop — the cigarettes will kill him before the war,” says Navy Corpsman Anthony Lopez, a company medic.)

Adding insult to injury, the notoriety has caused other soldiers to want cigarettes from Miller. The article mentioned the soldier is down to his last four packs, and he’s feeling a little desperate.

Chafing under the hype, Miller — who hails from a very small town in Appalachia — seemed to directly rebuff the Times p.r. effort on his behalf. When asked if he was inclined to “cash in on his fame,” Miller said he was just more interested in being home.

“I just don’t understand what all the fuss is about,” Miller says. “I was just smokin’ a cigarette and someone takes my picture and it all blows up.”

(photo: the famous Luis Sinco of the LA Times!)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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