critical eye

Brief encounters

Short reviews of Informing the News and Celebrity Politics
November 1, 2013

Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism | By Thomas E. Patterson | Vintage Books | 233 pages | Paperback $15

Much as Beethoven, solid and dependable if a little fusty, remains a foundation of the symphonic repertoire, so the solid Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) is a mainstay of tradition-minded press critics. Thomas E. Patterson, whose full ID is [Benjamin C.] Bradlee professor of government and the press at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, leans heavily on Lippmann and his two long-ago classics–Liberty and the News (1920) and Public Opinion (1923)–while he calls for today’s press to seek higher standards. Each chapter of Patterson’s Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism is prefaced with a pithy Lippmann quotation–e.g. “There can be no liberty for a community that lacks the information by which to detect lies.” Other Lippmann extracts dot the text.

This quoting strategy has its merits (although in general the book is overburdened with quotations, somewhat muffling the voice of the author). Lippmann wrote his tracts in the wake of World War I, the pressures of which, he believed, had utterly corrupted the press. He sought to set journalism on the track to intellectual honesty and greater expertise. Patterson’s mission is similar. He finds the journalism of our century in a new kind of crisis–a paradoxical time of information plenitude, corrupt through its very abundance and cheapness.

The remedy, he says, is what he calls knowledge-based journalism. One might observe that all journalism that is not utterly wrong is knowledge-based. However, Patterson aims higher, suggesting that the rich resources now available electronically provide an upward path toward a journalism superior in accuracy, breadth, and presentation.

The book originated, Patterson writes, from his participation in the deliberations of a coalition of a dozen journalism schools and programs seeking to advance from technical to substantive instruction. Although most of the book is devoted to the shortcomings of current practitioners, he clearly places great hope on the coming generation of student journalists, who he believes will learn not only the forms of journalism but more of the knowledge that can be poured into those forms.

Celebrity Politics: Image and Identity in Contemporary Political Communications | By Mark Wheeler | Polity Press | 210 pages. | Hardcover $64.95 | Paperback $24.95

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Mark Wheeler, a professor at London Metropolitan University, offers a transatlantic view of political celebrityhood as practiced in London and Washington environs. He trots out two classes of celebrity politicians: CP1s are those who have employed celebrity techniques to seek political office; he includes, among recent examples, Barack Obama, and Prime Ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron. CP2s, those who have used their fame–usually gained in show business–to promote global issues, have among their number Bono, Angelina Jolie, and the array of UN goodwill ambassadors. Wheeler also suggests a hermaphrodite class, those who started as CP2s but moved up, or on, to become elected officials, such as Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His accounts of the careers of these individuals is brisk, almost gossipy, although he stumbles occasionally, making his way through the American scene (who is Medgar Evans?).

He offers the obligatory snarkiness about Sarah Palin, but in general his attitude toward CPs, in office and out, is reasonably benevolent. He suggests that in a time when traditional forms of political activity are foundering, democratic participation may be enhanced in the glow of an attractive celebrity politician or of a star working for an international cause.

But, he warns, mere trappings will not do: “Celebrity politicians and politicized celebrities need to demonstrate ideological substance and provide clarity in establishing . . . meanings through which people may achieve a real sense of connection with political causes.” The question is, however, whether the connection will be with the cause or the celebrity.

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.