Brief Encounters

Short reviews of books about political power and the press, the changing role of the editorial, selling anxiety to women, and bearing witness to a changing...
August 14, 2007

When the Press Fails:
Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina

By W. Lance Bennett, Regina G. Lawrence, and Steven Livingston

University of Chicago Press

263 pages, $22.50

When has the American press ever prevented a war when the government wanted to have one? You must reach back more than a century for a good example—the puncturing of the dangerous Venezuelan crisis of 1895 by Joseph Pulitzer’s World (which then turned around and led the cheering for the Spanish-American War). The record has been mostly one of aiding and abetting the war-makers, or at best of muted resistance.

In When the Press Fails, three political scientists deal with the latest, possibly most egregious example, the inability of the press to debunk the fabricated rationales for war in Iraq. The authors wrestle at length with a perplexity—that a press constitutionally commissioned to serve as the government’s watchdog becomes instead its conduit. They hypothesize that what we have is less a free press than a “semi-independent” press, one that by itself cannot oppose government but can act effectively in league with other opposition political forces or out of the reach of spin. They point to cases when the press has performed well enough—most notably in such extraordinary situations as the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, which moved faster than government spinners.

This is a vigorously researched book, showing how crises, such as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, flare up and are swiftly extinguished: “torture” is diluted to “abuse,” to “mistreatment”; culpability is segregated to a few bad apples. And yet, despite what the authors term press failures in such situations, in the long run what has happened with Iraq is very similar to what eventually happened in Vietnam. It took a damnably long time, but by 2006 American public opinion had turned against the war. The press must have gotten something across.

Editorial and Opinion: The Dwindling Marketplace of Ideas in Today’s News

By Steven M. Hallock


195 pages, $49.95

Who bothers to read editorials any more? According to Steven M. Hallock, a lot of people do. Editorials—the traditional unsigned policy essays—are peculiarly associated with print journalism, especially now that broadcast editorializing has all but vanished. Hallock investigates the effects of newspaper competition, or lack thereof, on the range and content of editorials. His most striking finding is that ideology accounts for comparatively little in the differences between competitors. Instead, competing editorial boards tend to select a vastly different range of subjects, and readers must read both newspapers to receive the full spectrum. The further implication is, of course, that when there is no competition the editorial agenda is diminished, even halved. At the end, he proposes that a variety of organizations might offer new, competitive editorial voices, but these ideas are not developed fully. Perhaps because Hallock, with broad newspaper experience, tries to fit himself into the strictures of a dissertation, the presentation is dull and a bit clumsy. But it offers findings worth contemplating.

Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women

By Caryl Rivers

University Press of New England

168 pages, $24.95

Caryl Rivers, the prolific media critic from Boston University, returns here to a favorite theme—that news media employ dubious pop sociology to make women feel uneasy about their lives and careers. Working women, say recurring stories, have bad marriages or no marriages, bad sex, bad children, all suggesting somehow that things were better when women stayed put. Rivers and her frequent collaborator, Rosalind Chait Barnett of Brandeis University, have been monitoring the press for more than a decade, and Rivers has no trouble filling this book with egregious examples, leading off with the now notorious New York Times story on the “Opt-Out Revolution,” which described the purported exodus of the best and the brightest from high-powered jobs to home and family. Wrong, says Rivers, a judgment she applies frequently, and correctly.

Witness: One of the Great Foreign Correspondents of the Twentieth Century Tells Her Story

By Ruth Gruber

Forward by Richard Holbrooke

Schocken Books

256 pages, $27.50

Here comes Ruth Gruber again, now ninety-five years old, telling more of the story of her long life and career. [See the notice for her earlier memoir, Ahead of Time, CJR, March/April 2001.] She again tells of the Soviet Arctic, Jewish refugees, and the early days of Israel. But this time she handsomely illuminates the story with nearly two hundred of her on-the-spot photographs, covering the period from the 1930s into the 1950s, an era now far in the past but with this particular witness surviving to recall it.

Sign up for CJR's daily email
James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.