Brief Encounters

Short reviews of books on campaign bloggers, tabloids, and a collection of Henry Fairlie’s essays
July 14, 2009

Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press
By Eric Boehlert
Free Press
280 pages, $26

in his classic The Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse showed how a cluster of bigfoot reporters from the old print and broadcast media steered the narrative of the 1972 presidential campaign. In Eric Boehlert’s Bloggers on the Bus, the vehicle in question has become purely figurative—a way of saying that influence has now been passed from the old bunch to a raggletaggle sprawl of liberal bloggers, scattered from Alaska to Brazil and known collectively as “the netroots.” (The coinage mashes together “grassroots” and “Internet.”) Although the netroots were mostly pro-Obama through the 2008 campaign, and helped him by challenging many of the falsehoods spread about him, this support was neither uncritical nor undivided. Nor, on the other side, did the Obama organization choose to associate itself closely with the bloggers, no doubt viewing them as uncontrollable. In general, Boehlert admires the work of the netroots. Yet he also describes ferocious internecine debates, such as the division over sexist attacks on Hillary Clinton, and the disillusion over Obama’s uncertain positions on warrantless wiretaps. Overall, he shows how the work of the netroots—for example, a citizen journalist’s impromptu tape of Obama’s “bitter” remarks—offers hope that ordinary people, not at all bigfooted, may alter the political landscape.

Tabloid Valley: Supermarket News and American Culture
By Paula E. Morton
University Press of Florida
207 pages, $24.95

Tabloid Valley was a real place, more or less. Its center was Lantana, Florida, a downscale little town between Miami and Palm Beach. In 1971, it became the home of the National Enquirer, the sometimes-muckraking celebrity tabloid, run by Generoso Pope Jr. and staffed in great part by nervy Brits. After Pope died in 1988, investors bought both the Enquirer and its more fanciful sibling, the Weekly World News, as well as Rupert Murdoch’s Star, thus creating American Media Incorporated. (The Lantana headquarters had to be abandoned after it received anthrax-laced mail in 2001.) At its zenith, the Greater Tabloid Valley stretched into every supermarket across the land; the National Enquirer peaked at six million copies when it carried a heavily retouched photo of Elvis in his casket. In common with other print media, the celebrity tabs have declined, but they are far from dead, and both the Enquirer and the Star continue to mount the figurative heads of straying politicians over their mantelpieces—former Senator John Edwards being one of the recent trophies. Paula E. Morton, a freelancer based in Florida, briskly traces the history of the genre and provides many reproductions of famous and notorious pages. Who can forget such gems as BAT CHILD FOUND IN CAVE! or HALF-HUMAN HALF-FISH ARE WASHING UP IN FLORIDA?

Bite the Hand That Feeds You: Essays and Provocations
By Henry Fairlie
Edited and with an introduction by Jeremy McCarter
Foreword by Leon Wieseltier
A New Republic Book,
Yale University Press
355 pages, $30

Nearly twenty years after his death at a less-than-advanced age, Henry Fairlie (1924–1990) is now honored with a generous sampling of the work he did for his last employer, The New Republic. Jeremy McCarter of Newsweek has done a judicious job assembling the contents. He also supplies a biographical sketch of Fairlie, documenting his quick rise through London journalism, the gathering troubles brought on by thoughtless spending, drinking, and philandering, and his assignment to America in 1965. Fairlie never returned to Britain, nor did he change his way of life. His disregard for his own welfare prevented him from gathering in the rewards heaped upon so many American journalists—the fellowships, the lecture fees, the honorary degrees. Fairlie sounded only faintly envious when he tabulated these emoluments in a 1984 article. Indeed, he spent his latter days sleeping in the magazine’s office. But the seediness of his life never seeped into his resplendent writing. He may be best remembered for providing the modern definition of “The Establishment” as the encompassing official and social network that, among other things, protected the British spies Burgess and Maclean. Politically, Fairlie described himself as a Tory, but his earmark was independence. He admired Churchill and FDR, and despised Reagan, or at least Reaganism. He defended big government as a necessity—and en passant, flayed George Will for faux learning. It all remains fresh and reading through it is like attending a circus.

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