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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Liberal critics analyze tragedy and farce of U.S. media
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Tragedy and Farce:
How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy
By John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney
New Press, 211 pp, 23.95 dollars
Unless media magnate Rupert Murdoch subscribes to the old adage about knowing one's enemies, you are unlikely to find this book in his home library. Nor is it likely to turn up anywhere in the White House. This is unfortunate because, while they might not find its progressive political spin to their taste, Tragedy and Farce would provide the occupants of either abode with the harsh dose of reality and constructive criticism they so desperately need.

Make no mistake, coauthors John Nichols (Dick: the Man Who Is President), Washington correspondent for liberal newsmagazine The Nation, and Robert W. McChesney (Rich Media, Poor Democracy), a communications professor at the University of Illinois, wear their progressive credentials on their sleeves and are unapologetic opponents of the current U.S. administration. Their political affiliations, however, in no way weaken their argument that the mass media in the United States are in severe decline and are dragging democracy down in the process.

The book's title comes from a comment by U.S. President and Founding Father James Madison: "A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both."

Nichols and McChesney contend that the combination of overreliance on official sources, corporate concentration of media ownership and pressure to maximize profits--along with the constant, forceful accusations of massive liberal bias by the right--have combined to produce a mass media establishment in the United States that is no longer interested in comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, but rather strives to maintain the status quo, protect the powerful and exercise its own power for the sake of corporate profit rather than serving the public interest.

In proving their their argument, the authors present two main case studies, the first one a tragedy, the other a farce: the lead-up to and early part of the Iraq war and the 2004 U.S. presidential election.

In the case of the war, the book is harsh in its criticism of the failure of the press to investigate White House claims about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and its willingness to allow the Bush administration to set the media agenda.

The authors' parsing of a comment New York Times scribe Judith Miller made to Jonathan Mermin for an article in World Policy Journal is typical: "Miller herself was unapologetic about her approach to journalism. 'My job isn't to assess the government's information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself...My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq's arsenal.' There, in two stunning sentences, Miller presents the formula for government propaganda, for the news values of authoritarian regimes everywhere including Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and ultimately, for today's anti-journalism."

In examining the shortcomings in the media coverage of the 2004 presidential election, Nichols and McChesney deride the mainstream press for playing along with Republican political guru Karl Rove's campaign strategy. In one example of the right-wing spin machine working the media referees, considerable airtime was given to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against candidate John Kerry despite the group's fairly clear lack of credibility. Another example is the spin that was put on CBS news' use of questionable sources of information in its investigation of the president's service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, shifting the story's focus from whether Bush had done his duty to whether Dan Rather's "scoop" of a story extensively covered in an earlier book was properly documented.

Tragedy and Farce is built on secondary sources as opposed to primary research, but the sources are reliable and carefully documented. A wealth of sharp cartoons by Tom Tomorrow give the book a lighter touch. Finally, Nichols and McChesney's closing chapter, on media reform activism, contains carefully considered nonpartisan recommendations on how to solve the current media crisis. It's a finish that provides the spin-weary, outFOXed, CNNicized, overTimesed and Washington Posted with some hope for the future.
(Nov. 13, 2005/The Daily Yomiuri)

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