- The Washington Times - Monday, January 25, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

UNINHIBITED, ROBUST, AND WIDE-OPEN: A FREE PRESS FOR A NEW CENTURY

By Lee C. Bollinger

Oxford University Press, $21.95, 210 pages

Reviewed by John R. Coyne Jr.

At a time when Google’s stand against Chi -nese censorship is front page news, when the nature of newsgathering and reporting is undergoing profound changes, when established news organizations are downsizing, restructuring and at times going out of business, you expect something big and timely from this book.

Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University with its celebrated journalism school, approaches the problem from a global perspective: “How will we confront this new, more reactive and more integrated world with a press weakened by a lack of stable funding and forced to navigate through a bewildering landscape in which the laws governing censorship and access to newsworthy information vary from nation to nation? This book,” he tells us, “addresses that question.”

True. But it provides few answers. (One of them is public funding for journalism schools, which no one this side of Berkeley would buy.) Also, it doesn’t live up to its title, taken from Justice Brennan’s opinion in a famous case, New York Times v. Sullivan (1964). Frequently written in the rhetoric of high academic U.N.-approved globalspeak (Mr. Bollinger urges ratification of a variety of suspect U.N. agreements), and apparently fleshed out with cannibalized sections of old presentations, the prose is less than robust.

At times, the author is so inhibited by his determination not to offend citizens of “our increasingly interconnected world” that his thoughts get tangled in thickets of padding - as in a section on perceived softening on press coverage of the China Olympics, where one lengthy quote gets repeated twice in the same paragraph.

Wide open? For the most part, only if you define “wide open” as willingness to swallow all the old, liberal shibboleths whole. But the author does occasionally let it rip, as when he takes on what he sees as the real enemies of press freedom. Dictators and despots? China and Iran? Not at all. The villains are Republicans, especially President George W. Bush. And as for the Bush administration, high-mindedness be damned, and let the partisanship roll, robustly.

“Since the attacks of September 11, 2001,” he writes, “the United States has been at war… plunged into a state of despair, fear, and anger, then mobilized into military action, just as it was during World Wars I and II and the ‘red scare’ of the McCarthy period.”

And just what “military action” we were “mobilized into” during Sen. McCarthy’s tenure? Korea? Surely, Mr. Bollinger doesn’t agree with erstwhile liberal icon I.F. Stone, a Stalinist stooge, that the South actually invaded the North.

But no matter. He presses on, robustly: “For a time, jingoism surged, while dissent became viewed as unpatriotic. Critics of the war in Iraq were accused of betraying the memories of those who had lost their lives in the attacks and of magnifying the risks faced by those asked to serve on the front line. Ideologues in the media exacerbated those attitudes.” (In some 30-plus pages of notes, those “ideologues in the media” are never identified.) “The administration of George W. Bush,” he tells us, absurdly, “called for a retreat from our commitment to civil liberties.”

Mr. Bollinger goes on to chastise Mr. Bush’s efforts to control press coverage of drones in Afghanistan. Odd, since President Obama is now pursuing Mr. Bush’s plan, with a marked escalation in both troop strengths and drone strikes, adhering to the same general rules for press coverage set by Mr. Bush’s secretary of defense, now Mr. Obama’s secretary of defense. But so far, the major media (Mr. Bollinger sits on the board of The Washington Post) remains uncritical. As does the author.

In the end, Mr. Bollinger’s only job is to raise money for his institution - a function not enhanced when he approved an invitation to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak on campus, rescinded it, reapproved it, and then nervously and caustically introduced the Iranian president, thereby offending nearly every constituency on campus. And to boot, he was panned by the major media he caters to.

According to Forbes, Mr. Bollinger is one a new breed of “non-profit millionaires,” pulling down $1.3 million (with splendid perks). Columbia has come a long way since Dwight D. Eisenhower served as its president. But readers of this book may wonder about the direction.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).

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