- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

MEDIA MADNESS:THE CORRUPTION OF OUR POLITICAL CULTURE

By James Bowman

Encounter Books, $13.60, 130 pages REVIEWED BY: Carol Herman

In his persuasive and searing “Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture,” James Bowman adds a devilish epigraph to a chapter in which he considers the media’s embrace of hyperbole:

“Going too far is half th’ pleasure of not getting anywhere.”Zippy the Pinhead.

The meaning is clear. In Mr. Bowman’s view, members of the media often go too far in what they choose to report and how they report it. Confronting misguided pronouncements and demonstrations of unbridled self-importance in (mostly liberal) corners of the media, Mr. Bowman reminds readers of media failures and how quick the media is to chastise those who disagree with it.

This can become dangerous, he demonstrates, when our culture takes its cues from media celebrities like Dan Rather and Rosie O’Donnell whose assertions have not always been true or fair, to put it mildly.

In the book’s introduction — its very first sentence, in fact — Mr. Bowman gets right to the point:

“‘Is the pope Catholic?’”

“That used to be the way people greeted a piece of news that wasn’t news at all. Well now, apparently, the pope’s being Catholic is news again. In July 2007, the Associated Press, Reuters, The Washington Post, The Times of London and other papers informed us that, as The Times put it: ‘If it isn’t Roman Catholic then it’s not a proper church, Pope tells Christians.’ Had the editors of the Times really been under the impression that the pope believed the church of which he is the head was just one of the churches? Had they been surprised to hear that the Bishop of Rome believed that the Roman Church was the one true church? I doubt it — though nowadays you never know.”

In his careful dissection of media posturing Mr. Bowman threads his way through the madness of it all. In short order, he covers mass media’s pretense of “objectivity,” its “cult of feelings,” the sensationalism and hyperbole used “to sell more papers or advertising,” the influence of the therapeutic culture on what we watch and read and, finally, how celebrity worship and “a belief in their own non-partisanship encourage and are encouraged by the growing tendency in public life to turn political into moral matters and so to remove them from the realm of legitimate debate.”

Mr. Bowman writes: “This moralization of political life — and its contribution to the ‘polarization’ and ‘incivility’ that, when it suits them to do so, the media complain most loudly about — now looks like becoming the most lasting legacy of the media culture.”

As an aside in a book that is discreetly punctuated with pithy and learned digressions, Mr. Bowman takes pains to note that media, as a word, “is a Latin plural” and therefore should be accompanied by a plural verb, though he is not so inflexible as to consider this a fixed dictum.

“[T]he media as we have experienced them for decades past have almost invariably seemed like one thing rather than many things. That is what is finished. Within the next ten or twenty years it will almost certainly be the case for all of us, as it already is for the mostly younger people who get their news from the Internet, cable television, and radio talk shows, that the media will again seem like many things rather than one thing. On the whole, this is a development warmly to be welcomed.”

Mr. Bowman, the author of “Honor: A History,” trains his eye on all that is, at best, absurd and, at worst, simply scandalous. He calls to account media that blithely perpetuate received wisdom of any kind, whether it’s about President Bush’s intelligence or the prosecution of the Iraq war.

One could argue that Mr. Bowman reserves his greatest scorn for the transformation of the media into a celebrity-driven vehicle. “Maureen Orth, who now writes for Vanity Fair, noted that in 1977 it took her two days to persuade her editors at Newsweek to let her cover the funeral of Elvis Presley.

” … Compare that to the orgy of coverage that the respectable media, including The New York Times and Newsweek, devoted thirty years later to the demise of Anna Nicole Smith, a celebrity whose accomplishments were, to put it charitably, very much less impressive even in pop cultural terms than Elvis Presley’s.”

The particular virtue of the book is that it stirs the pot, reminding readers about the wisdom of not taking anything delivered from the media at face value (present review excepted of course).

Moreover, reading “Media Madness” during the current election season is a revelation. If the medicine is too potent, Mr. Bowman cheerfully directs readers elsewhere, starting with the blogosphere, where few, it seems, pretend to be bothered about objectivity or professionalism.

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