Reading on reading between the lines

A few books that can help one become a more discerning consumer of the news

Aug. 4, 2002

by David Kopel

Looking for summertime reading, but not interested in Bobby Knight's autobiography? Then consider some books that will make you a more discerning news consumer.

Manufacturing Consent, by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman. Chomsky is like the character in one of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poems. Just like the little girl with a curl right in the middle of her forehead, when Chomsky is good, he is very, very good. But when he is bad he is horrid.

Long before the mainstream American media were paying attention, Chomsky was calling attention to the Indonesian government's genocide against the people of East Timor, and the U.S. government's complicity with the anti-communist dictatorship of Indonesia. Yet Chomsky's rigid determination always to blame America first led him to make ridiculous and indisputably false pronouncements that the United States was deliberately perpetrating genocide in Afghanistan by blocking food shipments.

Thus, Chomsky's book - an analysis of media coverage of various American foreign policy engagements from the 1960s through the 1980s - ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. The best way to study this book is not for the sometimes-reliable history, but to learn some of Chomsky's concepts of media analysis.

For example, pointing out that victims of brutal anti-American regimes tend to get a lot more attention and sympathy than do victims of brutal pro-American regimes, Chomsky introduces the concept of "favored victims."

Chomsky also demonstrates that the "liberal media" is hardly synonymous with "leftist media." Analyzing American media coverage of the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, Chomsky shows that American media voices included people who described Tet as a significant setback for American forces, as well as people who saw Tet as, in the long run, an American victory - since a major communist offensive was eventually defeated and the communists suffered huge losses. But, as Chomsky correctly notes, the mainstream media, while debating whether America was winning in Vietnam or whether America should withdraw from a futile war, ignored the radical perspective favored by Chomsky and others: that the Vietnam War was an unjust American invasion of a nation which Ho Chi Minh had every right to rule in its entirety.

This point, too, has broader application. Regarding this year's corporate scandals, the mainstream media tend to follow the liberal/ New York Times line that the scandals prove the need for greater central government regulation of business; but perspectives calling for radical economic changes - such as government ownership of important businesses - almost never appear in the mainstream press.

Coloring the News, by William McGowan. Although other media books have been bigger sellers this year (see below), Coloring the News has become one of the most important books ever written about American journalism, and was named book of the year by the National Press Club.

With a special focus on The New York Times and other elite newspapers, McGowan demonstrates how newspaper obsession with political correctness has devastated media coverage of important issues. Certain subjects simply are not covered honestly in many newspapers today - namely issues that might cast a bad light on racial minorities, gays, the homeless, immigrants (including illegal immigrants), working women, or abortion. A number of newspapers at one time or another have imposed a virtual quota system on hiring and promoting, given favored minorities the right to veto critical coverage, assigned lapdog reporters to cover minority issues, and made it clear that any reporter who violates the boundaries of political correctness will be gravely endangering his career.

Bias, by Bernard Goldberg. This liberal CBS television reporter's book became a No. 1 best-seller earlier this year. It's a lighter, easier version of McGowan's book, with a focus on network television news. It's also interesting as an examination of the despotic power which network anchors wield over the entire staff of a network news division.

Nowhere in the major media is liberal bias more pervasive than in network television news. In even the worst New York Times article, a dissenting perspective might be offered in paragraph 17 of a 20-paragraph story. But the 90-second network news pieces frequently amount to one-sided propaganda with manipulative images.

More recently, Ann Coulter's Slander has taken over the No. 1 spot on the non-fiction best-seller list. Coulter catalogues the penchant of liberals, especially in media, for using mean-spirited and false personal attacks on conservatives, rather than engaging in serious policy discussion. Coulter is the best political humorist in the country, and conservatives will find the book a delight. People not already convinced by her thesis will be turned off by her acid wit, and her failure to acknowledge that conservatives sometimes commit the sins she rails against.

If It Bleeds, It Leads, by Matthew Kerbel. This one isn't about bias, but rather about the propensity of local television news to emphasize fluff, weather and sensational pictures. Kerbel weaves actual news segments from several local stations, gathered over a one-week period, into a single one-hour newscast, and provides a minute-by-minute dissection of the words and images. Of course local TV news isn't always as bad as in Kerbel's horror show, but the book is still a great look into local news pacing and production.

But don't blame the producers. If serious news attracted bigger audiences, TV stations would gladly offer debates between Noam Chomsky and George Shultz, rather than pet-care tips.

 

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