Media, politics and culture: related reading
An Introduction to Metaphysics of Knowledge, by Yves Rene Marie Simon. Fordham University Press, 1990.
Yves R. Simon (1903-1961), a French political philosopher of the neo-Thomist school, had insights on the nature of knowledge that are acquiring new relevance in an age where society is torn on the most basic issues. From the publisher: "The question raised by Simon more than half a century ago, when this book was first published, are still with us: What is the nature of knowledge? What kind of activity is it to know? What is involved in the development of human knowledge? If one had to describe Simon's accomplishment by reducing it to a single point, what he succeeded in showing was that an ontology of knowledge based on common experience disproves all idealism and leads to realism by strictest necessity.."
The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, by Tyler Cowen. St. Martin's Press, 2017.
Americans have historically paid homage to a cultural narrative of upward mobility in a melting-pot land of opportunity. But the the numbers, and our own recent history, show a very different reality, according to the author, an economist at George Mason University. In fact, he argues, Americans are relocating less, starting fewer businesses, and increasingly live in what attorney/author David French calls "progressive Disneylands" segregated by race and class. "The American elite might celebrate diversity in dinner-table conversation, but in practice Americans are cocooning themselves in enclaves of like-minded folk." - The Economist
Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters, by Harold Evans. Little Brown & Co., 2017.
"Celebrated newspaper editor Harold Evans (the former chief of the Sunday Times of London) sees a lot of linguistic fog around us: murky words and too much passive voice. His new book...is a passionate call for better writing. A British-born journalist and editor, (Evans) provides valuable instructions for helping people in the digital age of rampant texting abbreviations to be more precise in their writing to improve communications and enhance clarity." - NPR
The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside our Heads, by Tim Wu. Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
"The age of mass media and mass marketing is characterized by an arms race between those who seek to capture the valuable commodity of our attention...and those who resist this...if you walk the floor of a modern newsroom, you will most likely see journalists staring at real-time charts flickering with numbers, and dials telling editors where readers are spending every second of their time. If you have got this far in the review, then I and Tim Wu are doing well — around 55 percent of readers, on average, will have stopped after 15 seconds." - The New York Times
Indelible Ink: The Trials of John Peter Zenger and the Birth of America's Free Press, by Richard Kluger. W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.
"The reason Zenger became the sole defendant and languished in jail when the authorities cracked down on his little weekly is that while writers...hid behind pen names, printers were obliged by law to sign their work...Kluger makes a convincing case that the New-York Weekly Journal and the jurors who balked and convicting Zenger 40 years before the Revolution 'helped implant in the public mind that open protest against an imposed and arguably unjust government was both a societal necessity and a civil right.' " - The New York Times
The Kingdom of Speech, by Tom Wolfe. Little, Brown, 2016.
"Speech, Wolfe maintains, is man’s superpower, the one thing that sets humans apart from animals. But what exactly is it, and where did it come from? Eminent minds have flown high with this lofty question and, let’s face it, crashed...'The Kingdom of Speech' convinces us that the study of ideas should never be separated from the people who conceived them. Wolfe seems to suggest that if you take nothing for granted and think for yourself, you may reach the truth — and have plenty of fun along the way." - Richmond Times-Dispatch
Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency, by David Greenberg. W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.
"[This] sound, judicious and dispassionate volume, which draws on primary sources as well as the existing academic literature, shows, from the standpoint of history, why being skeptical about how presidents try to sell themselves is, mainly, a good thing... [Greenberg] shows us the arc, from William McKinley campaigning from his front porch to the melodramatic Theodore Roosevelt to the present...his treatment of how our political machinery became so encrusted with deception shows why Americans have beome fed up with politicians who will not open their mouths without a focus group's foreguidance. " - The New York Times
Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior, by Jonah Berger. Simon & Schuster, 2016.
"Berger offers an engaging guide to the concept of social influence. He examines how opposing categories of socially motivated behavior—imitation and differentiation—combine to create complex cultural patterns. He shows, for example, the imperceptible communal nudges behind baby-naming trends, racial achievement gaps, and group decision-making at work. Though Berger teaches marketing, his book appeals to readers beyond the M.B.A.s. " - Publishers Weekly
Partisan Journalism: A History of Media Bias in the United States, by Jim A. Kuypers. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
"Kuypers provides an important historical backdrop that is encouraging. Our nation, in fact, has a tradition of partisan press that dates back to our founding. It was in the early twentieth century that norms and ethical practices of objective journalism were attempted. This knowledge suggests that we can certainly survive and even overcome our present limitations on public information, as we have in the past. In fact, it is doubtful that news today is as biased and distorted as it was in the early 19th century or earlier." - The American Thinker
Cast of Characters: Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White, James Thurber and the Golden Age of The New Yorker, by Thomas Vinciguerra. W.W. Norton & Co., 2015.
"The golden age of the New Yorker, according to Vinciguerra, was the period prior to World War II ... this earnest effort to provide a history of the New Yorker’s early decades is readable and straightforward. It may appeal to those who have not read similar books by New Yorker writers whose prose has more pizzazz. Vinciguerra, who himself has written dozens of pieces for the magazine, has preferences that are both clear and clearly nostalgic. The magazine has changed since the decades Vinciguerra declares were its golden age — it would not have survived if it had remained the same." - The Washington Independent Review of Books
Church of Spies: The Pope's War Against Hitler, by Mark Riebling. Basic Books, 2015.
"One of the lingering controversies of World War II concerns the role of the Roman Catholic Church, and whether its leadership — specifically, Pope Pius XII — provided meaningful opposition to the Nazi regime ... a different picture emerges in this remarkable book by Mark Riebling, who writes frequently on intelligence, and who gained access to Vatican files apparently not viewed by any previous author. He takes a giant stride in refurbishing the status of Pius." - The Washington Times
Churchill's Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government, by Larry P. Arnn. Thomas Nelson, 2015.
"It is not only the brave Churchill of the battlefield and bombed-out ruins of the newsreels we ought to learn from, but also the Churchill of the library, the one who could act prudently because he had read deeply and thought with a clear if crowded mind about the world, not only as we would have it be but as it is. It's Churchill the thinker and political philosopher (and, in not a few cases, Churchill the prophet) Arnn chooses to give us here."
Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion, by Harold Holzer. Simon and Schuster, 2014.
"He could frequently be found putting his feet up on desks, telling droll stories, dazzling editors with his knowledge of local politics and leaving in his wake new allies who served him well the following year in his pursuit of the presidency... Lincoln’s early press acumen is only one of many such moments in this fascinating [book]... the genius of this work lies in Holzer’s rendering of the press in the mid-19th century. It was a pivotal moment when newspapers gained economic independence from political parties and obtained massive national readership. While remaining partisan, newspapers became a force in their own right." - The Washington Post
The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself, by Andrew Pettegree. Yale University Press, 2014.
"It is the genuinely unexpected that keeps us listening, afraid we might miss something. As Pettegree, a distinguished historian, demonstrates, very few of us can resist the urge to learn. It's an ancient hunger. He credits the first proper newspaper to a German stationer in 1605, and the first front-page illustration – an artist's impression of a battle in the 30 years' war – to a publication in Holland. The [Protestant] Reformation, Pettegree suggests, was Europe's first mass-media news event... [but] the appetite for reliable intelligence about what was happening elsewhere existed long before printing had even been invented. " - The Guardian
The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, by Walter Isaacson. Sion and Schuster, 2014.
"Isaacson’s heart is with the engineers: the wizards of coding, the artists in electrons, silicon, copper, networks and mice. But 'The Innovators' also gives space to the revolutionary work done with men as well as mice: experiments in the organizational forms in which creativity might be encouraged and expressed; in the aesthetic design of personal computers, phones and graphical fonts; in predicting and creating what consumers did not yet know they wanted; and in the advertising and marketing campaigns that make them want those things. Not the least of the revolutionaries’ inventions was their own role as our culture’s charismatic prophets... " - The Wall Street Journal
Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits, by Glyn Johns. Blue Rider Press, 2014.
"Johns’s career was at its peak from the mid-‘60s through the ‘70s, and a tiny sample of his work includes engineering work with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, and the Small Faces, and production work with the Eagles, the Who, Fairport Convention, Steve Miller, and Eric Clapton. He was working with the Stones as early as 1962, recorded George Harrison’s solo demo of “Something” when Harrison was too worried to play the song live for the rest of the band, and recorded the first Led Zeppelin album in nine days...Sound Man presents a highlight reel of his life behind the recording studio glass." - Popmatters
All The Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, by Matt Bai. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
"'The whole business of '87 is flypaper to me,' Gary Hart said. 'I want to get unstuck.'... He had been the front-runner in the Democratic Party's 1988 presidential campaign, but then [reports emerged] that Hart - a married man - was having an affair.... Hart seems resigned to his status. Otherwise he probably wouldn't have cooperated with [Bai]. He writes about Hart's terrible year with empathy, calling his 'humiliation... the first in a seemingly endless parade of exaggerated public scandals and public floggings,' denying the political process the best and the brightest." - The New York Times
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker. Viking, 2014.
"The Harvard psychology professor is a rigorous thinker whose previous books...have been distinguished by a flair for making highly technical subjects seem not just accessible but positively jaunty. Now his distaste for the deathly edicts that glut most current volumes on literary style has led him to create what he calls 'a writing guide for the 21st century'. Pinker identifies the techniques that make prose compelling and the bad habits that can make it soggy...he focuses on contentious points of usage, of the sort addressed by the American humorist Calvin Trillin's quip: 'Whom' is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.'" - The Guardian
Hack Attack: The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up With Rupert Murdoch, by Nick Davies. Faber and Faber, 2014.
"Davies, an investigative journalist, refused to accept the common wisdom... that hacking at the Murdoch-owned News of the World - breaking in to the voice mail messages of public and private figures - was an isolated instance of tabloid excess. As it turned out, the practice was exceedingly common and casually deployed to create villains in order to sell papers and, when it was useful, to persecute enemies of the Murdoch empire." - The New York Times
World Order, by Henry Kissinger. Penguin Press, 2014.
"Mr. Kissinger is now 91 years old. The fact that he has written yet another book, the succinctly titled 'World Order,' is impressive in itself. What is more remarkable is that it effectively carries on his campaign to undermine the romantic pieties of left and right that have shaped so much of American foreign policy over the past century. Mr. Kissinger bids fair to outlast many of the people who hate him and make others forget why they hated him in the first place." - The Wall Street Journal
Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Pantheon, 2014.
"...a hybrid of a careful overview of Plato and a series of imagined dialogues between Plato and contemporary interlocutors... Goldstein makes a plea for the continuing importance of philosophy as Plato (427–347 B.C.) conceived it... Plato’s own views are elusive because he never wrote in his own voice, only through characters speaking in dialogue. (But) Goldstein suggests that the value lies not in Plato’s particular proposals but in his questions and methodologies, the process in the dialogues by which ideas are considered, debated, and often rejected." - Slate
Reagan at Reykjavik: Fourty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War, by Ken Adelman. Harper Collins, 2014.
"'It would be fine with me if we eliminated all nuclear weapons,' Reagan said, as the two sat face to face, surrounded by just a few advisers in the otherworldly Icelandic landscape. 'We can do that,' Gorbachev responded. 'We can eliminate them.' In 'Reagan at Reykjavik,' Ken Adelman, Reagan’s arms control director, recounts this exchange and the three days leading up to it as a pivotal moment in the Cold War’s final act." - The New York Times
Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America, by Donald L. Miller. Simon & Schuster, 2014.
"'We meet such characters as Fred F. French, the real-estate king who pummeled his sales staff with feel-good directives ('stand before your bathroom mirror and practice smiling for ten minutes in the morning and at night'); Joseph Patterson, a one-time socialist who founded the Daily News and became New York's tabloid king; and Tex Rickard, the fight promoter who built a new Madison Square Garden and drew the ermine-and-pearl crowd into the sanguinary world of boxing. As these examples suggest, it is Mr. Miller's emphasis on influential 'lesser-knowns' that gives 'Supreme City' its particular interest." - The Wall Street Journal
Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love, by Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker. Harper, 2014.
"Two reporters, both working moms, best friends, on the staff of a tabloid perpetually threatened with extinction, walk the mean streets of Philadelphia pursuing a story about police corruption. Lawyers threaten them, one of them gets slapped around, on-the-record sources prove elusive. But eventually, the project comes together... And against all odds, they win a Pulitzer Prize... a true story." - Rem Rieder, USA Today
Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics, by Terry Golway. Liveright, 2014.
"Unlike [New York City's] Protestant establishment, Tammany didn't care whether the [19th century Irish] newcomers were what one preacher called 'a rum-soaked and libidinous lot.' 'If we go down in the gutter,' said one of Tammany's more crooked bosses, 'it is because there are men in the gutter.' Before long, the grateful Irish were marching to the polls—and the machine grew omnipotent." - Edward Kosner, The Wall Street Journal
An Anxious Age: The Post Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, by Joseph Bottum. Random House, 2014.
"I was sent out to report on the protestors at Occupy Wall Street—and couldn’t finish the assignment," Bottum says. "I could feel a spiritual anxiety about modern civilization radiating from nearly all of them, but I could find no easy way to explain it." Now, two years later, this book is his answer: Not just those protestors, claims Bottum, but nearly everyone today is driven by supernatural concerns, however much or little they realize it. "We are a nation of individuals desperate to stand on the side of morality—anxious to know that we are righteous and dwell in the light. The trouble, of course, is that we’ve lost any shared cultural notion of what exactly that goodness might entail."
When the News Went Live: Dallas 1963, 50th anniversary edition, by Bob Huffaker et al. Taylor Trade Publishing, 2013.
Bob Huffaker broadcast television’s first murder when Jack Ruby shot Lee Oswald. He broadcast the motorcade and Parkland Hospital scenes, interviewed the assassin’s mother, covered Ruby’s trial and finally his death, having done an award-winning courtroom interview with Ruby. "The first accounts of how the Kennedy assassination happened came from the local radio and TV reporters of Dallas. For the first time, some of the best of those reporters tell the gritty tale of how they did it. The story they tell is riveting, insightful and filled with new detail about that awful weekend that changed America." - Bob Schieffer, CBS News
The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Simon and Schuster, 2013.
"Let (Kearns Goodwin) transport you back to the turn of the 20th century, to a time when this country had politicians of stature and conscience, when the public believed that government could right great wrongs, when, before truncated attention spans, a 50,000 word exposé of corruption could sell out magazines and galvanize a reluctant Congress." - Bill Keller, The New York Times
Everything's Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals, by Steve Young and Sport Murphy. Blast Books, 2013.
"Industrial musicals [in the 1950's and 60's] were like Broadway shows, only written and performed for corporate sales meetings or conventions. And as ridiculous as the songs were — 'My bathroom, my bathroom is a private kind of place' — they were often delivered by very talented people." - National Public Radio
American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, by Deborah Solomon. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013.
"He believed that a painting was more than color and form, that it needed to carry a story — 'The story is the first thing and the last thing,' he said... He wanted to make ordinary American scenes as Rembrandt might have painted them." - Garrison Keillor
The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood, by Roger Rosenblatt. Ecco/Harper Collins, 2013.
"(Rosenblatt) doesn't consult Google Earth or a guidebook. He doesn't need a tour bus or a taxicab. He walks the streets like a poetic stray, embracing chance and accident... in an important way, Rosenblatt was absorbing techniques essential to an occupation other than that of a detective: a reporter. And that's what he became." -Pete Hamill
Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by Ross Douthat. Free Press, 2012.
Faith can move mountains, the saying goes, and in its postwar heyday, mainline Christianity certainly did - dominating popular culture and becoming the moral force behind the civil rights movement. How did that vigorous, bipartisan phenomenon begin to recede? Douthat, the youngest ever New York Times op-ed columnist, argues the problem wasn’t too much religion, or even a newly strident atheism. It’s that Christianity was supplanted by a wide range of pseudo-Christian philosophies, from both the right and the left, that have little in common with the traditional creed.
Cronkite, by Douglas Brinkley. Harper, 2012.
Much has been written about the man who anchored the country’s most influential newscast through some of the most tumultuous years in US history. But in Brinkley’s new biography, writes this reviewer, what Walter Cronkite chose not to do with his career becomes as telling as what he did. “(He) could have become a crusader like (Edward R.) Murrow. Or he could have turned temporary gigs hosting a morning show or a game show into his life’s work. But reporting the news favored Cronkite’s nature ... for him, reporting with accuracy and fairness was a worthy calling — and at times an exciting one.”
Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, by Dan Rather with Digby Diehl. Grand Central Publishing, 2012.
At 81, Cronkite’s successor is busier than ever: supervising a staff of 22 for a weekly cable news program, still winning awards for investigative reporting, and touring the country discussing his memoir - which covers, among many landmarks, the controversy that led to his departure from CBS News. “You can’t do the kind of work that I have done and come out unscathed,” he told this reviewer. “You’re going to have scars. The goal is to make as many of those scars as possible from the front, not running from something and taking it in the back.”
Speaking American: A History of English in the United States, by Richard W. Bailey. Oxford University Press, 2012.
"Bailey argues that geography is largely behind our fluid evaluations of what constitutes 'proper' English. Early Americans were often moving westward, and the East Coast, unlike European cities, birthed no dominant urban standard. The story of American English is one of eternal rises and falls in reputation... as Bailey puts it: 'Those who seek stability in English seldom find it; those who wish for uniformity become laughingstocks." - The New York Times.
The Comics: The Complete Collection, by Brian Walker. Harry N. Abrams Publishers, 2011.
Walker has amassed over a century of strips—more than 1,300 images—including rare examples provided by the artists themselves. “The advent of the high-speed rotary color press in the 1890s started a riot in the staid Sunday paper, which became a haven for some of the most gleefully weird characters in popular culture, then or since... altogether, it was the most fun anyone ever had in print.”
The Man Who Sold America: Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century by Jeffrey L. Cruikshank and Arthur W. Schultz. Harvard Business Press, 2010.
Few people remember Albert Lasker, but he’s an important enough figure to merit his own Wikipedia page some 60 years after his death. He became known as the “founder of modern advertising” largely on the advice of an ex-Canadian mounted policeman he had met in 1904. Until then, Lasker thought of advertising as news - but the Mountie insisted he had it wrong. “Advertising is a very simple thing,” he told Lasker. “I can give it to you in three words: it is 'salesmanship in print'."
The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, by James. W. Pennebaker. Bloomsbury, 2011.
In the 1930’s, the New York Telephone Company is said to have surveyed the most frequently used words in phone conversations. The pronoun “I” appeared 3900 times in 500 calls. Pennebaker, an educator and psychologist, picks up the trail from there. His central thesis is that the simple words we use betray not just our egoism - but our emotions, our intelligence, even our honesty.
Newspaper Titan: The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson, by Amanda Smith. Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
In 1930, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst hired socialite Eleanor Medill “Cissy” Patterson to run his Washington Herald. The first female editor-in-chief of a major metropolitan paper, Patterson, for all her opulence, was at heart a news hound. Her grandfather published the Chicago Tribune, her brother the New York Daily News. “When your grandmother gets raped,” the Medills liked to say, “put it on the front page.”
No Time To Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle, by Howard Rosenberg and Charles S. Feldman. Continuum International, 2008.
"Today's news culture rewards those who achieve both speed and accuracy. It awards no praise for second place or reporting inaccurately. Howard and Charles witnessed firsthand the accelerating speed and the decelerating standards in two of the finest news organizations in the nation, Los Angeles Times and CNN. Their book is a very provocative read." – Tom Johnson, CNN
Losing The News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy, by Alex Jones. Oxford University Press, 2009.
"Jones's defense of the newspaper is not simply nostalgic. Many people may think they get their news from television at the Web, but even today, he estimates, 85 percent of fact-based news currently originates in a newspaper attempting to record, explain and investigate... How can we expect to stay informed if we ever have to make do with all the news that will fit on a cellphone screen?” – Sir Harold Evans