Review: Bennett, When the Press Fails

July 30, 2007
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Pulitzer prize winning writer Russell Baker recently published an interesting review of several new books about the tenuous state of American journalism focusing on topics like Rupert Murdoch’s recent takeover of the Wall Street Journal, and the growing scarcity of substantive news coverage. In the review written for the August 16 New York Review of Books, Baker cites Lance W. Bennett, Regina G. Lawrence, and Steven Livingston’s When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina to argue that many modern news sources have already shown alarming signs of failure in their obligation to keep the public informed in a fair and unbiased way, especially as evidenced by the media’s dealings with the current Bush administration. Baker writes:

Assignment to Washington is one of the highest prizes a newspaper has to offer, and not surprisingly the Washington press is an elite group: well-educated, well-paid, talented, at ease among the mighty, a bit smug perhaps about knowing secrets others don’t, but for the most part sensitive to an obligation to keep the public informed without fear or prejudice. Yet they failed this obligation during the Bush years, the authors of When The Press Fails contend, partly because of their tendency to defer excessively to power.
Their “deference to power” was not a newly hatched product of the Bush era, according to the authors, but a habit “deeply ingrained and continually reinforced in the culture and routines of mainstream journalism.” It is a habit that makes Washington journalists vulnerable to manipulation by the powerful and indifferent to dissent and protest. Dissenters and protesters are often dismissed as “mavericks,” suggesting they are not to be taken too seriously.…
At its most damaging, deference to power means a readiness to tell the narrative of government as the powerful tell it. The Bush people have talked of creating their own reality. The writers of When the Press Fails refer to this Bushian “reality” as a “script” and criticize the Washington press for accepting it as reality, even when, as during the Iraq war, “that script seemed bizarrely out of line with observable events.”

Read an excerpt from the book.

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