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The Powers That Be

1 rating: 3.0
A book by David Halberstam

   Crackling with the personalities, conflicts, and ambitions that transformed the media from something that followed the news to something that formed it, "The Powers That Be" is David Halberstam's forceful account of the rise … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Publisher: University of Illinois Press (October 19, 2000)
Date Published: October 19, 2000
1 review about The Powers That Be

Making Of The Mainstream Media

  • Nov 17, 2010
Rating:
+3
Four mass-media giants - CBS, Time Magazine, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times - get the deep-dish David Halberstam treatment in this mammoth 1979 study.

For Halberstam readers used to books about either scandalous national tragedies or baseball, "The Powers That Be" is a bit of a change-up. While a probing critic, Halberstam's focus on the four press engines is by and large friendly. All four transformed to meet new challenges, becoming more critical of the government and more in tune with the times they covered, with the help of such external crises as Vietnam and Watergate. Yes, they were not always led by good people (William Paley, the boss of CBS, comes off particularly hollow that way), but they were guided by belief in the right things and helped drive positive change.

Halberstam has quite a story to tell, and spends a lot of time telling it. "The Powers That Be" is over 1,000 pages long, and amazingly reads like a novel, focused as it is on highly colorful individuals Halberstam presents in living color. Kay Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, is a shy but steely widow willing to gamble on the right to publish the controversial Pentagon Papers. Otis Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, is a surf-happy, hard-hearted visionary who leads his paper from a Republican-backing scandal sheet to a respected daily that earns the hatred of its former favorite son Richard Nixon.

Halberstam also portrays the politicians struggling to accommodate the new media, like Lyndon Johnson: "Someone, in a moment of primitive expertise, had told him to look right at the camera, and that was all he needed. From then on he fixed on the camera like a man who suspected it was about to pick his wallet, and just drilled it; his eyes never wavered, never faltered."

More than its length, Halberstam's wideness of focus is this book's biggest problem. He has points he wants to make about the revolutionizing of news reporting, particularly through television ("a quantum leap in journalistic and political power"), but his points on CBS don't always jibe with those on the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and his reasons for selecting these four particular operations over, say, NBC or The New York Times, are blurry.

The strands do come together. Television complicated the military's war in Vietnam by plastering it in family living rooms, but it was also the print media asking tough questions in marked contrast from past wars. The Washington Post brought down Nixon with its coverage of the Watergate break-in, but they were painfully isolated for a time until CBS devoted the bulk of two evening newscasts to the subject. When Kay Graham saw Bill Paley at a party, she kissed him in gratitude for helping the Post out. Paley hid his own discomfort with taking sides.

Halberstam writes from a strongly liberal perspective, which makes this book even more insightful. He criticizes calls for objectivity as dictating a reporter "should appear more ignorant than he really was", and makes clear there's no room in serious journalism for conservative lines of thought, as his dismissal of Henry Luce's Time as a windy beacon of imperalist dogma makes clear. (The magazine only improves when it shakes off Luce's grip and listens to the liberals in the newsroom.) Halberstam is engaging and probing, yet dogmatic, too.

Ultimately I found "The Powers That Be" an even better read for its imperfections. Halberstam was himself a star member of the mainstream media, and you get a fuller feeling for the passions and anxieties that drove these remarkable people to reshuffle how their world operated. If we live in an age that has outlasted their influence, it doesn't make their story less interesting.

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