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May 9-15, 2007

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'When the Press Fails'

When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media From Iraq to Katrina
(By W. Lance Bennett, Regina G. Lawrence and Steven Livingston; University of Chicago Press; 263 pages; $22.50 cloth)

Two political scientists and a professor of media studies offer some succinct thoughts on what went wrong in the mainstream media's coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war and the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. The authors' main point—familiar to readers of the alternative press—is that mainstream media remains beholden to official sources; by allowing the powers that be to drive the political discussion, voices of dissent are denied a fair hearing. Afraid of being labeled crusaders, mainstream reporters wait until credible power sources (John McCain on torture, for instance) challenge the dominant news narrative. This stance works reasonably well, the authors argue, when there is a healthy balance in the body politic. When a ruthless White House works with a complicit Congress, real debate is stifled. In an especially intriguing section, the authors note that the current administration, ironically, has "embraced a keenly postmodern epistemology" in which "material reality is mediated by social constructs"—i.e., reality is manipulated to fit policy needs, thus putting Bush and Rove in the company of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

Review by Michael S. Gant


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