Capsule reviews of new books on media, culture, and democracy. Send review copies to Reclaim the Media, PO Box 22754, Seattle WA 98122, and support your local independent bookstores! Currently under review:

  • The Death and Life of American Journalism by Robert McChesney and John Nichols
  • Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics through Networked Progressive Media by Jessica Clark and Tracy van Slyke
  • Digital Inclusion: Measuring the Impact of Information and Community Technologyed. by Michael Crandall and Karen E. Fisher
  • The Battle of the Story of the "Battle of Seattle" ed. by David Solnit
  • Ethereal Shadows: Communication and Power in Contemporary Italy by Franco Berardi et al.
  • Freedom of the Press: The First Amendment, its Constitutional History and the Contemporary Debate ed. by Garrett Epps


Life in the Wrong Lane

Life in the Wrong Lane: Why Journalists Go In When Everyone Else Wants Out
by Greg Dobbs [iUniverse]

Emmy award-winner Greg Dobbs aims to entertain with this memoir of his exploits as an ABC News field correspondent. His settings range from overseas danger zones in Afghanistan, Iran, Uganda and Lebanon to seat-of-the-pants gumshoe reporting on the Gary Gilmore execution and the 1973 American Indian Movement occupation at Wounded Knee. Each location serves as the backdrop for Dobbs to describe the creativity and recklessness of reporters determined to find visually compelling scoops for TV news. Dobbs tells a good story -- and provides a fascinating and colloquial behind-the-scenes look into the world of reporting on conflicts. But this is not a book about journalism; Dobbs' main conceit is that TV reporters are a species of adventure-seekers, and he makes war reporting out to be largely adrenaline-fueled fun and games. This severely limiting the value of his book to aspiring reporters, and making us doubt that he has truly delivered on the promise of his subtitle. -jl

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The Eliminationists

The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right
by David Neiwert [PoliPoint]

David Neiwert has long been one of the most astute observers of racist right-wing organizing in the Northwest. His previous books have examined (in turn) the patriot movement in Idaho and Montana, how hate crimes law affected the prosecution of a particular violent crime, and the legacy of Japanese internment. Lately, his blogging (at FireDogLake and Crooks and Liars, as well as his own Orcinus) has focused on how far-right activists, politicans and media figures have been working in concert to make mainstream conservatism more hospitable to extremist ideas and spokespeople.

This is the specific focus of Neiwert's new book, which takes stock of the rise of right-wing talk radio, cable, and blog figures such as Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, Glenn Beck. Neiwert takes these talkers and their eager audiences seriously, not just as uninformed buffoons, but as a serious threat to open communications and democracy. One aspect of this serious engagement is Neiwert's earnest discussion of the character of historical fascism, plus what he calls "proto-fascism," and the "eliminationism" of the title--a nationalism imprinted with white supremacy and more than a passing appetite for violent rhetoric.

Neiwert's detailed and scorching rebuttal to empty-brained efforts to equate progressivism with totaliarianism (a la Jonah Goldberg, Michelle Malkin, etc) is more than blogger-to-blogger score-settling; it's an early warning that fascist impulses are neither a thing of the past nor a safely marginal phenomenon. The Fox News-assisted rise of the "tea party" movement in the months since Neiwert's book came out makes it clear that such impulses are muscling their way into the Americal political mainstream. -jl

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Echo Chamber

Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment
by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph N. Cappella [Oxford]

In this valuable study, public policy and communications experts Jamieson and Cappella look at how right-wing media have produced an ideologically-focused media establishment, with mutually reinforcing outlets in print (The Wall Street Journal, for example), television (Fox News) and radio (Limbaugh). Moving slowly through case studies and analysis, they seek to understand how this "echo chamber" functions, and how it has come to wield such power in American politics--arguably taking over some Republican party political functions, such as vetting candidates for office.

The book offers much in the way of helpful analysis, but falters in its brief conclusion, where the authors refuse to say much about whether they think the conservative echo chamber is good or bad for America. Pointing out that partisan media has enjoyed a long history as part of the American media landscape, they reasonably note that ideological media consumers are in some ways more likely to become civically engaged. More puzzlingly, they count as a positive the fact that conservative media "help their audiences make sense of complex social issues" (surely this is not always a net positive). On the negative side, of course, are the echo chamber's ideological selection of facts, its appeal to emotional outrage rather than argument, and its encouragement of audience balkanization and antagonism towards nonideological media.

After spending so many pages detailing how right wing media produce these effects, it is troubling, then, that the authors find it necessary to insert, in passing, a facile equivalency between Fox and Limbaugh and what they call, without evidence, "the pro-Democratic distortion" on NPR and CNN. (More fairly, though also without detail, they also note Air America and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann as liberal counterparts to the right wing media). Apart from these arguably unfair parallelisms, what's also largely missing is an account for the relative market power and ubiquity of the right wing media establishment, which cannot be explained simply in terms of audience demand. -jl

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Born Digital

Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives
by John Palfrey and Urs Glasser [Basic]

This book seeks to describe the category of persons described by the book's title--people born after 1980 who, in the authors' reckoning, are the first generation to have grown up pre-immersed in a world of social technologies, taking for granted cell phones, MySpace and other online zones of interaction. As such, the book displays many of the weaknesses of similar attempts to define emerging trends: it oversimplifies, treats banal observations as revelations, and in the end largely fails to make the case that its central mission of "understanding the first generation of digital natives" is either accomplished or worth the effort. The book also fails to account for the breadth of reasons young people, like any people, connect online -- for civic engagement and political organizing as well as for cultural consumption or socializing -- and it skips over how race and class differences interact with social media practices. On the other hand, Born Digital does a good job at piecing together a history of recent significant social media developments and the kind of audiences/communities they produce. The author's thoughts about young Internet users, privacy and security (and their proposals for protecting young people online) are insightful and will appeal to parents and teachers. -jl

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I See Black People

I See Black People: the Rise and Fall of African American-Owned Television and Radio
by Kristal Brent Zook [Nation]

The waves of consolidation which hit tv and radio in the late 90s dramatically reduced the number of stations, already low, owned and run by people of color. While African Americans and Latinos make up an increasingly large percentage of our population, rates of minority ownership and control of programming remain disproportionately low. Through detailed personal interviews with current and former black station owners and media entrepreneurs, Zook shows both the need for black media ownership and the consequences when a black-owned station is lost. The book also recounts the sucesses and flaws of federal initiatives such as the Minority Ownership Policy, and details some of the business negotiations and legal wrangling of small stations struggling to maintain their identity and independence in a market being consumed by large corporations. -jl

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Shoot the Indian

Shoot the Indian: Media, Misperception and Native Truth
ed. by Kara Briggs, Ronald D. Smith and Jose Barreiro [American Indian Policy and Media Initiative]

As the subtitle suggests, the essays in Shoot the Indian are broadly concerned with disempowering representations and perceptions of Native American communities and issues in the media. The book covers a wide range of situations involving flawed media representation of Native issues; in most of these, the real issue is not "representation," but a more concrete political or economic struggle. For example, one chapter examines 2007 media criticism of the Cherokee Nation's controversial vote to exclude many descendants of black Freemen from Cherokee citizenship. Some media viewed the dispute through a simplistic civil rights frame which, author Smith argues, failed to take into account the complexities involving sovereignty, distinctions between tribal and racial belonging, and how such definitions have been written through a history of colonialism. Other essays look at how past media/historical portrayals of Native Americans continue to inform present-day stereotypes, how those stereotypes influence public policy debates over land use, gaming, and white journalists' interactions with Native people. What the book lacks in focus and consistency of method, it makes up for in depth and a rich sense of a history too often overlooked in news and other media. -jl

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Media in the Digital Age

Media in the Digital Age
by John V. Pavlik [Columbia]

This disappointing textbook, while hot off the presses in summer 08, feels already dated in its wide-eyed, facile descriptions of a brave new world of communications technology. As the author explains that DVD stands for "digital video/versatile disc," and marvels at his ability to watch episodes of Grey's Anatomy over wireless broadband, it is difficult to imagine who his intended audience is. College students are unlikely to be impressed by the novelty of such wonders, yet Pavlik rarely delves very far beneath the surface to examine the cultural or political implications of the "digital age." While the book touches on a decently broad range of subjects, including glancing references to a number of policy debates and ethical issues related to digital communications, it fails to provide meaningful context or provoke interesting questions. -jl

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Becoming the Media: A Critical History of Clamor Magazine

Becoming the Media: a Critical History of Clamor Magazine
by Jen Angel [PM Press]

A couple of years ago, the punishing economics of independent publishing proved too much to bear for several prominent and praiseworthy small magazines, including Punk Planet, LiP, Broken Pencil and Clamor. In this small pamphlet, Clamor cofounder and coeditor Jen Angel generously dives into the wreck of that magazine's regrettable demise, describing Clamor's hopes, dreams, challenges, successes, mistakes and immovable obstacles. Angel is candid and self-critical about thorny organizational issues including financial planning; interpersonal dynamics between founders and new volunteers; privilege and representation; and the benefits and difficulties of working on a project with a romantic partner. Becoming the Media is also a great celebration of independent print media, and a reminder that Clamor's voice is strongly missed -jl

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Be the Media

Be the Media: How to Create and Accelerate Your Message ... Your Way
by David Mathison [Natural E Creative Group]

This compendium of resources covers a broad range of topics for industrious, independent media producers, including practical advice for aspiring authors, musicians, videographers, radialistas, zine publishers, journalists, bloggers and others angling to use modern technology to amplify their soapbox. Each of the nearly two dozen chapters is contributed by a different practitioner expert, provocatively bringing together the perpectives of entrepreneurs, activists, policy analysts and media makers. A very helpful volume both in itself and as a snapshot of an increasingly diverse movement for grassroots media change. -jl

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Moyers on Democracy

Moyers On Democracy
by Bill Moyers [Doubleday]

Bill Moyers is one of very few US journalists who may be judged a national treasure. While he has covered a wide range of topics during this long career on public television, for the last several years Moyers' writing and speechmaking have become increasingly focused on the state of American democracy - the subject of this collection of wise and eloquent essays. First describing our democracy as "a series of narrow escapes," Moyers observes that the main institutions intended to support and protect our democratic system function poorly, if at all. The news media, of course, figures prominently among these failed institutions. Through compelling stories, sweeping historical analysis and beautifully clear writing, Moyers manages to evoke both a Whitmanesque, unironic sense of the Dream of American democracy, and a hunkered determination to work together for its redemption. That Moyers makes this seem possible despite the multiple perils he describes, testifies to the quality of his idealism which makes his voice so indispensable. -jl

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey