Saturday, February 28, 2009

Book Review: The Powers That Be - refining the subject

Since some time in October 2008 I have been slogging my way through The Powers That Be by David Halberstam, 1979 [ISBN 0-394-50381-3]. I finished this tome on February 23rd.

Yes, tome is the way to describe these 736 pages. I picked up this book at a thrift store in Mississippi while passing through on vacation last year. While waiting on my wife to finish her shopping, I read about five pages of the Prelude, telling a story about a Democratic Party rally in El Paso, Texas in September 1960, with Sam Rayburn waiting the arrival of JFK and LBJ. Rayburn's thoughts on how the media was negatively impacting politics were told in an entertaining way. The subject being interesting and the writing good, I took the plunge, paid a buck, and toted it back to Arkansas.

David Halberstam explains his purpose in writing the book, not in the Prelude, but in the end of the book Acknowledgements: "This book is the product of five years of work. It began as a small idea in 1973 and it grew, constantly changing incarnations. At first it was going to be merely a book on a television network and the presidency; gradually it evolved into a book on the rise of modern media and their effect on the way we perceive events."

Halberstam had set himself an immense task. So many years between the New Deal and Watergate, so many media outlets, so many politicians, so many media personalities. How to sift through and refine? You can't cover everything in a single volume, even at 736 pages. Once again Halberstam covers this in the Acknowledgements: "In selecting the four institutions that have the major role in this book, I tried to give as fair a cross section of the national press as I could. I chose CBS because it has traditionally represented the best in broadcast journalism; Time because among national magazines it reflects something special in the American character; the Washington Post because it has become a serious national newspaper and because this is in part a book about the road to Watergate; and the Los Angeles Times for those reasons and also because it played so large a part in the career of Richard Nixon."

An eastern newspaper. A weekly news magazine. A radio and television network. A western newspaper. Obviously radio was new, television newer, weekly magazines a little older, while newspapers were, at the time of FDR's first inaugural, the mainstay of how Americans learned the news.

Technology changed everything. Radio allowed voices to be heard. Printing technology allowed pictures to be seen weekly at reasonable prices. Television brought movement and voice together. Politicians needed to embrace and adapt to these new technologies or they would find themselves voted home. Halberstam does a good job of showing how the changing technologies changed how the different types of media interacted with each other; how the jealousies and competition between owners, publishers, editors, and reporters all had their impact. He describes the rise of investigative journalism and its role, as well as how radio then television rang the death knell for evening newspapers.

In two additional posts, I'll write something about Halberstam's writing style, and draw some conclusions from the book--his and mine.

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