Literary criticism: a reader writes

By Christopher B. Daly

Recently, a reader posted a largely critical “customer review” of my book Covering America, on the book’s Amazon page. The writer of the criticism, Ralph Poore, is, of course, entitled to his opinion and the free expression thereof. At the same time, I have my right to engage his criticism and explain my views.

First, let me thank Mr. Poore for reading my book and for reading it quite carefully, to judge by the granularity of his comments.

Here’s his review and one of my reactions:

If you like East Coast, elitist views of journalism, then Christopher Daly’s Covering America is the book for you.

Daly focuses mainly on journalism east of the Hudson River. He makes occasional visits to news media along the Potomac River, but he frankly doesn’t find much of value beyond those two regions. He covers a lot of the familiar territory found in other journalism histories by profiling one or more journalists of their time.

Missing is the westward trek of newspapers and editors in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Missing, too, are many publications that have played important roles in the history of journalism and of the country.

To be fair, any book that purports to cover a topic across 320 years of history has to leave something out, else no one would be able to lift it. And Daly makes it clear that his book is a narrative “about the broad scope of journalism in America… [and] not an encyclopedia” (p. 6).
Fair enough.

As I wrote in the preface, my approach was not encyclopedic. My stated criterion for inclusion in my book was innovation — especially in one or more of the following dimensions:

–the economics of news,

–the technology of news gathering and dissemination

–the philosophy of news

–the sociology of the newsroom or the audience

–the politics of the power balance between journalism and other institutions.

As it happened, most of that innovation took place on the East Coast, particularly in New York City. I did not cause that, and I don’t apologize for it. That said, my book does at least mention papers outside the Northeast: the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to name a few, as well as the Atlanta-based CNN.

Here’s the rest of his review. I am not going to reply point-by-point, but I would encourage any readers of this blog who have also read my book to jump in and share your views.

But what Daly leaves out is a lot, and it is often important. For example, in looking at press coverage during the Civil War, Daly’s examination stops at the Mason-Dixon Line. Of the Southern press he says only, “Across the South, many newspapers simply collapsed” (p. 110). The major Southern newspapers didn’t collapse, and never mind that Southern correspondents, including a few women, wrote some of the best war coverage by any reporter North or South.

As Daly’s narrative moves closer in time to the present, its sins of omission and commission, as well as its elitism (and frankly snarky comments about conservatives), become more pronounced. I primarily would like to deal with several examples from the mid-20th to 21st centuries to make my point.

East Coast elitists have an almost cult-like attachment to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal programs. It comes as no surprise then that the journalists who Daly profiles in the 1940s for his “broad scope of journalism in America” never raise any questions about the efficacy of New Deal programs.

FDR’s policies cost billions of dollars often with no real benefit to the nation and in some cases caused real harm to real people, including my parents and grandparents. In FDR’s second term, unemployment lines were long and getting longer. Joblessness got worse after almost every New Deal program started.

Instead of an explanation of why journalists let this state of affairs slide, Daly gives us a portrait of gossip columnist and radio host Walter Winchell supporting Roosevelt: “At a time when most American newspapers were published by businessmen who supported the Republican Party and hated Roosevelt, Winchell…was one of the few prominent voices raised in support of fighting fascism” (p. 220).

Republicans, businessmen and Nazis vs. Winchell and Roosevelt. Really? Either this is sloppy writing or a deliberate attempt to associate the GOP with anti-democratic forces. The effect is the same in either case.

Skip ahead to the 1980-1999 period when Daly takes on conservatives directly. He writes: “Conservatives railed against a media system they said favored big government, welfare, immigrants, and alternative lifestyles while denigrating family, country, and God” (396-397).

Daly dismisses these concerns with a sheer nonsensical statement: “In part, many conservative critics were misreading the media–finding an ideological intention where journalists were actually asserting their professional values. Often, critics on the Right interpreted the journalistic ideals of independence and skepticism as political commitments to antiauthoritarianism or partisan liberalism” (397).

It is hard to see how Daly can reconcile conservatives as believing the media both favored “big government” and “antiauthoritarianism.” Those are polar opposites. And it had become clear to almost any observer west of the Hudson River that by this time period elite journalists had merged their ideological and professional values.

Finally, there is the issue of blatantly distorting the facts when it comes to Fox News. Daly cites a 2003 study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland that purports that Fox News viewers were more misinformed about the Iraqi war (p. 419-420). PIPA claims “those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe….” and then goes on to list a series of supposedly false statements.

Neither PIPA nor Daly cites a single supposedly wrong or misleading fact reported by Fox News.

The Wall Street Journal has examined the clear flaws in PIPA’s methods. The so-called false statements are actually just prejudiced questions about people’s opinions. The opinions just don’t reflect the beliefs of media elites and liberals.

WSJ points to more objective and fact-based surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press which ranked Fox News viewers as among the most informed. At the bottom of Pew’s list were regular consumers of CBS News, Access Hollywood and the National Enquirer.

All of this was known or should have been known by Daly while he was writing his book. For some reason he chose to ignore it.

Meanwhile, you will look in vain in Covering America for even a brief mention of high-profile cases of deliberate misinformation on the part of the East Coast, elite media. For example, you will NOT find Daly criticizing those media for:

Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize winning Moscow Bureau Chief of The New York Times (1922-36) who lauded Stalin and denied widespread famine and mass starvation in the Ukraine.

Janet Cooke (1980), who fabricated a story about a child drug addict for the Washington Post and won a Pulitzer Prize.

ABC’s 20/20 (1978), CBS’s 60 Minutes (1980) and NBC’s Dateline (1993) all ran stories that fabricated safety problems with cars and trucks.

Christopher Newton, an Associated Press reporter who in at least 40 stories (2000- 2002) quoted sources who did not exist.

Jayson Blair (2003), whose fabricated stories in the New York Times brought down Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd.

CBS’s 60 Minutes host Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes 60 Minutes who used forged documents (2004) about President George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard less than two months before the presidential election.

And Daly worries about Fox News viewers being misinformed? Really?

The flaws in Covering America are unfortunate. Daly was a reporter for the Associated Press and the Washington Post before he began teaching at Boston University. He knows how to tell a good story.

There is much in Daly’s narrative that is solid and even insightful at times. But to get at the good stuff, the careful reader has to constantly act as an investigative reporter, questioning assumptions and checking facts. It is a lot of work.

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Filed under Covering America, Journalism, journalism history

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