Attack the Messenger: How Politicians Turn You against the Media/Sneaking into the Flying Circus: How the Media Turn Our Presidential Campaigns into Freak Shows

Article excerpt

Attack the Messenger: How Politicians Turn You Against the Media. Craig Crawford. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. 182 pp. $22.95.

Sneaking into the Flying Circus: How the Media Turn Our Presidential Campaigns into Freak Shows. Alexandra Pelosi. New York: Free Press, 2005. 304 pp. $25.00.

If you want to make the case for evolution, or at least for adaptation, then all you need do is pay attention to the past two centuries of U.S. politics. The press and the politicians seem engaged in a nonstop rivalry for agenda dominance, in which each group must constantly refine its strategies and techniques, or be consumed by predators. Winners are those who most deftly adjust to an ever-changing hostile environment. Left behind are those poor unfittest ones who cling to outmoded models and fail to develop competitive counterpoints.

Sadly, as these two books illustrate, this ongoing rivalry too often turns campaigning into a cynical game, the goal of which is to outwit the opposition rather than to provide a rational forum for civic debate.

Both of these books are written for popular audiences, and I suspect that few instructors would find either adequate as a stand-alone text. In addition, both are quite anchored in the present, so they may quickly seem stale to students with limited time horizons. Nonetheless, the books may well have value as supplements, and Sneaking into the Flying Circus in particular might be a useful case study and an early look at the age of Internet campaigning and journalism.

Of the two, Attack the Messenger is slimmer and breezier. Craig Crawford is a Washington-based columnist and commentator who sees public life as, at least in part, a contest in which "the pendulum of power now rests with the politicians." His book offers this point, presents evidence and examples to support it, and suggests a few proposals for reform.

"Politicians won the war against the media with a simple rule," he writes. "First, attack the messenger." For Crawford, this campaign began to succeed on the day in 1988 when George H. W. Bush, then vice president, embarrassed CBS anchor Dan Rather during an interview. As Rather tried to ask Bush a tough question, the vice president fired back a preprogrammed zinger about an embarrassment in Rather's own career: a time when Rather had walked away from the anchor desk, angry over a network decision to extend coverage of a tennis match into the news time slot.

From there, Crawford maintains, politicians have increasingly succeeded in placing journalists on the run by harping on press errors, arrogance, and defensiveness. As a result, he contends, the media have become "wimps" who no longer effectively stand up to the lies and spin of the powerful and who have lost public support.

"Public distrust of the news media is one of the most hazardous political challenges now facing Americans," Crawford writes. He praises several news organizations, including C-SPAN, public broadcasting, and the Associated Press. Mostly, however, he sees only two kinds of news media thriving in today's environment: agenda-driven "advocacy media" and profit-hungry "bottom-line media."

Crawford is not the first to make these points, but he does make them clearly and efficiently, with plenty of examples. He also floats some suggestions for change, although many may consider them underdeveloped.

For example, Crawford endorses something he calls "conclusionary journalism," in which journalists are encouraged to offer "reasoned judgments" about issues. He says it is "time for the news media to rethink what objectivity means." These are thoughtful, timely suggestions, but the author doesn't fully develop either of them, either with theoretical support or practical application.

Overall, Attack the Messenger serves as a concise overview and starting point but adds little depth or truly new thinking to the conversation.

Where Attack the Messenger is an essay that tells, Alexandra Pelosi's Sneaking into the Flying Circus is a narrative that shows. …