Category Archives: Book Reviews

GJR book review: Opening the Pentagon Papers

Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles
Author: James Goodale
Publisher: CUNY Journalism Press, 2013
Paperback: $20, 260 pages

Whistleblowers, leakers, and a battle between the working press and the government. James Goodale’s “Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles” tells a story that has just as much importance today as it did in 1972, when the battle for press freedom reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Goodale, the lead attorney for the New York Times during the Pentagon Papers case, gives a firsthand description from the Earl Caldwell case that became Branzburg v. Hayes to the culmination of the Pentagon Papers case, with the Supreme Court voting 6-3 to allow publication of the papers.

In early 1972, the New York Times published a number of stories that chronicled the deception of the U.S. government regarding the war in Vietnam. The papers, many of them historical in nature, provided instances where the government lied to the public about what it was doing and documented the mistakes made in fighting the war in Vietnam. The U.S. government tried to enjoin the New York Times from publishing, saying that the papers were classified, and that publishing the papers would be a breach of national security. Goodale puts the reader in the boardrooms as the decisions to take this case to court are made. He explains the strategies and the mistakes that were made.

The book moves at a surprisingly fast pace, with enough twists and turns to make the reader think he or she is a part of the case. The strength of Goodale’s book is the writing. Although he sometimes writes with a touch of arrogance and tends to name-drop, Goodale manages to give the reader an inside look at one of the most important media Supreme Court cases – and he does so in a way that makes the reader wonder what will happen next.

Even though the book is nonfiction, it has wonderful characters, from Richard M. Nixon, the president who wants to take down the media, to the plucky lawyers from Goodale’s team who helped to win the case. Goodale writes with a storyteller’s clarity, building drama and making sure to delineate the good guys from the bad. He builds suspense with every legal decision made en route to the Supreme Court, and he also details the good and bad jobs done by the lawyers arguing the case on both sides.

The only negative is the sometimes condescending tone that Goodale takes. Get past that and the book is a great read.

What stands out in this book are the parallels that can be drawn from the Pentagon Papers to today’s headlines. Goodale ends the book with a warning about President Barack Obama, writing that the current president is reminiscent of Nixon in many ways – and could be worse. He points out that Obama is currently indicting more U.S. citizens under the Espionage Act, the same charge the government tried Daniel Ellsburg with, than any other president in the country’s history.

He warns that the current approach of many news organizations of bringing stories to the government first, before publishing, can become a major problem in the freedom of the press. He cautions at the same time that news feeds should become aware of the NSA spying on the public and the Department of Justice tapping the phones of the Associated Press.

Scott Lambert is a faculty member in the English Department at Millikin University. He is a former managing editor of Gateway Journalism Review and worked as a sports journalist and editor for 13 years.

GJR book review: ‘This Town’ offers no prescription for reforming America’s gilded capital

‘Mark Leibovich. This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral – Plus Plenty of Valet Parking – in America’s Gilded Capital (2013) New York: Blue Rider Press, a Member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 371 pages

 

By Chris Burnett

The funerals of Tim Russert, longtime host of “Meet the Press,” and Richard Holbrooke, American diplomat and adviser to Democratic presidents, involved two men who would seem on the surface to have had little in common. Holbrooke, the hard-charging special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan at the time of his death in 2010, moved in the highest diplomatic circles, never shied away from controversy and made no attempt to keep his ego in check. Russert, who died two years earlier, was the avuncular everyman, known for his fair-minded but tough questioning of American political figures. He clearly had an ego, too, but he kept it under check, preferring to talk and write about his affection for his father, Big Russ.

In Washington journalism and politics, however, the worlds of these two men – and the worlds of countless other journalists and politicians – are shared. Funerals become special events, where the high and mighty (and political climbers from the media and politics) are on hand, as much to be seen as sensitive. Bill and Hillary Clinton, the apex of the social circle of today’s Washington, attended both funerals. In the world of insider Washington, funerals, just like April’s gala White House Correspondent’s Dinner, are not just attended and televised. They’re also tweeted about, covered for days and weeks before and after, and become Washington’s version of Hollywood on the Potomac. To be at these events, after all, is to be in “The Club” of Washington journalistic and political elite.

Mark Leibovich, chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, and himself most likely considered a member of “The Club,” tells this story of journalistic and political Washington during the Obama presidency in the book “This Town.” It’s the ideal beach read – and if you’re into the world of politics and the media of the Beltway sort, it’s a real page-turner.

As a Washington reporter in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, and as an unreformed political junkie, I loved the book. It described a Washington journalism that still resembles that of the 1980s, but which also has changed. In the 1980s, journalists went with their political friends (generally those they covered or celebrities they were able to land) to the annual White House Correspondent’s Dinner, held at the Washington Hilton Hotel. They also angled to get jobs that would get them into “The Club,” which then consisted of the big national newspapers, networks and CNN. For those in the second tier (I was a regional reporter for the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch) members of “The Club” were those you worked next to, not really with. I’d go to the Correspondent’s Dinner, but not with the best prom date or invitation to the most glittering before and after parties.

What’s changed in the last 20 or so years, according to Leibovich, is the expansion of cable television news starting in the 1990s and the explosion of the Internet. Organizations such as Politico, the political news wire service started in 2007 that distributes its content in print, radio, television – and, most significantly, on the Internet – have taken away much of the agenda-setting role once played by the New York Times and Washington Post. The book is at its best in its profile of veteran Club reporter Mike Allen, whose daily “Playbook” column in Politico is a must-read ticker of the day’s news, with a focus on the personalities in the media and politics on Capitol Hill and in the White House. At 8 a.m. on any given day, those on the campaign bus are either reading or have already read “The Playbook,” Leibovich says.

Leibovich calls all this a sort of pigpen, with politicians and political “spinmeisters” jumping into journalism (as in Obama pal David Axelrod now serving as a commentator for MSNBC) or setting up lobbying shops, and journalists angling for higher-paying jobs in public and government relations. With the 24-hour news cycle feeding an orgy of the trivial and the trendy, and with insiders reluctant to burn the sources they are likely to run into at tomorrow’s party, what happens to serious coverage of government?

This book provides no answer to this question, unfortunately, that’s its biggest fault. This book entertains, even amuses, but provides no prescriptions. For those living outside the Washington Beltway, the book – which has no index, lest people quoted seek out reference to their name – has got to be a tad depressing. The fact that all these narcissists are running and reporting on major events involving the country, getting rich or at least living comfortably, while the rest of the nation struggles through an economic recession can get tiring when thrown in your face page after page. Still, I found “This Town” an immensely entertaining read. It describes a political Washington that President Obama promised to reform when he came to office, and it leaves you chuckling at stories but frustrated by what is most likely the impossibility of that task. Still, the book begs the question: Is this the best we can do?

Chris Burnett is professor and chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at California State University, Long Beach. He reported on Congress and the Supreme Court and the politics of Washington from 1979 to 1989.

GJR book review: McChesney critique mired in Marxist ideology

Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is
Turning the Internet Against Democracy
Author: Robert McChesney
Publisher: The New Press, New York
Hardcover: $27.95, 299 pages

 

The “collapse of journalism” is a hot topic these days. Although its decline preceded the Internet, the Internet appears to be the preferred news medium and a major cause for the failing media business model. Professor Robert McChesney’s latest foray into the discussion over the Internet’s impact on journalism can be found in his newest book, “Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy”.

He provides an overview of the debate, borrowing from both “camps” – which include the “celebrants” who see the Internet as the cure for journalism’s and society’s ills, and the more pessimistic “skeptics” who fear it will ultimately kill off journalism (and probably democracy) – to forge a middle way to manifest journalistic reform.The policy initiatives he offers to address the “crisis” and preserve the “democratic” nature of the Internet are intriguing. yet somewhat conflicting at times.

McChesney doesn’t shy away from delivering his Marxist progressive perspective on these issues. But too much of his information is mired in an overarching critique of “capitalism” at the expense of the primary issues of journalism and the Internet. His broad reliance on the term “capitalism” is a frustrating habit resembling the creation of a strawman. It leaves the reader wanting more nuances, especially when encouraged to visit a subject like this by a political economist. Fortunately though, the package of proposals he assembles represent a starting place on which to build a more vibrant journalism in the Internet age.

McChesney’s warnings about the Internet being used as a spy grid in a corporate-state conspiracy is somewhat prescient given recent revelations of the NSA’s massive programs aimed at Americans. But, in an ironic twist, the linchpin of his journalism reform proposals – a media “voucher” program – rests on another now scandal-ridden government agency, the IRS, to determine the nonprofit status of media operations. Giving the state bureaucracy more power seems naïve, given what we know today. It likely would provide more corporate power, as that is the primary “externality” (the negative byproducts he implores the reader to recognize when analyzing “capitalism”) in the current political economic system. The “voucher” program is interesting, and McChesney gives credit to Dean Baker as its designer more than a decade ago. But he offers no good reason for vouchers to be reserved exclusively for nonprofit media. If one supports a direct media subsidy program such as individual vouchers to be assigned by taxpayers, then allowing it to be used toward private or nonprofit would only create more competition.

Private industry isn’t unique in benefiting from competition. Empowering the IRS makes the proposal a non-starter while depoliticizing it likely would provide broader support. McChesney repeatedly holds up government education as a shining example of progressive political results. Although arguing both education and journalism are “public goods,” a “voucher” program apparently only improves the latter through competition. This is a glaring omission in “Digital Disconnect.” Bureaucracy and democracy are clearly at odds in modern political economy, and any hope that the state will keep the Internet free has long passed.

Early on, McChesney appeals to scholars to recognize the “elephant in the room” when analyzing prospects of an Internet-led democratic revolution. That “elephant,” he claims, is “capitalism” – and it’s rampaging through the digital universe, crushing liberty and democracy. Although he notes the Internet’s likely status as the fourth transformative event in the history of communication, the solutions McChesney offers – taxpayer subsidies and more regulations – are not radically democratic because they rely on the current corporatist bureaucracy to work. Arguing for more traditional progressive government action and expecting true Internet-journalistic reform isn’t convincing, and it’s limiting when discussing a “transformative,” paradigm-shifting event such as this.

While journalism is in a crisis of legitimacy, it’s not alone. Practically every centralized system is these days: government, religion, education, corporate finance, etc. While “democratic reform” may have been the progressive goal over the last century, their policies have been implemented in various forms, and their failure is now apparent. This is the fatal flaw in his argument for a bigger and bigger government response to challenge corporate monopolization. Big government and big corporations are now one and the same, and he seems to know this. And this is a very specific kind of “capitalism” that isn’t analogous to “free-markets” as he claims. While his goals are admirable, McChesney’s “Digital Disconnect” unfortunately reads like an attempt to salvage the progressive legacy by re-employing those ideas and expecting different results when it comes to journalism and the Internet.

The Hunger Games offers a cautionary tale of media control

The Hunger Games

Author: Suzanne Collins

Publisher: Scholastic Press

Hardcover: $17.99, 384 pages

 

The Hunger Games, a New York Times bestseller written by Suzanne Collins, has drawn hearty reviews from fans and critics alike for

its brilliant plot paired with a steady dose of suspense for both the reader and movie-goer.

The first book of the trilogy, whose movie adaptation has been No. 1 at the box office for four weeks, follows Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old girl living in District 12 of Panem. Panem is a post-apocalyptic country, which now occupies where North America once was. The country is made up of 13 districts and the Capitol, a well-developed metropolis that holds absolute power over the rest of the districts. Prior to where the book begins the narrative, District 13 started an uprising against the Capitol and the Capitol retaliated by leveling the district. District 13 is used as an example to the rest of the districts of what happens when the districts exercise any type of individual thought. As a reminder of this “atrocity” the Capitol hosts the Hunger Games, an event consisting of one boy and one girl between the ages of 13 and 18 from each of the districts to battle to the death in a televised arena. The games do not end until there is only one left alive.

A closer look into the axis of the story shows a clear example of governmental media manipulation. The Capitol televises the entire event, along with the pre-game interviews and ceremonies. Those people in the districts not directly participating in the Games are corralled by Capitol officials to gather in their respective district’s town square and watch; no one is excused from this viewing unless they are literally on their death bed.

The Capitol’s control of the media allows for much dissemination of propaganda, of which everyone — with the exception of Capitol citizen’s, ironically — is aware. This is something that both Katniss and Peeta, Katniss’s fellow tribute from District 12, are aware of and address in different ways throughout the novel. Before the games begin, Katniss and Peeta share a private moment in which Peeta shares his concerns.

“I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”

This fear of control is put into action near the end of the book when, after being told that two tributes could win this year if they came from the same district, and both Katniss and Peeta manage to outlast the others, they are told that the change is rescinded and only one tribute can come out alive. Refusing to continue to consent to the capitol and aid its propaganda campaign, they decide to both swallow poisonous berries. However, before they can do so, announcers cut in and announce that both have won.

It is portrayed throughout the book that deviating from the Capitol’s agenda is not tolerated — do what they want, and a person can expect to be portrayed through the media as a hero, or at the very least, not badly. At the same time, if one counters the Capitol’s agenda, the Capitol will use the media to influence that person’s entire life in a negative way.

The way Katniss and Peeta managed to use the media for their own uses (they knew it would be detrimental to the capitol not to have a winner with all the districts watching), effectively took some power back from the Capitol, a move that propels the rest of the books.

Although Panem illustrates an exaggerated government-controlled media model, it can be used as a catalyst for the reader to compare the book’s control-crazed media to that of current American society.

In light of recent media, one can argue strong similarities. Public figures must rely on the media for their reputations. Most people only know of most public figures — politicians, celebrities, etc. — through the media. Most people don’t know that public figure personally. Public figures walk a careful line, or risk being accused of racism, sexism, infidelity or worse. To be the media’s darling, is to practically ensure success.

The Hunger Games is a gripping tale that will keep readers turning page after page, anxious for what is to come. But it also carries a message of media control that can be translated into the non-fiction of today. Through The Hunger Games, Collins offers an alarming portrait of how civilization could be with a corrupt and unethical press that willingly submits to government control.

“Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns”

“Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns”

Editors: John P. Avlon, Jesse Angelo, Errol Louis

Publisher: Overlook


I never thought I’d agree with Peggy Noonan about anything, until I picked up a copy of “Deadline Artists,” and saw her comment on the cover, “An indispensable anthology of an American art form — a broad and brilliantly chosen compilation . . . and a real feast. I couldn’t put it down.”

Neither could I, except for the times I wanted to fling it across the room, appalled over the unforgivably sloppy editing, frustrated by misspellings, ready to scream at the dropped words changed the meaning or ruined the rhythm. It seems when the original columns were copied for this collection, errors were made and not corrected.  I know copy editors are almost extinct and that proofreaders are non-existent, but this is grotesque.

Still, there’s far more good than bad, and dipping in and out of this wonderful book took me back to my boyhood, when I first became familiar with William Allen White, Grantland Rice, Robert J. Casey, Ernie Pyle, Heywood Broun and Westbrook Pegler.

A Pegler column from 1936 yanked me back to 1954, when I was doing research in old newspaper and magazine columns. Pegler, later a reactionary curmudgeon, was covering the 1936 Winter Olympics in Gatrmisch-Partenkirchen when he wrote “An Apology.” Pegler turned out a piece pointing out the large number of German soldiers in the Alpine village, which drew a formal protest from Hitler’s government. Pegler’s response was, “. . . I can only plead that I was honestly mistaken and a victim of my own ignorance. Those weren’t troops at all, but merely peace-loving German workmen in their native dress. . .” There were no further protests.

The book, edited by John Avlon, Jesse Angelo and Errol Louis, has 167 pieces by 104 writers, almost all of them written for newspapers. With a small handful of exceptions, all were written for daily newspapers with deadline pressures. They are divided into 10 general areas, loose enough for the editors to select their favorites.

Through the years, as a journalist myself, I knew some of the writers represented here, and to see bylines of Molly Ivins, Art Buchwald, Herb Caen, Wells Twombly, Red Smi

th, Mike Royko, Shirley Povich and others brought back fond memories of afternoons in press boxes and nights in taverns. Writing a column gives a person a sense of freedom, an erroneous sense of importance, a chance to look foolish beyond friends and family, an opportunity to play with words and, if lucky, to leave a few of them out there for folks to read and remember. In no particular order, a handful of favorites:

Mary McGrory, Washington Star, 1954: “Mr. Welch came to Washington to defend the Army. But he had his finest hour defending a friend.”

Art Hoppe, San Francisco Chronicle, 1971: “The radio this morning said the Allied invasion of Laos had bogged down. Without thinking, I nodded and said, ‘Good.’ And having said it, I realized the bitter truth. Now I root against my own country.”

George F. Will, Washington Post, 1986: “The optimistic statement, ‘George Bush is not as silly as he frequently seems’ now seems comparable to Mark Twain’s statement that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. Bush’s recent New York performance suggests that although the 1988 nomination is his to lose, he has a gift for doing things like that.”

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, 2004: “I am sure there is a special place in heaven reserved for those who have never used the F-word. I will never get near that place. Nor, apparently, will Dick Cheney.”

Red Smith, New York Herald Tribune, 1951: “Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”

Dave Barry, Local Daily News, 1981: “I argue very well. Ask any of my remaining friends.”

Mitch Albom, Detroit Free Press, 2000: “One night. One town. One bullet. One kid.”

Eugene Patterson, Atlanta Constitution, 1963: “A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her.”

Molly Ivins, Dallas Times-Herald, 1987: “When in the course of human events one is called upon to explain Lubbock art, the oxymoron, to San Francisco, the city of sophisticates, one might well take a dive.”

John Leonard, New York Times, 1977: “My father sang tenor, drank rye and died young.”

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Left Turn: How Media Bias Distorts the American Mind

Author: Tim Groseclose

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Hard Cover: $26.99, 292 pages

America’s true political center can be found by examining the state of Kansas, Salt Lake County, Utah, and NASCAR fans.

Many liberals may have just blanched at that thought, but this is the argument Tim Groseclose makes in “Left Turn: How Media Bias Distorts the American Mind.”  Groseclose argues that a liberal media bias distorts the average American’s political viewpoint and tilts the political field to the left. He also claims conservative news organizations such as Fox News actually present a centrist point of view.

Before dismissing these statements out of hand, one should read Groseclose’s book. He has the academic credentials to make his claims (he’s a professor of political science and economics at UCLA) and most of his work on this subject has been published in respected academic journals.

Groseclose’s book is an indictment of the news media as we know it, claiming that a liberal bias not only exists but tilts the political argument so far to the left that the center of the political spectrum is also tilted heavily to the left.

He grounds his book on studies he conducted with Jeff Milyo. In these studies, Groseclose and Milyo used a gauge of how lawmakers vote on certain issues to define whether they are conservative or liberal. This becomes the lawmakers’ political quotient.  Groseclose and Milyo followed by scouring U.S. newspapers and graded news stories as if they were political speeches. Finally, they did a content analysis on the number of times each media outlet referred to left-leaning or right-leaning political think tanks. The findings, based on these particular criteria, point to a liberal bias in media.

Arguments have been made disputing Groseclose’s methods and the effectiveness of those methods, but those arguments only add to the reader’s enjoyment of this book. While explaining the methods behind his findings, Groseclose wrote a book that happily denounces the liberal media. His positions are well known for those who question if media are biased and try to examine media bias in any form. The first point questions journalists.  Groseclose cites studies that state that most journalists vote democratic. He continues by writing that these journalists are often surrounded by friends who have the same political agenda they have and therefore, without any actual malice, report on stories that fit their personal set of beliefs.

The author makes this point by citing an example of a story by the Los Angeles Time

s that discussed the dropping numbers of African-American-freshmen enrolling at UCLA. Groseclose explained that much of the story’s information came from sources that would give a particular point of view while ignoring statistics that showed the overall population of African-American students was rising. Groseclose claims this wasn’t outright bias; rather, that it was bias by omission. The reporter found the story she was looking for and stopped digging at that point, therefore missing a better story.

Groseclose explains how omission is a major form of media bias. Groseclose says journalists often ignore stories conservatives would find important while concentrating on stories liberals would find important.  The selection of stories tilts the overall conversation to the left. Add to that the preference of the media to quote liberal think tanks ahead of conservative think tanks and, if quoting a conservative think tank, labeling the organization as conservative, Groseclose makes a convincing argument for a liberal media bias.

The author conducts interviews in Salt Lake County, Utah, to give the reader an idea of where the “true center” of the U.S. political spectrum actually sits, in his opinion. The argument that a liberal journalist placed in Salt Lake County would be out of place is easily made in this scenario. Groseclose states that political writers, working in Washington, D.C., or New York or Los Angeles have no clue about how the average citizen in Salt Lake County thinks about specific issues, such as gun control or serving in the U.S. military.

Groseclose is a conservative. He quickly announces his personal beliefs in the book and stands by them. But it’s hard to read this book without thinking of Eric Alterman’s “What Liberal Media?” a book written from the point of view that media actually leans to the right. Placing both of these books together, one can see that despite the methods (Groseclose uses quantitative methods to prove his point, Alterman uses qualitative methods) the personal beliefs of the authors shine through their books. Both authors make similar claims about media, both rely on their data and both use personal anecdotes to explain their points. But the points are polar opposites.

One thing is certain: Groseclose writes an entertaining book. A liberal may read it and disagree with Groseclose’s methods and dismiss his claims, while a conservative may read it and agree completely. Both will be entertained. Both may gain a better insight into how they view the media. That alone may make the book worth reading.

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Will the Last Reporter Please Turn out the Lights: The Collapse of Journalism and What Can Be Done to Fix it

Edited by: Robert W. McChesney, Victor Pickard

Publisher: New Press

Paperback: $19.95, 372 pages

The newspaper industry is bottoming out; print media is in dire need of a eulogy. This has been the message thrust upon the public. And with an increasing number of people looking for the quickest way to get their news (not always waiting for their morning paper — and why? Because they don’t have to), it is not completely unfounded.

“Will the Last Reporter Please Turn out the Lights: The Collapse of Journalism and What Can Be Done to Fix it,” addresses this debate through a collection of 32 thoroughly edited essays written by journalism professors and media professionals. The collection is organized in three sections, structuring the book to flow from what is known about the media crisis, to a discussion of the crises framed around American tradition and finally to essays proposing various solutions.

While at times the essays seem a bit disorganized, they attack this debate on two fronts: the role the Internet and other new technologies are/should be taking, and the extent to which the government should (or should not) lend a helping hand.

In the first section, “The Crisis Unfolds,” Eric Alterman discusses in his essay “Out of Print” a brief history of the newspaper, portraying the newspaper as the most important tool for keeping the public informed.  David Simon calls for paywalls on Internet news sites in his essay, “Build the Wall,” declaring that making people pay for content online is the only way to “still have a product … still have an industry, a calling, and a career known as professional journalism.” Paul Starr, in “The New Republic,” states that “by giving away their content or limiting access, [newspapers] may be digging their own graves.”

In “The American Traditions,” the second section of the collection, names such as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Walter Lippman are thrown around when discussing the long-standing rel

ationship between the press and government.

Geoffrey Cowan and David Westphal argue there has indeed never been a wall between press and state. They say government support for the press took many forms, including subsidizing postal costs and tax breaks.  One of the editors of the book, Victor Pickard, also argues for some form of state support. In his essay, “Revisitng the Road Not Taken,” he positions American journalism as a two-faced entity, one of public service, the other, a commodity. It is a crisis in business model that the newspapers are facing, he argues; the quality journalism is still present.

In the final section of the book, “The Way Forward,” Yochai Benkler argues that the new “networked public sphere” that is developing out of the ashes of the old monopoly model has the potential to be even better for journalism as it “combines several different elements, which represent diverse approaches along the axes of commercial and noncommercial, professional and amateur,” but it needs time to do so.

The solutions proposed in these essays are preliminary, but well thought out, whether a reader agrees with them or not. And while each essay posits its point differently, they unite under one general conclusion: The business model must change, and government support may be the answer.

While the organizational structure of the book was created with good intentions, it is not functional and not needed. The essays could be shuffled in any order and still make sense, building off one another. It is the lack of a substantial introduction to the book and to each section, which would normally provide a quality framework that allows readers to draw their own conclusions. The essays themselves, however, are concise and informative.

This is an informative, interesting read, but not distinguishable from other informative, interesting books on the same topic.  And as it mirrors so much of McChesney’s own earlier writings, one is tempted to ask, “Why bother?”

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Book Review: “The Warmth of Other Suns”

Jim Crow had many faces.

One face of Jim Crow was the simple act of many white southerners stepping on a bus. If they didn’t want to sit with people in the front of the bus, they grabbed the colored-only sign and moved it back a row. Blacks in the back would then be forced ever farther to the back, while just one white person sat in the seat for whites only.

Another example of the face of Jim Crow could be when Robert Pershing Foster was walking down the street one night when a white man in a car pulled up and told him he wanted him to go find a clean, black girl for him.

Jim Crow was everywhere in the South before the 1970s. Trains would stop when coming into the North and switch cars, getting rid of the colored only car and integrating the train as soon as it hit Cairo, Il. Heading south, the same train would stop again at Cairo and add the colored-only car. Jim Crow landowners would routinely short-change their sharecroppers of money owed, keeping them forever in debt and tied to the land they worked. Lynchings were allowed, beatings were normal, and blacks had no say or recourse in the Jim Crow south. Jim Crow had all these faces and more.

Perhaps the most chilling face of Jim Crow portrayed in Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” was that of Willis Virgil McCall, the sheriff of Lake County, Fla. McCall, after having a case against two black men overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, shot them in “self defense.” Driving the two prisoners back to Lake County for retrial, McCall shot the two manacled men, claiming they attacked him. The problem was, one of them lived and told a different story.

It didn’t matter. McCall was never brought to trail for his crime and continued to be elected sheriff. Years later, when Jim Crow was finally beaten in the south in the 1970s, McCall kept his “colored only” sign up in his office, until he was forced by the U.S. government to take it down. McCall, who favored 10-gallon hats and boots, embodied the terror of Jim Crow.

Wilkerson didn’t dwell on the Jim Crow laws in her book.  Rather, she recounted it in a matter-of-fact manner that carried more weight than did any impassioned speech against the atrocities of Jim Crow.

The daughter of two refugees from the south, Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, answered a question from a student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale about how she has handled the problems generated by being a black woman in the world of journalism by responding, “I never really had the option to worry about that.”

Despite that response, Wilkerson approaches a book about the struggle of a race devalued and placed in a caste system that provided no easy means of escape through the eyes of someone who has struggled with the inequities of race in her own life. As a young child, Wilkerson identified with immigrants and counted them as her friends while attending school. This identification may have played a role in how she perceived the story she was writing.

“The Warmth of Other Suns”  tells the story of the great migration north with four voices: Ida Mae Gladney, who migrated from the cotton fields of Mississippi to Chicago in 1937, George Starling, who escaped from the Florida citrus orchards to New York City in 1945, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who migrated from Louisiana to California in 1953. The fourth voice was that of Wilkerson, who interspersed the three main principals’ stories with chapters that gave the reader context about what was happening and why.

The book was well written with an elegant style. Wilkerson’s strength as a journalist is her ability to get the most from her sources and she uses that trait well in the book. It’s well researched and the only way she could get these stories from the people is by gaining their trust. Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,000 people for the book.

Wilkerson’s voice in the book is compassionate and empathetic to the people she writes about. Her topic is a brutal and dark period of U.S. history that includes the Jim Crow South, white flight in the North, a job market that forced blacks into the lowest, most menial jobs possible and gave them little room for advancement. She describes the American Dream in its most twisted sense, with migrants moving to a new land hoping for change but running into the same prejudices they faced in the South.

The story has a bright side.  The result of the people’s struggles she depicts led to major contributions to American society, from jazz to the civil rights movement, from athletes like Jesse Owens to musicians like John Coltrane. So much came from these people and so little is known about the migration.

It ends with an interesting note. As the South integrates and the North becomes more resistant to change in its urban cities, many of the children and grandchildren of the original migrants are finding their way back south for the same opportunities their parents and grandparents traveled north.

“The Warmth of Other Suns” tells a story we all should know – a book that should be on people’s must- read list.