John Nichols & Robert W. McChesney (2005). Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy. (New York: The New Press; distributed by W.W. Norton). 212 + xii pp. ISBN 1-59588-016-6. $23.95 (hardbound). Illustrations by Tom Tomorrow, foreword by Tim Robbins, sources and acknowledgments.
Any book by Nichols (The Nation's Washington correspondent, an editor of the Capital Times, and author of several books) or McChesney (professor at the University of Illinois and prolific author of significant works that have become the touchstones for the media reform movement) is going to contain well-reasoned analysis and opinion, careful writing and a frequently irreverent attitude. When they collaborate on a volume such as this, it is clearly well worth reading.
While both have liberal political opinions--the book is dedicated to Paul and Shiel Wellstone--they are based on a great deal of thought, rather than knee-jerk partisan sloganeering. This book, while it certainly involves politics, is a book about the failings of the American mass media, and not about the failings of government as such.
A telling point: the first pages of the preface ("Tucker Is a What?") is a description of Daily Show host Jon Stewart's appearance on CNN's Crossfire during the 2004 presidential campaign. After savaging Crossfire (and other combative cable television programs) and offering some pungent comments on Tucker Carlson (Crossfire's conservative co-host) rather than humorously flacking for a book he had recently published, Stewart, as a citizen, pointed out that "we need help from the media, and they're hurting us."
Tragedy and Farce is divided into six chapters. After a short introduction whose title is that of the book, it discusses "The Crisis in Journalism," "Oh, What an Embedded War," "The Policing of the Primaries," "Media and the November Election," and concludes with what should be done to secure "Media for a People Who Mean to be Their Own Governors."
While it pulls no punches, it is not the kind of polemic that so often substitutes for rational discourse. It provides rigorous reasoning and sources--often sources that the traditional media had available, but deliberately overlooked for reasons of their own. This reviewer may agree or disagree with the specifics of Nichols' and McChesney's analyses, and--having been involved with the media for many decades--has his own ideas as to where the road the media now are on is leading. But he expects that Tragedy and Farce will lead to clarifying ferment in his own thinking as he digests this book, and considers it "must" reading for anyone interested in the many roles of the media in the political processes of the 21st century.