Incandescences

Richard Poirier

This book, by a man who at 35 was already called ‘a legend in American journalism’, is a lengthy and anecdotal analysis of the transactions between political power in the United States during the last fifty years and the power of the mass media. The latter are exemplified for Halberstam by four conglomerates of the American communications industry, each more or less in the control of a single family: the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), created and run by William Paley; Time Inc, including Life, owned by Henry Luce; the Washington Post and Newsweek, run by Philip and then by Kay Graham; and the Chandler family’s Los Angeles Times. Beginning in the Thirties with President Roosevelt, who, more than any President before him, manipulated the newspapers and the new possibilities of radio (which President Hoover seldom used), the book is a survey of a period that includes President Eisenhower (who only reluctantly went on TV during his campaigns against a Stevenson who had a patrician disdain for it), President Kennedy (who won the election of 1960 thanks in part to the disastrous appearance of Nixon in the first of the televised debates), and finally Presidents Johnson and Nixon, both of whom were severely damaged, as was Senator Joe McCarthy, by the dramatisations on TV of such horror shows as Vietnam, the Watergate scandal and the Army-McCarthy hearings. Truman gets treated very scantily in the book for the reason, I suppose, that he proved, as did Carter, that the media aren’t nearly so powerful as Halberstam likes to think. Opposed by nearly every newspaper, magazine and radio commentator in the country, unable to afford extensive radio time of his own, scorned by the opinion-makers, and written off by the pollsters, Truman defeated Dewey (and Wallace) in 1948 by talking to crowds from the back of a train on a whistle-stop tour across the country, and by holding together the old coalition of labour, the South and the big-city machines.

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