- The Powers that Be by David Halberstam
Chatto, 771 pp, £9.95
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.
There are some amusing vignettes which reveal the efforts of Presidents and masters of the communications industries to make use of one another. Scene: the Democratic National Convention of 1964. President Johnson, determined that his party confirm him, without any evidence of dissent, for an office he’d inherited by virtue of a disaster, suddenly sees, live on the tube, a near-violent protest against the lily-white composition of the Mississippi delegation. An enraged President immediately gets on the phone to ol’ buddy Robert Kintner, head of the National Broadcasting Company: ‘Get those god-damned cameras off those niggers! Get them off right now!’ Still more numerous are little scenes intended to give us a whiff of the sweet smell of success and the sourness of failure within the upper echelons of the media. In one extraordinary incident in the early Fifties, David Schoenbrun, the distinguished CBS correspondent in Paris, had to use all his influence to get Balmain to open his store on Bastille Day so that Jack Benny’s wife, Mary Livingston, could buy two quarts of Vent Vert perfume. ‘Bill Paley said you could do it,’ she told Schoenbrun, by way of thanks. An example, Halberstam rather tendentiously concludes, of how ‘news was becoming less and less important; entertainment was bigger and bigger.’
Such little episodes are the best and brightest parts of a book whose inordinate size – 771 big pages, nearly a half million words – is testimony to the paradoxical fact that Halberstam has very little to say. He is constrained to gossip for want of an argument. And it is the search for an argument which, in turn, continually makes him too fastidious and reticent to be a really good gossip. It is as if he wants to be the heir to three of his heroes in journalism, Great Lippmann, Great Edward R. Morrow, Great Reston, while trying to show that he writes in such an atmosphere of hype that even Christ, one supposes, would be canaille in New York, Los Angeles or Washington DC.
In fact, the reader is victimised by precisely the sort of hype that Halberstam claims, and I believe him, to detest. This is glaringly the case when the power he is trying to locate is attributed, not to the likes of Kennedy or Johnson, who were indisputably allowed a certain measure of it, but to media folk, like Philip Graham of the Washington Post.
He was the incandescent man. Phil Graham walked into a room and took it over, charming and seducing whomever he wished, men and women alike. No one in Washington could match him at it, not even, in the days before he became President, John F. Kennedy. He was handsome and slim and when he smiled, at first shy and then bold, everything stopped. He was the Sun King.
Less the Sun King, given Halberstam’s subsequent characterisations, than Tamburlaine: but then we discover that when any one of the big boys in Halberstam House ‘walks into a room’ the aura of power is dazzling. Bill Paley, ‘he was the kind of man who could walk into a room and, with precious little formal training, always pick out the finest painting or the most valuable antique in that room.’ This is the language of fairy-tales written for hicks, and when such giant figures are brought into a focus more ostensibly human and fallible the language appropriately switches into the adult equivalent of fairy-tales – soap opera. Barbara Stanwick is Buff Chandler, big spur of the LA Times:
Buff Chandler. A woman before her time. A feminist in pioneer country. Always, above all else, a presence. Fierce, intense, driving. Easily wounded, easily moved to tears, yet resilient, always ready to work the next day. A mover, always driving and pushing. A relentless woman.
Halberstam is by turns inarticulately excessive or banal in the presence of people like Luce or Paley because he has not found a way to measure the translation of technology into political or cultural power. His writing is most impressive when least ambitious, as in his accounts of the technological processes that had to be developed before Life magazine could come into existence or when he characterises figures of secondary rank. Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, Frank Stanton of CBS, or Kyle Palmer of the LA Times, do come to life here, perhaps because, being a few rungs down the ladder, they engage in intrigues and power struggles that have more specific, immediate and easily plotted results than do the larger, imperial strategies of the kings and queens of the industry.
The organisation of the book is a clue to Halberstam’s dilemma. There are alternative chapters on the four communications industries as each of them in turn confronts various crises in American political life, like the ‘loss’ of China, McCarthyism, Vietnam and Watergate. Political history, that is, is embedded in the history of the media. Obviously, there are connections between the two, but Halberstam, trapped within a simple-minded scheme of his own devising, wants to show that the relationships are direct and causal. Thus it is claimed that ‘in 1968 when Cronkite disassociated himself from the war, Lyndon Johnson knew it was all over.’ In some representative way this might be true, though the North Vietnamese, who did not initial the peace agreement until 23 January 1973, would have reason to doubt it. Johnson himself apparently felt that the defection of the most influential anchorman of the evening News signalled the likely defection of the Average Citizen. But no degree in political science or economics is required to know that, Cronkite’s opinions notwithstanding, the war, and Johnson’s Presidency, could have gone on even longer were it not for the fact that the war was becoming for practical economic and military reasons insupportable even for most of the hawks. Not moral suasion but calculated national self-interest ended the war in Vietnam.
Similarly, it is true, as Halberstam alleges, that while television did well enough with racial problems in the South, where the legal status of segregation made the issues visible and offered chances for staged, ritualised confrontations, it was not effective when dealing with the less tangible racial problems in the North. But it is nonetheless absurd to conclude, as Halberstam does, that the reason ‘television soon lost interest in the subject’ is that ‘northern racial problems did not lend themselves to either easy dramatisation or quick solution.’ Political explanations derived from aesthetics are nearly always simple-minded, and in this instance they have the effect of ignoring the complex economic and social motives which probably dissuaded a television industry centred entirely in the North from calling attention to a problem that would expose its own self-interest. It was and is a problem that has much to do, for example, with the maintenance of privileged schools and neighbourhoods used and lived in by TV personnel who are predominantly white taxpayers of New York City.
To locate the movements of power in contemporary society requires extraordinary efforts of mind and sophistications of research nowhere in evidence here. In their place is a peculiar kind of childishness – not innocence, childishness. And it is important that this be recognised, lest anyone think that ‘the powers that be’ can possibly be explained by a writer who alternates between wide-eyed infatuation and jowl-shaking. Indeed, any responsible analysis of power would at least have to propose that it is not the media but rather an induced outrage against them which deceives well-intentioned people about the true nature and shape of power in American life. The outrage offers an inexpensive and finally complacent way of registering an objection against the corruptions of power and the degenerations in cultural life. Evidence of these is visible everywhere, but the causes reside in massively disguised and intricately connected political, economic and social – especially educational – institutions. Any analysis of the communications media that fails to see them as a function of larger operations in American society is not so much an exposure as a cover-up.