Monday, May 28, 2007

"When the Press Fails"

When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina by W. Lance Bennett, Regina G. Lawrence, and Steven Livingston, is now out from the University of Chicago Press.

The authors applied the "page 69 test" to their study reported the following:
The page 69 test works fairly well with our study of the news media and political power. Page 69, focusing on how anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan was able to grab media attention in the summer of 2005, offers an intriguing portal into the larger argument of the book.

The larger argument is that the news media are profoundly dependent upon government spin and the governmental “flywheel” of legislative debates, congressional investigations, etc. for their daily coverage of policy issues. We argue — and a mound of academic research also indicates — that mainstream journalism has abdicated the responsibility of raising and sustaining (especially sustaining) critical questions about U.S. foreign policy. In short, if Congress, administration officials, and/or military leaders do not raise alarms, the media are unlikely to do so, even when knowledgeable critical voices exist. The run-up to the Iraq war and on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal offer pointed examples in which the media largely reported the Bush administration’s claims without sustained critical evaluation. (Bill Moyers’ recent documentary, Buying the War, illustrated the same dynamics).

Cindy Sheehan’s ability to temporarily command mainstream media attention is an exception that proves the rule. Sheehan gained momentary prominence in the national news with the help of an experienced public relations team (including Joe Trippi of Howard Dean fame), a (rare) lull in administration-generated news, and the sheer luck of good timing. As we say on p. 69 (well, starting on p. 68 to be exact):

Cindy Sheehan entered the news as the embodiment of an entire anti-war movement in the summer of 2005. It helped, of course, that she operated with the kinds of conditions that favor outsiders making the news: summer is the slow news season, the President was at his ranch on vacation, the press contingent hovering around the president had little news to report, and suddenly there was a dramatic story with the potential for episodic developments camped right outside the ranch.

In other words, Cindy’s 15 minutes of fame illustrates well why we call the mainstream media the “semi-independent press.”
Learn more about When the Press Fails at the publisher's website, and read an excerpt from the book.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue