Tag Archives: news media

Mass media, genocide, and the fate of the world

A review of Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World, by Maria Armoudian

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The emergence of mass society was one of the defining characteristics of the 20th Century. Enabled by population growth, industrialization, urbanization, rising rates of literacy, and advances in transportation and communications, mass society became a reality for growing numbers of people in more and more far-flung regions of the planet as the century unfolded. In turn, mass society facilitated the growth of Communism, Fascism, and other varieties of authoritarianism. Among the less extreme effects of this new phenomenon in human affairs were the advent of “public opinion,” the globalization of fashion, and the rapid development of important new industries such as advertising, public relations, and broadcast journalism. The “mass communications” we have taken for granted for so many years now were, properly speaking, an artifact of the 20th Century.

In Kill the Messenger, political scientist and radio broadcaster Maria Armoudian ably examines the central role of mass media in human affairs over the course of the century. Through brief case studies of events in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and the former states of Yugoslavia, she explores the influential — and perhaps essential — function of the media as an enabler of genocide. Armoudian shows how authoritarian regimes in South Africa, Chile, Taiwan, and Burundi made similar efforts to harness the media to help promote the murder, torture, and imprisonment of their own citizens but with much more mixed results. In South Africa, for example, she reveals how new attitudes in the news media helped bring about a largely peaceful conclusion to the era of apartheid. However, Kill the Messenger is about mass media’s place in society, not just its relationship with governments. Armoudian’s examination of public opinion about climate change demonstrates the huge impact of relatively minor investments in media by Exxon Mobil, the Koch Brothers, and other naysayers.

Armoudian puts to work the linguistic concept of “framing” throughout the book, showing, for example, how climate change deniers managed to persuade the mass media to present the issue as open to debate. This frame (“debate”) has dominated coverage not just on Fox News but on most other television and radio networks as well.  Similarly, frames (“blaming” and “heroes-versus-villains”) dominated news coverage in countries where genocide became generally accepted.

Kill the Messenger is an important book because it squeezes between two covers a collection of observations and insights about many of the seminal events of the 20th Century, rendering the history of mass society understandable through the lens of mass media. However, it remains to be seen how much longer Armoudian’s analysis will help illuminate events in the future. The emergence of new communications technologies revolving about the Internet may have thrown a monkey wrench into the phenomenon of mass media. It’s far too early to tell.

This fascinating book would have benefitted from a better publisher than Prometheus Books. The text is rife with glaring typos that even a cursory proofreading would have caught. The cover art is uninviting, an unfortunate sign that Prometheus Books either doesn’t know or doesn’t care how to market a book of this significance.

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Filed under Current Events, Nonfiction

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Throughout this peculiar novel, I found myself wondering “What’s the point?” When I finished reading it, I realized that question was the point.

A former reporter in Paris for the International Herald Tribune, Tom Rachman created a thinly disguised analog of that paper and placed it in Rome staffed exclusively by American ex-pats. However, I suspect that the publisher, editors, and staff of the IHT would take umbrage at the uniform pattern of neuroses, inadequacies, and generally annoying behavior of the characters in The Imperfectionists. I wonder if his former colleagues are still speaking to Rachman.

“The paper,” unnamed in the novel, is founded in the 1950s by a wealthy industrialist who hires his lover and her husband, and moves with them to Rome to run the paper, leaving his family behind in Atlanta. The whole gambit is suspicious from the start, and of course it is: nobody in The Imperfectionists seems to possess admirable motives even in the best of times.

This book, which is labeled a novel and seems to be accepted as such by most reviewers, is essentially a string of short stories about the people connected to the paper and, in many cases, to one another. It’s also a colorful picture of the declining fortunes of the newspaper industry over the past half-century, and that, to me, is its greatest strength.

English eccentrics have nothing on the characters in The Imperfectionists. From the young latter-day publisher who talks only to his dog, to the lowly staffer whose only ambition in life is to loaf on the job, to the impossibly incompetent would-be stringer in Cairo, these people are hard to take. From time to time I wondered whether this was all supposed to be funny. It wasn’t.

ISBN-10: 0385343663

ISBN-13: 978-0385343664

ASIN: B0036S49GE

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Filed under Contemporary Themes, Trade Fiction

Losing the News, by Alex S. Jones

1@@@ (3 out of 5)

The subtitle of this impassioned essay — ” The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy” — tells half the story, one that’s familiar to any alert reader of today’s major newspapers. The other half of the story, equally familiar, is about how the Internet is undermining the newspaper industry and, in the process, steadily replacing the world as we know it with a frighteningly unknown future.

Alex Jones, a Pulitzer-Prize winning author, comes to these themes honestly as the scion of a small-town Tennessee newspaper family. It’s no wonder he feels threatened.

In all fairness, there is considerable reason for apprehension over the decline of America’s major newspapers. Reflecting shrunken profits, repeated staff layoffs, closed news bureaus, and greater reliance on syndicated material, the nation’s once-fat dailies are slimming down at a terrifying pace. In place of the papers’ often earnest efforts at “objectivity,” we are increasingly basing our views on the unedited diatribes to be found on the likes of Fox “News” and the daily blogosphere. The perils for democracy in America are obvious. For example, could the so-called “Tea Party” have thrived in a world largely dependent on newspapers for its information? Or is that sad testament to the profound ignorance of the American people a product of Fox News, talk radio, and organized Internet rumor-mongering? You won’t be surprised to learn that there is no question in my mind that, despite its familiarity to the 19th-Century No-Nothing movement, I’m convinced the Tea Party is an artifact of the channels through which we now receive so much of our political information.

Jones writes well, and my harsh criticism may not be entirely deserved. However, it comes from my nagging feeling as I read this book that its underlying theme is nostalgia, a craving for the day when so much of the news that appeared in the nation’s dailies and on the air originated in the early edition of the Old Gray Lady, The New York Times. Those days are fast receding into history, and as Jones himself writes, there’s not much anyone can do about it other than “Adapt or Die.”

ISBN-10: 0195181239

ISBN-13: 978-0195181234

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Filed under Business, Nonfiction

Googled, by Ken Auletta

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Ken Auletta monitors the media for the New Yorker magazine, and his writing frequently brings new perspective our understanding of the changes that are upending the world’s information sources at an alarming rate. “Googled” brings us face to face with several of the remarkable individuals who are reshaping the media — in ways that are little understood outside of the field. Focusing on Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the two Stanford computer wizards who launched Google barely more than a decade ago, and on several of their key colleagues, notably Eric Schmidt, the company’s CEO, Auletta takes us behind the scenes at this extraordinary company. Read this book, and you’ll understand why Google’s stock price stays in the stratosphere, why media executives from newspapers to films to television are terrified by the company — and why the Chinese government recently felt it necessary to rein it in.

Like any good book, “Googled” puts its subject matter in perspective. We learn, for example, that despite the proliferation of familiar products from Google, nearly all its revenue comes from a single source: online advertising. And we come to understand that the reasons Google is able to maintain such a stranglehold on online advertising are straightforward: they had the presence of mind to buy the leading online advertising agency early enough in the game to get away with it, and they are amassing a gargantuan storehouse of consumer data that may be unmatchable by anyone else. This book is well worth reading.

ISBN-10: 1594202354

ISBN-13: 978-1594202353

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Filed under Business, Nonfiction