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The future of the media is cloudy. In this brave new world of YouTube, Facebook and 400 cable channels, book publishers are fretting about obsolescence. But books have survived radio and television for the same reason they will survive the Internet. Human life is simply too complex to be represented by a news spot or a blog post – and three new tomes demonstrate how books will always be the necessary instruments for deeper analysis. They are a trilogy of truth in this era of misinformation.
The media coverage of the presidential primary has vacillated between racism, over-hyped controversies and fluff reporting. If all you knew of Barack Obama was what daily television reported, you would know only that because he’s black and doesn’t wear a flag pin, he is supposedly a radical America-hater, but because he’s black and likes shooting hoops, he’s supposedly a fantastic basketball player. Left largely ignored is John McCain – that is, until you read Cliff Schecter’s The Real McCain.
Though Schecter wields a partisan axe, the facts in his handy paperback speak for themselves – facts like McCain flip-flopping on the very campaign finance issues that have gotten him billing as a “straight-talking” reformer. During this crisis moment for journalism, The Real McCain dares to do some old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting about the Republican presidential nominee.
Of course, to win the White House, the candidates are campaigning as agents of consensus – “uniters, not dividers,” as polarizer-in-chief George W. Bush once said. But as much as that pabulum has dominated the presidential debate, it glosses over a little-explored phenomenon that Bill Bishop uncovers in The Big Sort. The veteran journalist documents how Americans are segregating themselves not only by race, class and religion – but also by political ideology.
The Big Sort cites a wide array of data to prove this reality – the most compelling being election results. During the closely fought 1976 election, about a quarter of Americans lived in landslide counties (i.e. those that voted for a candidate by more than 20 percentage points). By the 2004 election, about half the country lived in such counties.
This “clustering of like-minded America,” as Bishop calls it, explains why Republicans and Democrats feel so foreign to each other. Such alienation has bred more partisanship among voters, which is then reinforced by campaign tactics focusing not on unifying themes, but on mobilizing the parties’ bases. Worst of all, the Big Sort reflects how party and political ideology has become a big factor in Americans’ self-image and lifestyle choices – a cultural shift that could impede efforts to unify the country around issues. That’s a tragedy considering the possibilities of consensus and coalition-building around globalization.
According to polls, Americans of all political stripes oppose our country’s job-killing, environment-destroying “free” trade policies. The media perpetuate these policies by depicting this opposition as unsophisticated and uninformed about economic history. But Ha-Joon Chang’s new book, Bad Samaritans, proves who the Luddites and know-nothings really are.
Tracing centuries of economic policies, the Cambridge University economist shows that today’s industrialized countries did not build up their economies through “free” trade. They did so through strategic tariffs that incubated and preserved crucial industries. Chang says that far from an enlightened policy championed by altruistic good Samaritans, “free” trade is being used as a weapon by the rich against everyone else.
At some point after reading this column, you will inevitably get annoyed at whatever drivel is being presented as the day’s “breaking news.” But instead of tuning out completely, go pick up one of these books. Much of the media may be a “vast wasteland,” as Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow once said. But that just means you have to bypass the wasteland to find the real story.
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