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Book Name: The Powers That Be

Author: Walter Wink

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Overall Rating: (4.5/5) View all reviews (total 6 reviews)
Description

"The book provided manna for political, history, political science and journalism junkies and groupies. It bared the warts -- biases, politically partisan maneuverings, egos, dollars-and-cents motivations, personality clashes, society maneuvers, internal political wars, insecurities, chauvinistic behaviors and restricted realities of the news organizations as seen through the people who owned and ran them. Stories galore."--Australasian Journal of American Studies "Halberstam deploys a stunning novelistic skill in showing how his scores of characters feel about one another... Every page carries a graphic revelation of some piece of subtle delineation, flashes of insight struck off by the adjacencies of power. So understanding is the reporting that the skeletons, once hauled from their closets, don't rattle much." -- Anthony Smith, The Nation "[An] important and admirable book ... The Powers That Be will remain stirring history." -- Richard Rovere, New York Times Book Review "Extremely good reading. It builds a lucid and engaging narrative about important people and important events and ... will keep readers up after bedtime. It is also crammed with anecdotes available only to insiders." -- American Journal of Sociology

Reviews

Loved it, Hated it, Then Loved it Again

by Andy in Washington "Andy"
(4/5)

I am almost always a fan of David Halberstam. He is usually very insightful, keeps his facts straight, and while he can be long winded, no one will ever accuse him of skipping important details. He is usually capable of examining history from all sides, and capturing the interaction of various factors that make up a story.=== The Good Stuff ===* The beginning and ends of the book are excellent. It is a shame the book was written in the '70s, because so much of the history Halberstam covers is directly applicable to modern politics. For example, the author discusses how FDR used the "fireside chat" and the medium of radio to appeal directly to voters and bypass the typical political machines. Twenty years later, JFK does the same thing with television. So in 2008, when Barrack Obama was credited with developing a totally new election strategy by appealing to social media, he was in fact going down a well worn path-but just with a different technology.* Halberstam also does a decent job at capturing the way the press operated in prior decades. While we seem to think of today's press as being overly polarized and incapable of presenting logical arguments instead of 10-second sound bites, we find that this charge has been hurled at the press since at least FDR, and I wouldn't be surprised if Caesar felt the same way.* I believe Halberstam was at his finest in describing Watergate, and specifically how the team of Bernstein and Woodward cracked the case. It was amazing how the biggest scandal in American politics was almost buried several times for any number of reasons. You can't help but wonder how many other scandals were missed because the reporters involved were also covering the St. Patrick's day parade.=== The Not-So-Good Stuff ===* While Halberstam writes in an easy-to-read style, there were some sentences that had to be read a few times to get the meaning. Also, the book is long, and I had trouble reading more than a chapter or so at a time, which is unusual for me. While the book at times seemed overly detailed, there wasn't really much that I could point to as being superfluous. Rather, the stories were complicated, had many characters, and were all affected by many events. In this case, better too long than too short.* My biggest criticism though was I felt that midway through the book, Halberstam lost his creativity. A fair chunk of the book is about the press coverage of Vietnam, a topic that the author was personally involved with. The problem is that Halberstam lets his personal involvement intrude into the narrative-at one point going so far as to write in the 1st person. He also either sets the record straight- or has an ax to grind- depending on your viewpoint. At any rate, it clouded the rest of the book as it was tough to tell if his own opinions were clouding the narrative.=== Summary ===I enjoyed the book, and found it to be one of my favorite types of history books- one that kicks off some independent thought on what could have happened, or what might happen next. While the book has no events more recent than 1975, I found that it was directly applicable to modern journalism and history and the interface between them. It was amazing how many of today's unique challenges and problems are merely rehashes of things that were struggled with previously-and probably will be struggled with again.


Making Of The Mainstream Media

by Bill Slocum
(4/5)

Four mass-media giants - CBS, Time Magazine, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times - get the deep-dish David Halberstam treatment in this mammoth 1979 study.For Halberstam readers used to books about either scandalous national tragedies or baseball, "The Powers That Be" is a bit of a change-up. While a probing critic, Halberstam's focus on the four press engines is by and large friendly. All four transformed to meet new challenges, becoming more critical of the government and more in tune with the times they covered, with the help of such external crises as Vietnam and Watergate. Yes, they were not always led by good people (William Paley, the boss of CBS, comes off particularly hollow that way), but they were guided by belief in the right things and helped drive positive change.Halberstam has quite a story to tell, and spends a lot of time telling it. "The Powers That Be" is over 1,000 pages long, and amazingly reads like a novel, focused as it is on highly colorful individuals Halberstam presents in living color. Kay Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, is a shy but steely widow willing to gamble on the right to publish the controversial Pentagon Papers. Otis Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, is a surf-happy, hard-hearted visionary who leads his paper from a Republican-backing scandal sheet to a respected daily that earns the hatred of its former favorite son Richard Nixon.Halberstam also portrays the politicians struggling to accommodate the new media, like Lyndon Johnson: "Someone, in a moment of primitive expertise, had told him to look right at the camera, and that was all he needed. From then on he fixed on the camera like a man who suspected it was about to pick his wallet, and just drilled it; his eyes never wavered, never faltered."More than its length, Halberstam's wideness of focus is this book's biggest problem. He has points he wants to make about the revolutionizing of news reporting, particularly through television ("a quantum leap in journalistic and political power"), but his points on CBS don't always jibe with those on the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and his reasons for selecting these four particular operations over, say, NBC or The New York Times, are blurry.The strands do come together. Television complicated the military's war in Vietnam by plastering it in family living rooms, but it was also the print media asking tough questions in marked contrast from past wars. The Washington Post brought down Nixon with its coverage of the Watergate break-in, but they were painfully isolated for a time until CBS devoted the bulk of two evening newscasts to the subject. When Kay Graham saw Bill Paley at a party, she kissed him in gratitude for helping the Post out. Paley hid his own discomfort with taking sides.Halberstam writes from a strongly liberal perspective, which makes this book even more insightful. He criticizes calls for objectivity as dictating a reporter "should appear more ignorant than he really was", and makes clear there's no room in serious journalism for conservative lines of thought, as his dismissal of Henry Luce's Time as a windy beacon of imperalist dogma makes clear. (The magazine only improves when it shakes off Luce's grip and listens to the liberals in the newsroom.) Halberstam is engaging and probing, yet dogmatic, too.Ultimately I found "The Powers That Be" an even better read for its imperfections. Halberstam was himself a star member of the mainstream media, and you get a fuller feeling for the passions and anxieties that drove these remarkable people to reshuffle how their world operated. If we live in an age that has outlasted their influence, it doesn't make their story less interesting.


Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

by Franklin the Mouse
(5/5)

The late Mr. Halberstam's outstanding 1979 book describes the rise of some of our nation's biggest media institutions and covers up to the resignation of President Nixon. A lot has changed since this work was penned. We have been transformed into a society of 24-hour news stations which focus even more on the superficial and sensational at the expense of informing and educating the public. Also, the Internet has transformed how we get our information and, in the process, diminished these companies' power. Once major money machines, newspapers have been hit on the bottom line by such sites as Craig's List which took away most of their classified ads revenue. TIME is now a shell of a news magazine. Mr. Halberstam's book shows that for most of their lives TIME magazine and the L.A. Times were conservative propaganda machines EXACTLY like FOX News of today. The conservative canard of the media being "liberal" is in direct contradiction to reality of yesteryear and today. They are conservative, profit-making empires built primarily on fattening the bottom line. Television is an especially spineless creature when it comes to news. It had a huge impact on perceptions about Vietnam and Watergate, but it was always a struggle for journalists to get the stories on air because of executives concern about profits.The author's book shows how each new information revolution from newspaper to radio to television have caused people in power to adapt or die. Now, it's the Internet that's shaking up the system. The book is chock-full of colorful characters from Henry Luce, Bill Paley, Phil and Kate Graham, Ben Bradlee, FDR, the odious Nixon Administration, JFK, editorial cartoonists Herbert Block and Paul Conrad, the Chandler family that essentially built Los Angeles and the Times, the Ochs-Sulzbergers of the New York Times, Woodward & Bernstein, Don Hewitt, Morley Safer, Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite and even a cameo by FOX's Roger Ailes. Readers will get to see oodles of examples of how vain, powerful men and women manipulated each other and the public for their own personal egos. This is great, entertaining, educational history.


Revealing Look behind the Scenes

by K.A.Goldberg
(4/5)

Author David Halberstam takes us behind the scenes as he analyzes U.S. media from the 1940-1970's, showing many factors and internal squabbles that influence the medium. The author shows how a mix of professionalism, sloppiness, arrogance, and favorites affects what the media reports, plus how it reports. We see how the media sometimes kowtows to corporate sponsors, and often allows itself to be manipulated. Consider the 2004 campaign, when the media routinely filmed President Bush before cheering crowds, but never his secret service illegally detaining silent dissenters at rallies. Readers also learn about skilled leaders like Edward R. Murrow, capable if imperfect executives like William Paley (CBS) and Katherine Graham (Washington Post), and shysters like Henry Luce (TIME) that avoid truths when they don't fit the agenda.This book arrived in 1979, before the advent of Internet and most cable news. Still its lessons remain appropriate, even if media often fails to live up to the hopes of the founding fathers and the First Amendment. Halberstam is a talented observer who capably follows George Selby, Theodore H. White, and many others with a critical eye towards the media. I gave the book just four stars because the prose is a bit thick, but this remains an important read.


A BIG AMERICAN BOOK

by Steven Travers "AUTHOR/WRITER"
(5/5)

Wow. The Powers That Be by David Halberstam, written after some seven years of research, in 1979, is the quinetessiantal big book . . . the big American book! It is a masterpiece, a triumph, a work, a magnum opus by a superstar of the genre. I do not stand eye-to-eye with Halberstam politically. I am a staunch conservative, he was center-liberal, but unlike so many nabobs of the left, in Halberstam's case his sheer knowledge, his education, his talent, passion, and the undisputable fact that he was there . . . he saw it happen, he experienced it; well, whether one agrees or disgrees with his politics or not, only a fool would argue his merits, his imprimatur.Is Halberstam our greatest 20th Century chronicler? The best writer? This is hard to say. He was a historuan, a reporter, so comparing him with Ernest Hemingway, or Eugene O'Neill, or sports writers like Jim Murray, is problematic. He is different from a Tom Wolfe, whose non-narrative written-in-novel style, like Norman Mailer penning a true story, is also different, yet Halberstam's books are not, as in the case of, say Bob Woodward, not unlike a 300-page Washington Post report. He is engaging, forceful, entertaining.Halberstam and this particular book are of the American Century, a term coined by one of the book's subjects, Time-Life founder Henry Luce. This is where Halberstam is at his best; the breadth and scope of history, outlined against America . . . or was it the other way around? The big picture, a country, the New Rome, an unlikely empire shaping events, shaping history, changing thousands of years of powerful notions in a red, white and blue image that will stand for the next 1,000 or more. Halberstam is modern, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, and reading The Powers That Be in 2010 is done with knowledge of what he wrote afrter, how he felt about Iraq and other 21st Century issues before his recent, untimely passing. In so doing he is prescient and, while not outwardly religious (perhaps not religious at all), nevertheless he descrcibes a story that is religious, as all the big stories are. The America he describes in this, in The Best and the Brightest (his Vietnam classic written before The Powers That Be) is to large to be merely secular, it must be part of a cosmic destiny, like the way Heorge Patton looked at his role in history.Halberstam's 745-page classic describes the histories of Time under Luce, the Columbia Broadcasting System under William Paley, the Washington Post under Phil and Katharine Graham, the Los Angeles Times unders the Chandlers, and while not headlined on the book's cover, the New York Times. It is a story of the media in the media age. He outlines the shaping of Los Angeles under the Chandlers from the 19th Century on, and in the case of the other empires, after World War I, when they were either consolidated, bought or created, as in the case of Luce and Paley out of a sheer American vision.It concludes with Watergate and the corporate re-structuring demanded by Wall Street stock values of the 1970s. It was a fitting time to end the story, then. It is sad that Halberstam is not here to write the much-necessary volume two: the fall of the papers and magazines, the question of liberalism in the main stream, the rise of conservative talk radio and media, the politicization of the dominant culture - movies, music, comedy - and of course an explanation as best one exists for the Internet. Alas he is gone and some other giant must step up and take on this challenge, but does such a giant live amongst us still?The Powers That Be describes giants like Dwight Eisenhower and George C. Marshall, near-giants like John F. Kennedy, and disappointments like Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson; how they used and were shaped by the media. It is a constant struggle. Does the tail wag the dog? Who has the power, the control? An Eisenhower comes and goes, a Luce stays. The book is filled with wonderful anecotes and personal stories, but the overriding theme is the notion of seismic struggle, of th shaping of the empire by forces of politics, journalism, mass communications; how military maneuvers are effected by coverage, how the American mind is formed.Perhaps Luce's role is the most extraordinary. While the Chandlers were almost accidental king-makers, separated by geography from the action, they were happy to invent Southern California in their own WASP image. But the building of Richard Nixon, as like Frankenstein, thrust them into the new age. Otis Chandler responded by re-making his paper from a Republican rag to the world's greatest. But Luce was not accidential. He was a Calvinistic force of destiny and knew it. He was convinced he was a prophet of God. He coined the term "American Century," laughed at first as provincial, but after World War II the most apropos of experessions.The son of Chinese missionaries, devoutly Christian, he rose by din of sheer will and excellence to his place in the world of power. He determined to use the images and power of both Time and Life magazines to promote a propagandist view of American Exceptionalism that was vitally necessary to defeating the Nazis and Japanese. Ater victory was attained, his jingoism became a source of liberal irritant, exemplified by his role in "selecting" Ike over the popular Senator Robert Taft as President in 1952, then Nixon's rise, amid much consternation.But the book's theme, or argument, where one falls in the political litany, can be summed up by response to an argument between Luce and his star reporter, Theodore White after World War II. Luce made China his special project. White's writings about Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Tse-tung and the Nationalist-Communist civil war were brilliant, but he started to report that Chiang was corrupt, his leadership poor, his military ineffective, while Mao, to Luce's horror, was making gains.Luce flew out to China on several occasions, to "straighten out' White. They finally had a confrontation in which White told his boss his commitment was to honest journalism. Luce said no, the stakes were too high. A little propaganda, not the word he used but what he felt was needed, as in the battle with Adolf Hitler, was what was needed. To lose China was too horrible to contemplate and could not be risked by honest journalism.All normal coinsiderations woul seem to favor White in this argument. The truth, after all, shall set ye free. In the end, White got his way. He wrote it his way, then detailed it in a book called Thunder Out of China. It dismayed Luce, but he was too honest and decent to censor his people. Righteounses prevailed, right?Not so fact. China was lost to Communism in 1949, causing enormous political hatred and more than any factor McCarthyism. Mao murdered 55 million human beings. Communism killed 100 million worldwide in the century. In light of that knowledge, if it was at all possible Luce could have kept Chiang and his army together enough, through American popular support, to stop such a thing fron happening; well, was this not worth just a little bit of jingoistic propaganda?This was the nexus of much angst over the years, and could be found in conservative anger towards liberal media during the Iraq War. Was the honesty and "integrity" of a liberal, yet safe, reporter more important than the life of a soldier in the field, fighting an enemy aided and abetted by his reporting? This argument does not appear to be going away any time soon.


Great Media Book

by T. Bratz "gwfeds0"
(5/5)

This is a long book, but worth the time it takes to read. It's a history of the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Time Magazine and CBS News.Halberstam does an outstanding job of telling the stories of these organizations and tying them together in this book. The stories in this book are entertaining and informatative, teaching us about history, journalism and business.If you've never read any of his books, this is a good one to start with. If you like it you should try some of his others, including:The Best and The Brightest - A history of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and the Vietnam war.The Children - A story about the Civil Rights movement.The Fifties - I never thought it was a very interesting decade until I read this book.The Reckoning - A history of Ford Motors.He's also written some great sports books. The bottom line is that you can't go wrong with any of his books.


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