Library:Politics of the Press

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Politics of the Press was a letter written by Statesian political scientist Michael Parenti in response to this review of his book, made by Statesian journalist Michael Pollan in 1986. It was published in The New York Times.


To the Editor:

In his review of my book "Inventing Reality:  The Politics of the Mass Media" (6 April), Michael Pollan says that I paint the press "in such broad, Marxist strokes" that I cannot "adequately account for episodes of courage and independence, as during Vietnam and Watergate."

In fact, I dealt with the press's treatment of Vietnam and Watergate in some detail and found it wanting in "courage and independence."  But I do note, contrary to the impression left by Mr. Pollan, that while the press is committed to serving the interests of the few, it must also market a product called the news that is palpable and credible to the many.  In a section of my book entitled "The Limits of Power," I observe:

  1. Dissident themes can occasionally peek through, because ideological control is usually informal and implicit and therefore does not always work with perfect effect.
  2. Editors will sometimes run a story because they fail to see its troublesome implications and unintended consequences.
  3. Differences among elite interests are now and then played out in the media, lending the appearance — and substance — of diversity.
  4. Owners and publishers have been known to grant their news organisations some modicum of independence to minimise the appearance and actual degree of overt coercion.  And journalists will sometimes try (successfully) to operate as if they were independent agents.  To quote from my book:  "The idea of a free press is more a myth than a reality, but myths can have an effect on things and can serve as a resource of power."

Finally, I note that the press is not immune to the pressures of democratic forces at home and abroad and must give some attention to their impact, as with the civil rights movement, the peace movement, and struggles in South Korea, South Africa, and the Philippines.

Readers will find the above nuanced analysis in the pages of "Inventing Reality," even if some critics are inclined to miss it.