Pultizer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has died in an automobile accident at age 73, was one of America’s most thoughtful critics of media excess and abuse. The Powers That Be, his 1979 account of the rise of big media in the United States — with its profound profiles of CBS’s William Paley, Time’s Henry Luce and other broadcast and print titans — remains required reading.
But whatever his topic — the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War era — Halberstam always kept a sharp eye on the role played, for better or worse, by media. He was one of the greatest reporters of his time, and a man who loved the journalist’s craft. But Halberstam was no apologist for the missteps or the misdeeds of those who owned major newspapers and broadcast networks.
In 2003, shortly after the Federal Communications Commission moved to loosen controls on media consolidation, Dave Weich of www.powells.com asked Halberstam about the way in which big media shapes American society:
Dave Weich: Broadcasting is one of the most significant factors, obviously. Earlier this week, the FCC ruled that large broadcasting corporations will be allowed to become even bigger.
David Halberstam: Not exactly what we needed in this society.
Weich: In The Next Century, you wrote: “As the network news format trivializes political debate, the political system adapts to it. Serious discussion of serious issues is too complicated.” That statement could be applied any number of recent events, including the most recent presidential election.
Halberstam: And very much to our political system now. It’s really very trivialized.
Weich: Where does that leave us?
Halberstam: We’re an entertainment society. We want to be entertained more than we want to think. It’s a serious problem. We’re the most powerful nation in the world, but our network broadcast is increasingly about celebrity, sex, and scandal. It’s less about substance than it used to be. It’s not as good as it should be. And it makes us a more volatile society.
We pay very little attention to the rest of the world, then when the rest of the world doesn’t act in concert with us and salute us, we’re very angry. We think, How could this happen? Why don’t they like us more? We’re not paying very much attention.
There are so many reasons to mourn the death of David Halberstam, the great chronicler of America’s woes and wars — not to mention its sports teams. But his cutting critique of contemporary media will be especially missed, as will his understanding of the threat that consolidated and dumbed-down media poses to democracy.
John Nichols’ new book is