HOW MEDIA SHAPED POLITICS IN THE 20TH CENTURY

THE POWERS THAT BE by DAVID HALBERSTAM

Reviewed by STEVEN TRAVERS

David Halberstam was one of the great writers, journalists and historians to ever hit the scene. He was liberal but he was honest, and he did the work required of real journalism, which is not done today. He could be believed and trusted. Republicans would read Halberstam, shrug, hate to admit it, but reluctantly say, “The man is right.” Sometimes it took time and persuasion but he was usually proven right.

He advocated that the U.S. get out of Vietnam. There was a lot of pushback but history tells us that, at the very least, we did not fight the right war in the right way at the right time in Southeast Asia. Had Halberstam lectured us from the ivory towers of academia, or behind a desk on a network news show, or from the editorial offices of the New York Times, he would not have had credibility. But no, he was in the muck and the mire of Vietnam, up close with the troops, talking to them, to their commanders, seeing it in real time. Later when it was over he even talked to the enemy to get the complete picture.

The result was The Best and the Brightest. Considering the title and subject matter, many liberals no doubt thought it would be a glorious recitation of why the left is good and the right is bad. They were sadly mistaken. One of their own, or so they thought, had written a truthful tale of the Vietnam War, warts and all; most of those warts were attached to the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Republicans came to respect Halberstam, and for this reason he rose far above the hacks, the Walter Durantys of so-called “journalism.”   

In 1979 Halberstam produced a book as great as The Best and the Brightest. It was called The Powers That Be, and after reading it I was inspired to write a kind of follow-up, this called The Powers That Be, The Powers That Were. It was a telling of the way media had changed since 1979, what with the Internet and social media, but the focus was also on movements throughout history. It was very early in the Donald Trump movement but I caught the zeitgeist of Trump before his 2016 election, and in this respect I was prescient. I wrote of the eugenics movement of the 1920s, how it produced the Nazis and millions of aborted children; of the Conservative Revolution that grew out of the rivalry between Ayn Rand’s followers and Barry Goldwater’s followers, leading to Ronald Reagan. I tempered the book with religiosity, because I believe politics and history are all part of a larger cosmic plan between good and evil. Either way, nobody published it. It can be read at Smashwords.com.  

Halberstam’s book is a more straight forward history of the big families, the big corporations, and the big media of the 20th Century. He starts with the Columbia Broadcasting System, which came under the control of its family heir, William Paley, at age 27. CBS was in the right place at the right time. 

In the 1920s, radio became popular and big business. Broadcasts of huge sporting events featuring Babe Ruth, Notre Dame football, and heavyweight boxing matches, expanded sports into a golden age. It became a mouthpiece for news and politics. Paley made CBS free to affiliates in the early days, much the way the Internet is essentially free, thus expanding its product and outreach. He ran a coast-to-coast operation. It became the source of revenue for American companies big and small who learned how to advertise to a mass market. Companies were no longer regional; they became national brands because of CBS.

Eventually there was World War II, and after that McCarthyism, all broadcast nationally by CBS. Paley  and CBS drifted to the left but nobody ever accused them of a lack of patriotism, much less Communist sympathy. Names like Edward R. Murrow and William Shirer broadcast direct from Germany in the early days of Adolf Hitler. But when they entered the television market with Murrow that began to change. 

Murrow was accused of Communist ties. Halberstam certainly hues to the usual liberal line when it comes to this era. He was wrong in this respect. Communism was a threat from within. Its tentacles had reached the Army, Foggy Bottom, Hollywood and the Oval Office. Much of what Halberstam wrote in 1979 failed to see the bigger picture, much of it revealed by the Venona Papers after the     U.S.S.R. fell in the early 1990s. However, history, real history (not the kind taught in colleges) shows that the right was right, sometimes bellicose and awkward, but still right. Failure to inure America top to bottom with its righteousness is why today we live in a totally divided country in which one side attempts to weaken us from the core with trans-genderism, drug addiction, and racial hatred, just to name three things the KGB wanted and Vladimir Putin still wants to plant deep within us.

But CBS overcame all obstacles and remained for years the pre-eminent radio/TV news and entertainment organization in the world. It moved smoothly into TV, produced ground-breaking programs, and usually held the top spot in the ratings with Walter Cronkite. Eventually Paley came to the end of the line and CBS became far more corporate under Mike Burke, buying the New York Yankees for a few years until George Steinbrenner came along.

Then there was Henry Luce, “Harry” to those close to him. To be allowed to call him “Harry” was a big, big compliment. Unlike most of the other corporate mavens, Luce came from nothing; humble beginnings.

His parents were Christian missionaries. Luce grew up in China, where his parents spread the Gospel, during a time of great upheaval; the Boxer Rebellion, the rise of Mao Tse-tung, and “gunboat diplomacy.” He came to love China and its people.

He came to America to attend Yale, where he was a “fish out of water,” dressed poorly, with no money, and a lack of etiquette. Somehow he was invited to join a fraternity and did well in school. After he set out to build a magazine, which he called Time, and later Life. It was a success and featured a “Man of the Year” issue. Eventually it became the most important, influential news organ in the world. A Time cover story could fuel a revolution or swing an election. 

Luce never changed from his poor beginnings, ordering corn on the cob at fancy French restaurants. He built the Time&Life Building, one of the great monuments in Manhattan, as a “place for work,” not a museum or ode to his greatness.    

When the U.S. entered World War II, Luce made it his personal mission to “save China from hell,” which he felt would be its destiny if the Communists won. The China front was the least important battleground behind Europe and the Nazis, then the South Pacific. General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell was the man most likely to be named Supreme Commander in Europe, but he he was too valuable in China, speaking the language and establishing a confidential., maybe even romantic, friendship with Madame Chiang-Kai Shek, and her husband, Generalissimo Chiang-Kai Shek. Naturally General Douglas MacArthur was assigned the Pacific and Dwight Eisenhower promoted to SHAEF.

Luce made Stilwell a household name, featuring him on Time’s cover, detailing his heroic Dunkirk-like retreat in the mountains of Burma, only to return like MacArthur and achieve victory later. 

But politics and journalism collided in China. Luce’s stories were the chief promotion of the China cause, raising millions from conservatives and Christians who wanted the country not just free of the Japanese, but to achieve victory over the Communists, who waited out the war in the Hinterlands.

Luce’s top reporter was a star writer named Theodore White. The problem was that Luce was a rock-ribbed conservative and devout Christian. He colored Time’s coverage from this angle. White was liberal. White and others discovered that Luce and his staff were re-writing their copy to paint a more flattering portrait of Chiang and his Nationalist Army, known as the Kuomintang.

Finally Luce flew to Chongqing to have it out. Luce argued that they had a duty to America, to Democracy, to freedom, and to God. White argued the opposite. His only duty was to report what he saw. They could not come to an agreement. White continued to write that Chiang’s Army was corrupt and losing key battles. He was fired and after WWII Chiang and Mao went to war. White continued to report on Chiang’s failures, that he was losing. Donations to his cause dried up and in 1949 Mao won. Chiang fled to Formosa.

White continued to write, sometimes admiringly, of Communism. His book Thunder Out of China helped prop up Mao. This brings up a vital question of journalistic ethics, argued between the left and the right to this day: does the writer owe his country or his profession? Considering that Mao eventually murdered 70 million human beings, Communism overall could not be defeated in two wars with America, and contributed to the death of 125 million people to date, it seems obvious that White’s duty should have been to God and country. It was not, with tragic results.  

Time elevated generals and admirals to God-like status with photos shot from below their be-ribboned chests, chins at full strut.

Life became just as popular and influential as Time. A Life cover made an actor or actress an overnight star. It’s top Hollywood scribe, Jim Murray, was squired by every studio in the industry in the 1950s. He personally promoted Marilyn Monroe from a pin-up model to all-time sex symbol. 

Murray also got to the bottom of Richard Nixon’s so-called “scandal” in 1952, when he was falsely accused of accepting bribes from wealthy Pasadena businessmen. Murray discovered he was not and his reporting helped him survive and become Vice-President. 

Life made heroes out of astronauts in the 1960s. Luce passed away in 1967. By then he had lost control of Time. It was liberal and in 1966 ran a cover story asking, “Is God Dead?” This became the theme of Rosemary’s Baby. Luce would  have been appalled.

Halberstam’s next chapter concerned itself with the Chandler family of the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper promoted boosterism in Southern California until it was a major metropolis. It was also a mouthpiece for the GOP and boosted Nixon’s career until Watergate. In 1960 the family scion, Otis Chandler, was put in charge. He was an odd journalist. Chandler was a handsome, blonde beach boy who liked girls and parties. At Stanford he was a world-class track man. His marriage was practically an arranged one and he was put to work in the Times’ newsroom, learning the trade from the ground up. He was too young, too blonde, and still considered too inexperienced to take over in 1960.

He was ready. His first move was to hire Jim Murray away from Henry Luce. He also insisted the paper no longer be a Republican propagandist. It remained right-leaning but fair. He hired the best writers and editors, opening bureaus in every major city. By the mid-1960s, the Times was a world-class paper. By 1979 it was arguably the best in the world, on its way to the largest circulation anywhere. It turned L.A. from a Southern/Hollywood industry town into one of the great cities.

Finally Halberstam shifted his attention to Dorothy Graham and the Washington Post. Until they hired Ben Bradlee and Watergate occurred, they were thought of as a backwater paper. The enduring question when it comes to Graham and the Post is where were they when the Democrats stole the 1960 election for John Kennedy? They moved Heaven and Earth to destroy Nixon during Watergate, but it was “see no evil” when Richard Daley stole Illinois and Lyndon Johnson stole Texas.

Halberstam gives an overview of each of the major organizations and their powerful mavens, then brings the reader up-to-date (late 1970s), as times and journalism changed. It is a terrific and brilliant work, a true tour de force.

Steven Travers is a former Hollywood screenwriter who has authored over 30 books including the brand new Best Sports Writing Ever and Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of Apocalypse Now (2016). One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation (2007) is currently under film development. He is a USC graduate and attorney with a Ph.D who taught at USC and attended the UCLA Writers’ Program. He played professional baseball, served in the Army JAG corps in D.C., was in investment banking on Wall Street, worked in politics, lived in Europe, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, Newsmax and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.

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