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Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror

Schechter, Danny. Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror. Paperback. Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham, Maryland. 2003. 234 pages. ISBN 0-7425-3109-0. US$23.

Hachten, William A. and James F. Scotton. The World News Prism: Global Media in an Era of Terrorism. 6th edition. Paperback. Iowa State Press: Ames, Iowa. 2002. 204 pages. ISBN 0-8138-2788-4. US$33.

Reviewed by Ralph Berenger, American University in Cairo

At first blush these two books should have a lot in common, linked as they are by a shared thread of "news coverage in the age of terrorism." But that is about the only discernible connection-the thematic title.

Not that this disconnection was planned by the authors. Indeed; who knows if they are even aware of each other? Yet the two books demonstrate to readers that there are often surprises lurking beneath the covers. While both books are thought-provoking, the Schechter book is provocative while the Hachten-Scotton tome is perspicacious.

Given the world situation, timing books to catch the wave of public interest is a tricky thing. A spate of books came out in 2002 that, because of long production times, failed to consider one of the defining events of this decade, the September 11 terrorist attack on New York City and the Pentagon. Given the trauma incurred among the press and populace of the world's lone megapower, books that failed to note 9/11 immediately were dismissed as out-dated. Textbooks, for example, that used to have at least a five-year shelf-life, suddenly found themselves on the bargain tables after a year. Today, one is swamped with titles of global media books that have "terror" or "Gulf War" in somewhere in their titles.

Among the first to "capitalize" on terrorism in the title was a refurbishment of the Hachten book, The World News Prism. Through five editions-the first was published in 1981-readers found a solid, established (and establishment) book. Hachten, with his wife Harva as a collaborator, did yeoman's work on the News Prism series, but as in an aging grand dame the wrinkles and gray started to show. The fifth edition, though adequately received by reviewers, did not enjoy the praise of the former editions, and suggestions abounded that the title be given a dignified retirement. Then came 9/11 and an old friend.

James F. Scotton, former journalism department chair at AUC, and current associate professor at Marquette University, added his expertise and knowledge and helped transform the old workhorse into a thoroughbred.

The sixth edition has been completely retooled from the fifth, and the freshened-up material is refreshing to read. This book simply zings along, rare in text aimed at classroom adoption. In fact, the book gets right to the point early: international media have changed since 9/11 and the war on terrorism. Written to be understood-an astonishing statement if not indictment of most reading material used in classrooms today-World News Prism not only transports the reader across time zones and geographical borders effortlessly and smoothly, it makes the ride interesting for younger readers or those new to the study of international communications.

One of the pioneering techniques of the old Hachten texts was the use of "mini-case studies" to illustrate global communication events and how they were covered by international broadcasters and journalists. This updated version does the same thing, making news more relevant to young readers who think the 1991 Gulf War was ancient history. The invasion of Afghanistan is covered, and referred to as the first "videophone war." It was also a war that was stage-managed by the military, much like every conflict or war since Vietnam. The chapter on "The Impact of Great News Events" highlights this technique.

However, this tome is neither Euro- nor Americo-centric. Consideration is given to the media systems developing in China and India, whose spheres of influence stretch over nearly half the world's population. Chapters on "Public Diplomacy and Political Warfare" and "New Ways to Report the World-or Not" are particularly salient to the discipline of international communication.

Maybe this reviewer has read too many global media books in the past few years not to have an idea of how the books should open for readers. The book's organization at first was puzzling. Usually there is a discussion early on about the four concepts of the press (authoritarian, western, communist, developmental) that have been a convenient heuristic device for half a century. Though Hachten-Scotton does eventually list them (in chapter 11 of this 12-chapter book), the concepts are presented as more of an afterthought than a raison d'etre as they are in most international communication books. However, the organization seems to work, especially since the last chapter tackles the idea of Westernization of the world media systems-also a concept usually found earlier in global communication texts. Rather than wrap up the texts, the authors leave us wanting more-which any top entertainer will tell you is a good thing. The last chapter covers the global-communication issues spectrum in a check list format, ticking off sub-headed paragraphs at breath-taking speed: What are the upsides/downsides of globalized media effects? Will Western programming drive out local production? What are the non-Western alternatives and what are their prognoses? Heady questions that could touch off classroom-and boardroom-discussions.

The second book to address the terrorism issue, Danny Schechter's Media Wars, was filled with promise and unrequited anticipation. After all, the veteran newsman landed one of the biggest fishes in the shrinking global media pond: the venerable Walter Cronkite wrote an introduction, or more accurately a 30-line "introductory statement," in which the Great Man decries the media's self-censorship. This reviewer is old enough to remember the discomfort Cronkite displayed in a documentary interview on his understanding of what the US had gotten itself into in the early years of Vietnam by the late I.F. Stone, who was in reality every inch the newsman that Cronkite became in mythology.

Schechter is very much self-cast in the I.F. Stone mode, a gadfly to the politically conservative administration, conservative media outlets, and mainstream journalism in general. He asks the impertinent questions and questions the answers, just as I.F. Stone had done four decades earlier. Izzy Stone had I.F. Stone's Weekly, a hand-to-mouth operation with readership in the highest levels of government. Schechter employs a latter-day version, a weblog, to disseminate his views, and this book is full of these polemical pieces on every subject the writer can conceive concerning the so-called War on Terror, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the increasingly chilly feelings of the world toward America. And from time to time, he publishes other writers' viewpoints as well, an odd mixture of techniques-a collection of authors, oft-mentioned references to Schechter's own media-analysis organizations, many pages of his online diary, a political polemic, and, in the beginning of the book, a respectable scholarly effort to determine what kinds of news stories US media found interesting.

Schechter's premise is that what could be a new cozy triangle between big media, big government and political leaders, and big industry, has developed in the War on Terror. The "News Dissector" is critical of conservative media programs, such as those found at Fox News, and the U.S. government's news management during the war in Afghanistan, which Schechter seems to consider illegitimate on all fronts.

The author seems particularly vexed at US coverage of the Middle East, devoting about a fifth of the book to short chapters from a variety of sources, including one section written by Fatemah Farag of Al Ahram Weekly explaining the Arab worldview, and a useful chapter by Sky News' Jake Lynch on tips for avoiding bias when covering conflict which should be required reading for anyone covering news in the Middle East, especially those already working in the region as transnational reporters and broadcasters.

In all, Schechter's book gives us too much information, a lot of it debatable, to be considered in a single dosage. The lack of an index makes the cross referencing of material impossible. But the most serious flaw may be the mixture of essays, diary entries, seemingly factual reporting, and guest chapters that give this book a hodge-podge feel. That's not to say the book is uninteresting, particularly for those predisposed to be critical of Western media, Western governments, and market economies. Though disjointed at times, the book does move along through the many styles and techniques that could leave readers dizzy. 

About Ralph D. Berenger

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