Book Review: The Powers That Be by David Halberstam; Part One

“The Powers That Be” is the story of how media became an important shaper of events in the mid-twentieth century.  It was first published in 1975, when it was contemporary.  Now, of course, it is history.  It deals with newspapers, magazines, radio, and television.  The Internet was nonexistent at the time.  When I first considered reading it, despite the fact that Halberstam is one of my favorite modern history writers, I wondered if the book would remain relevant, considering the radical changes in modern media.  But then I realized that it would be as relevant as any other history, and perhaps more relevant than most.  We don’t use horses for transport nowadays, but that doesn’t prevent us from studying eras in which they did.  I wish Halberstam had said some words about the Internet era.  He could have, I suppose, as he didn’t die until 2007, and when he did he was working on another book, but the era he focused on was usually the twentieth century.

“The Powers That Be’ is, in fact, relevant to our present predicaments, not so much in the particulars but in the undercurrents.  For instance, Halberstam writes at length of Kennedy as being the first presidential candidate to take full advantage of television.  It was a new medium of expression at the time, and all the other candidates distrusted it and regarded it with suspicion.  Adlai Stevenson would have nothing to do with it.  Nixon hated it, and Halberstam points out that the televised Nixon/Kennedy debates were a key factor in Kennedy’s victory in the presidential election.  The lesson we can take from that is not to shove your head in the sand when new trends in technology are manifest, but rather see how they can be used to greatest advantage.

To tell his story, Halberstam focuses on the stories behind the CBS network, Time Incorporated, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and to a lesser extent, the New York Times.  He switches from highlighting one media empire to the next as his story moves forward through the century.  As usual, he doesn’t only skim the surface but delves deeply into the men and women whose stories he tells, including not only their backgrounds but often also the backgrounds of their parents, grandparents, and so on as long as they are relevant.  This does not detract from the narrative but rather gives it additional insight and depth.  The book begins with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his ability to manipulate radio audiences. It chronicles the stories of Ed Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and other key figures in the genesis and evolution into legitimacy of radio and television news.  It describes the importance of the patronage of the Los Angeles Times in the early stages of Richard Nixon’s career.  It discusses the fall of Joseph McCarthy, the notorious anti-Communist witch hunter that even presidents were afraid to touch, at the hands of Ed Murrow and CBS.  It is history told from the standpoint of media, and an insider’s account of how media shapes history and how those who recognize the importance of the media are able to utilize its tools to great effectiveness.

A few words need to be said about the book’s style, which is disconcerting at first.  To be honest, it could have benefited from some editing, especially in the early sections.  Halberstam uses commas to connect thoughts one after another in long run-on sentences that would have benefited from some corrections in grammar and punctuation.  It is jarring and hard to get used to.  I wouldn’t have stopped reading as a result; the material was too fascinating.  But I would have enjoyed the reading experience more if the text had been better ordered.  It becomes more coherent after the first one hundred pages or so, as if Halberstam blurted the first sections out in a torrent of haste, and then slowed down and used more cadence and nuance for the long haul.  I don’t recall the other books of his I’ve read having this run-on tendency, at least not to this extent.  Regardless of its defects, however, the book is well worth reading, and I look forward to plunging into the second half.

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