If you’ve been watching or reading the news lately, you know you should be freaking out. Not only about Donald Trump, but about the news itself. The press is under attack. The press fell down on the job. The media system is broken. How will society survive?
The truth is the press has almost always been these things. It has always been horribly conflicted. It has always served as both an adversary and accomplice to power. Its business models have always seemed in danger of collapsing.
This is clear from even a cursory examination of media history—which most people don’t have. Most of us are stuck in, as the media is, in what one psychologist once described journalism as being: the specious present.
The best way to break out of that is to unplug your TV, sign out of Twitter and take a minute to look at the situation historically and critically. For anyone who is trying to understand where their news comes from, what its biases are and how the sausage gets made, the following books should go a long way.
The Brass Check by Upton Sinclair Though Sinclair’s The Brass Check has been almost entirely forgotten by history, it’s not only fascinating but a timeless perspective. Sinclair deeply understood the economic incentives of early 20th century journalism and thus could predict and analyze the manipulative effect it had on The Truth. He exposes these matters just as he did in The Jungle and his other muckraking exposes—but in this case, he’s muckraking the muckrakers. Today, the incentives and pressures acting on the media are different but they warp our information in a similar way. In almost every substantial charge Upton leveled against the yellow press, you could, today, sub in blogs and the cable news cycle and be even more correct.
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel Boorstin In 1960, before talk radio, before Fox News or blogs, Boorstin wrote a scathing indictment of the deliberately false reality molded around us by our media culture. Consider the constant talk of “the narrative” in media, the way we cover premieres and press conferences. These are not real things—they become real only by nature of their media coverage. And the public plays its role in the farce. Boorstin was the Librarian at the Library of Congress—he knows his history and he knows what matters. You can’t read this book without beginning to see the ways you are manipulated by politicians and organizations on a daily basis.
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business / Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman The spiritual sequel to The Image is Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman says that culture conforms to fit the constraints of its dominant cultural medium. In his era it was television—which meant compelling visual events, developing stories you must stay tuned for, it meant style and appearance over actionable information. You realize that the last thing we have to fear is a malicious Orwellian news industry, because what we have is so much worse: culture incentivized to be as shallow, fabricated and captivating as possible, at the expense of what is actually real or true or meaningful. Technopoly, Postman’s next book, is equally compelling; it tells us why the inventors of a technology are absolutely the worst people to listen to when it comes to deciding how to use it.
The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser In The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser warns of the danger of living in bubbles of personalization that reinforce and insulate our worldview. Pariser is a great media thinker and has also written some important work recently on fake news. The only criticism one might have of the filter bubble is that his creations, Moveon.org and Upworthy are hugely responsible for creating their own versions of the problem.
Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism by W. Joseph Campbell The media loves to puncture every myth but its own. Even some of the most seminal books on media repeat easily disprovable myths like Hearst’s “you furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war,” Edward Morrow taking down McCarthy, the New York Times suppressing the Bay of Pigs and LBJ saying “We lost Cronkite, we lost Middle America.” Authors use them like filmmakers use well-known songs in nostalgic movies: instant, inarguable mood setters. But they are not true. Taking the time to destroy these false images is important work. It reminds you that the media can’t get its own history right, let alone the rest of the world’s. That it sees itself occupying a role in society and culture that it does not quite deserve. This will help you with your news diet today—and add a touch of salt to it. Campbell’s book on yellow journalism is also a great, evenhanded biography of the controversial moment in media time.
Within the Context of No Context and My Pilgrim’s Progress: Media Studies, 1950-1998 by George W.S. Trow Rich Cohen described Trow’s work to me as half brilliant and half insane. I think that’s right. Within these pages are some of the most cogent analysis of the 50s, of our media culture, of what a world looks like when the current generation grew up on garbage television and no important traditions. Within the Context of No Context first appeared as an essay in the New Yorker—a rare instance for the magazine to devote a significant chunk to one single piece of writing—and was later published in book form. It is his best known work and examines the destructive effects of television on American culture; the book was later described as “a cold description of where things are going. There aren’t many books that are unafraid to be that negative.” My Pilgrim’s Progress analyzes the cultural state of the U.S. in the 1950’s and is a tough book to read, but I am glad I did.
Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity by Neal Gabler I knew Walter Winchell’s name and I knew he was a famous journalist, but that’s it. I had no idea that he was unquestionably the most famous media figure of the 20th century (2/3 of American adults read his column daily. It was syndicated in 2,000 newspapers. Even FDR took his advice). I also had no idea that he was basically a monster. This biography is a fascinating look at the way that ambition and power eats at the human soul. It’s also a reminder that there have always been problems in the media and that fake news is not new. (In fact, something like 50% of his column was inaccurate or partly inaccurate). There was great stuff in this book on McCarthyism, Damon Runyon, the Roaring 20s and the Golden Age of Hollywood. I followed it up by reading Winchell’s autobiography, Winchell Exclusive. It was interesting to watch him essentially prove all the negative things said about him in the biography—he was vindictive, cruel, shallow, self-obsessed, but of course, also creative and compelling. Both are important reads for anyone in media. The other Stoic lesson for me in these two books was to read about all the gossip and the scandals of some of the most famous people in the world…and how almost none of them turned out to matter in anyway. A sobering reminder for sure. If you want a shorter read on Winchell the fictional take on him in Sweet Smell of Success: And Other Stories by Ernest Lehman is great (perhaps the greatest fictionalization of a journalist or PR person too—though I also love The Harder They Fall and All The King’s Men). This book is actually a collection of short stories, two of which are about Hunsucker, a ruthless and cruel journalist and the press agent who does his bidding. It’s wonderfully written because it was written by Ernest Lehman, who would go on to write the screenplays for “Hello Dolly,” “The King and I” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
News from Nowhere: Television and the News; Between Fact and Fiction: The Problem of Journalism; The Big Picture: Money and Power in Hollywood by Edward J Epstein In Trust Me, I’m Lying I used economic reasons to explain why bloggers act the way they do. I could not have done this without the father of this line of thinking, Edward Jay Epstein. From his 1973 Harvard thesis, which was later published as News from Nowhere, that pioneered the study of network news (the first and last person to get access to their inner sanctum) to his wonderful books on the movie business, Epstein finds, exposes, and explains the hidden economic factors that determine the courses of entire industries. I followed in his footsteps for my book at almost every turn. I had the privilege of meeting him, which only increased my advocacy for his methods. I am morally obligated to press his books into your hands just as they were pressed into mine by my mentors.
Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion by Harold Holzer Not very often do I find a book that combines the two things I have studied with great effort over the last few years: media and the Civil War. I was very excited to read this book and found it utterly fascinating (though admittedly not for everyone). As you can see from my much longer Observer piece about it there are a lot of parallels between Lincoln’s media environment and the toxic one we live in today. Then, as now, it’s the media who manipulates itself and often, a good president must in turn figure out how to play it, just to get back to even. If you want a slightly lighter take on the role of media during the Civil War, then you might really like Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey which is about two Civil War reporters taken prisoner during the battle of Vicksburg.
It’s Not News, It’s Fark: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap As News by Drew Curtis There are few people who have read more news stories than Drew Curtis, founder of Fark.com. Creating and running one of the web’s first and biggest news aggregators gave him one of the best perspectives you could hope for in a book about the media. Plus, he’s actually funny—not a boring, old and condescending media studies nerd. Everything you need to know about spotting, catching and protecting yourself from media fluff and sensationalism is in this book. Read it.
Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann This is a seminal text in media studies and the first place to coin the term ‘manufacture of consent.” It is, like Sinclair’s The Brass Check, still relevant all these years later—there’s a reason James Carey considered it “the founding book of modern journalism.” Lippmann’s belief was that intellectuals and government had an important and essential role in shaping public opinion—and that if they were to fail in their job, the fabric of society crumbles. There is a lot of blow back today against the ‘elites’—Lippmann’s book explains why they matter. And what we’re seeing right now is a good example of what happens when their role is diminished (we get chaos).
The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm This book famously opens with “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” I would argue that this the first self-aware and self-critical book I’ve come across in all the reading I’ve done about media. We need more like it.
Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky This book is like the works of Ayn Rand—if you don’t go any further after reading it, it arrests your development. Chomsky’s most important concept here is what he calls Tacit Collective Action. Media outlets, no matter their ideological positions, are shaped much more by their similarities as businesses and as a social clique. In this way, they collaborate and conspire together, even when they are not aware of doing so. It’s this action that builds up a Trump candidacy—even when they claim to be repulsed by it. It’s this that delivers trivialities over real information, or makes the press generally subservient to power (they crave access). Anyway, this is an important book, but I’ve listed it last because it must be paired with others.
Further, further reading:
In terms of shorter related reads, I suggest Fakes in American Journalism by Max Sherover, a 100 year old manifesto of media criticism which stands up incredibly well. This Scribner’s article on privacy and journalism is important—it was cited by Brandeis in his famous “Right to Privacy” article. Michael Schudson’s Discovering the News is great and so is Manufacturing the News by Mark Fishman. Eric Alterman’s book on the rise of the pundit class is good—even he couldn’t have predicted their horrible offspring of “surrogates.” It’s also worth reading Jonah Berger’s book on why things spread virally (for instance, the number one predictor of viral New York Times articles is how angry they make a reader). My last recommendations would be biographies of the news barons. The Uncrowned King, about the newspaper years of William Randolph Hearst is good. So is Bennett’s New York Herald which is about the forgotten media genius whose paper Herald Square in New York City is named after.
Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. Ryan is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and you can subscribe to his posts via email. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Also by Ryan Holiday:
It’s Time for the Media to Do Something About Its Shameful HelpAReporterOut Problem
How the Online ‘Diversity Police’ Defeat Themselves, and Leave Us All Much Worse Off
We Are Living in a Post-Shame World—And That’s Not a Good Thing
We Don’t Have a Fake News Problem—We Are the Fake News Problem
Want to Really Make America Great Again? Stop Reading the News.
Exclusive Interview: How This Right-Wing ‘Troll’ Reaches 100M People a Month
The Real Reason We Need to Stop Trying to Protect Everyone’s Feelings