I first saw this book a couple of days ago in a Facebook ad and had a cynical reaction. It just seemed too convenient, too opportunistic, too in-your-face, or too something. I thought it likely to be a propaganda piece – maybe an attempt at addressing the rather sullied reputation of modern day journalists, but also maybe a direct swipe at Donald Trump – an attempt to conflate his calling out #FakeNews and temporarily banning one particularly obnoxious narcissist from White House press conferences to the murderous actions of Hitler.
Despite the popular cliche, you actually can judge a book by its cover. That’s why the cover doesn’t look like an academic paper. It’s intended to make you judge it. You can also have an opinion about a book you haven’t read. Otherwise, how are you supposed to decide if you want to read it? So this post is me looking at the book to decide whether it’s worth my time or just useless, anti-Trump propaganda.
Because my first reaction might be wrong given my overt cynicism. But, in the propaganda-filled era in which we live, it is not smart to take any such work at face value. So I went to Amazon and read all the free information they provide about it. I am not completely dissuaded from the idea this is a well-architected piece of propaganda, but it’s not all that clear that it is. Here’s what is immediately apparent:
Title: Enemy of the People. Well, this is certainly current in the today’s highly politicized environment. We’ve heard the phrase bandied about a lot, by both sides, over the first two years of the Trump Administration. It’s difficult to think anything other than this is a direct reference to the current antagonism between Donald Trump and the main stream media.
Subtitle: They Dared to Tell the Truth. Another emotional, in-your-face statement. What should we take it to mean? That these particular journalists told the truth? That all journalists tell the truth? That this is a story about being punished for telling the truth? Is there a #WeBelieveJournalists! thing going on here? It is a bad idea to either exalt or condemn an entire profession or class of individuals — not all lawyers are crooks, not all doctors are wonderful. Some individuals have a greater commitment to truth than others, and we have had yellow journalism for as long as there have been journalists.
There is no doubt that some journalists report the truth, at least some of the time. There is also no doubt that journalists lie. Just have a look at the Pulitzer controversy over lies New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty told regarding the state of famine in Russia during the 1930s, for example. We are on our own to identify those journalists with a track record of honesty, and a history of setting aside their own biases (to the extent possible) to tell the truth even if they don’t like it.
Sponsor: Amazon Original Stories. So it’s a story, not a history text. History books are stories too, of course, and written with biases and viewpoints. But history books usually try to avoid the overt hero’s journey. The hero’s journey seems front and center here.
Stories can be good. They can simplify complex concepts and make them more understandable. They can guide us, help us and broaden our perspective. Stories can also be bad. They are how we lie to and delude ourselves. We too often use them to make heroes and villains of people we shouldn’t. Because stories connect on an emotional level, not a rational one, they can obfuscate the truth as easily as reinforce it. What does this story do?
Then there are the motivations of the storytellers or, in this case, the sponsor. Amazon founder and tech billionaire Jeff Bezos makes no excuses regarding his enmity for Donald Trump and conservatives in general. His left-leaning newspaper, the Washington Post (for which Kashoggi had been a contributor) works tirelessly to promote progressive views and in the process denigrate Trump, conservatives, liberty-minded activists and generally, anyone who doesn’t adhere to globalist views. This does not mean WaPo is always wrong. It does mean, however, that whatever they write must be read with skepticism and the skill to discern fact from opinion and editorializing.
Author: Terrance Petty. He appears to have credentials to write a credible story. He worked for AP in Germany for 10 years, he managed the AP’s news operation in Oregon for 18 years. Before that he worked for newspapers in Vermont and upstate New York. He was raised and went to college in Vermont. He now lives in Portland. There isn’t any indication the author has any connection whatsoever to middle America or the people who elected Donald Trump. Is that enough to assume he has anti-Trump motivations? No. Neither does it rule it rule it out, but I can’t see anything in the author’s content that seems like an overt, anti-Trump style of politicization.
More relevant is that Petty is a career journalist. It would not be unusual if he perceives journalists and journalism in a most favorable light. Perhaps even elevating their role in his mind to some ethereal level of honesty and freedom-fighting to which the profession as a whole has never actually risen. This would make a good deal of sense in a story about persecution of the press.
Preface. Here we begin to get a feel for the content of the book. It begins with a reference to freedom of the press and the murder of Kashoggi, and then alludes to the present state of affairs as being a historically significant rise in the oppression of, and threats to, journalists. It then goes on to provide a summary of the the media landscape in post-WWI Germany and an overview of the events, issues and players in the book. It notes that journalistic standards of the day “…would not pass muster among today’s respected practitioners of the profession. A fair number of rumors made their way onto the pages of the Munich Post.”
It ends with a quote from a Munich Post headline, a few days before the office were raided and closed — “We Will Not Be Intimidated” — and an admonition that this should be the rallying cry for journalists everywhere who are defending citizen’s rights above authoritarian power.
In my view the preface is engaging. The author seems to be, and not surprisingly, a good writer. I’m sure it will relay legitimate accounts of bravery, commitment and sacrifice. The danger, of course, is that some readers may believe this is a story about all journalists, and all those who bravely sit or stand in front of video cameras rolling their eyes and smirking while editorializing over whatever has transpired in the news cycle, or leaning into non-existent winds, or kneeling in shallow water, or staging protests for the benefit of their viewers.
Chapter 1. There is only a snippet of the first chapter available, but it is interesting. Interesting not because of the writing, but because of the topic — The Corpse in Hitler’s Apartment. Not to be harsh, but I wonder how many of the author’s colleagues would begin a story about the late, great Ted Kennedy with a chapter about the corpse floating in Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick?
That’s it. That’s all I know. What does it mean?
I think there are two things going on here. At minimum, I think the author is attempting to elevate journalism and journalists in a time when the mass media is not highly regarded by the public. In that, it could be more of a marketing piece for journalists. The author has spent a lifetime in journalism and it is natural to want to see your career as a virtuous pursuit, and to want to convince others of the same. The text does seem designed to make us think that journalists are gallant public servants working tirelessly to bring us the truth. While I have no doubt that this was, and is, true for a small number of individuals, it’s clearly not the case for the hordes of malignant buffoons who fill our monitors, speakers and web pages 24×7 with their babble.
Most journalists today are trained in “mass communications” — essentially propaganda techniques — rather than in investigation, fact-finding or truth-telling. They spend more time learning to look and sound good on camera than learning to discern fact from fiction. Most are low-wage victims of educational malpractice who’ve long since forgotten the difference between news and opinion. It’s quite possible they were never taught the difference between editorializing and reporting. Many of them seem to have an inflated, and wholly unjustified, view of their place in the world. It also seems that quite a few of them work for Bezos over at WaPo.
The press has only itself to blame for its lowly reputation, and I think it will take far more than a book like this to achieve redemption. The obsequious, lackey-like presentation of all things Obama for eight years did not do the press any favors. Following on the heels of eight years of endless Bush-bashing, much of the public began to see a pattern of unmitigated bias and a complete lack of objectivity in reporting. This has gotten better since 2016, but not that much. Trust in the mass media is particularly low among those under 30, which is a good sign.
The author does seem to know how to tell an interesting story, and I might read the book. It must have been in preparation for quite some time, and the murder of Kashoggi provided the trigger that Bezos felt was good for publication. Coming out in Kindle-only format makes me think it may have been rushed.
Which brings me to the second thing I think is going on. In book publishing the author writes the content, the publisher sets the design, the title, the cover and the marketing plan. While I don’t get an “in your face” feel from the content, I do get that from the cover and title. I think Bezos, or his editorial staff, deliberately picked that approach to “hit back” at Trump’s media dismissals. The timing, the title, the emotional appeals and catch phrases all reflect the current political environment, and all feel a little like a response to a Trump tweet. America has never had a President who openly fought back against an antagonistic press the way Donald Trump does.
Trump really angers news publishers and talking heads, who are used to being pandered to rather than scolded. Even Richard Nixon sought the approval of the press. But not Trump. But it’s ironic that this book title, the timing of its publication, the wording and pictures on its cover, all seem intended to subliminally guide us to conclude that Donald Trump’s calling out #FakeNews and temporarily banning one particularly obnoxious narcissist from White House press conferences has some parallel to Hitler.
There is no Hitler here. At least not in the White House. CNN can still say whatever they want. As can MSNBC, Fox and all the major networks and newspapers. Not one single law, or regulation or executive order has infringed in any way on any freedom of the press in America. The same cannot be said for non-governmental suppression of alternate voices.
Today we have unprecedented and far-reaching suppression of speech by tech billionaires and banking CEOs who control the platforms we all use, and own the banking networks we all need to transact business. They act as self-anointed censors, arbitrarily and unilaterally banning voices they don’t like. They’re the ones shutting people down, de-platforming people who get outside the designated safe speech zone.
In the preface the author reminds us that we live in a dangerous time for journalists. Is global oppression of the press at historic levels? It seems unlikely to me. Authoritarian regimes have always attempted to silence the press. Are individual journalists being persecuted at historic levels? I don’t know. I do know that being a journalist in third-world countries or war zones has never been a particularly safe endeavor. While the murder of Kashoggi is tragic, it does not seem to signify some leap in historical statistics.
The real threat to journalists is money. Big Money. There are journalists in this country who could tell the truth, but don’t. They work for publications that could tell the truth, but don’t. Both they the people who own the publications they work for understand there are things you can’t say, can’t look into, can’t get involved in. They understand that to succeed in this country you must shut your eyes, your mouth and your ears and stay within the acceptable boundaries.
The money controls what we see and hear, and what is acceptable history. Our tech and banking overlords are fighting non-compliant voices with aggressive suppression and de-platforming. They will do their best to see that the main stream mass media and it’s approved voices are the only choices we have.
I’m not going to read this book, at least not right now. I’m not compelled by the ideas that journalists are under some historically significant, existential threat nor that journalists in general are valiant heroes. I also don’t think it’s a pure propaganda piece, it’s just a story being conveniently promoted in a propagandistic way.