Derek B. Miller's new novel, The Girl in Green, is a powerful commentary on the effects of war. It's a stirring depiction of the complicated Iraq-Syria situation, especially the desperate plight of refugees and the West’s failure to provide peace or relief. Miller, who is a veteran international affairs specialist, picks five books on the complex relationship between media and government.
On 15 April, 2013, two terrorists set off two bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I'm from the Boston area, have moved away, and return every year to see friends and family. The last time I visited Boylston Street I stood on the spot of the first explosion near Copley Square. This is across from the Boston Public Library. I've read many accounts of that day, and seen a great deal of news coverage. What I've never seen mentioned is what it says across the street—in the bomber's sight—on the frieze of America's oldest public library:
THE COMMONWEALTH REQUIRES THE EDUCATION OF THE PEOPLE AS THE SAFEGUARD OF ORDER AND LIBERTY. FREE TO ALL.
These words are carved in stone.
They are, to me, the lodestar we must follow to free ourselves from the approaching darkness of superstition, ignorance, willful denial of facts, and the crumbling of our republic as a consequence.
So listen up:
Like our library system, and our education system, the media is an instrument of education on which our capacity for self-government depends. It is now conventional wisdom, however, that there is a crisis of confidence within journalism, that the news media is conceptually and financially flailing because they cannot figure out how to turn authoritative news into enough profit to sustain the activity. And underneath the business of news are the existential questions that post-modernism has not only called into question but has fundamentally undermined: Is there really "truth?" What is a "fact?" Do truth and facts exist separate from interpretation, and if not, aren't we all biased? And if so, whose news should count as authoritative? And so on.
This is now the quagmire in which Western civilization—America, perhaps, especially—finds itself. Step one in getting out of this morass is for us all to learn how to face facts again. Below are five books you've probably never heard of. They are not current, and none talk about social media, fake news, Twitter, Facebook live streaming, or what we mistakenly think of as our totally unprecedented situation. Instead, they are a Citizen's Survival Guide for getting our bearings in the maelstrom around us with ideas, arguments, history, and conceptual clarity that can help us make sense of what's around us, and serve as building blocks in making reasoned cases for progress. In no order:
1. Just the Facts: How "Objectivity" Came to Define American Journalism by David T.Z. Mindich (Revised edition, 2000)
This is a very approachable but authoritative biography of "objectivity" that explains how and why we value that notion and, by extension, why we feel so betrayed when objectivity is lost. Knowing this helps us see the arch and return to the topics that really matter, while fending off false claims we hear every day. Not bad for one book.
2. Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann (1922)
Published shortly after the end of World War I, you might think it's totally dated. It's not. Lippmann ties three vital strands of American life together and gives us a way to understand their relationship: The press (which we now call the Media), government, and public opinion. A great deal of scholarship has taken place since then on these topics, and it's too much for the non-specialist to wade through. But a few days with this will give you a bedrock for approaching almost every argument you now hear and will give you insight into what matters most.
3. Lights, Camera, War: Is Media Technology Driving International Politics? by Johanna Neuman (1996)
Neuman was a White House correspondent, and twenty years ago she rightly wondered about who is leading whom in politics—if it's the media or the government. With Trump coming to power and what is likely to be an assault on free speech, free freedom, and media access (by controlling access to the White House, using favoritism as a carrot and threats as a stick, at the very least), Neuman helps us—like Mindich—see the big picture. Neuman helps us remember that all the discussions about "time and space shrinking" because of social media are almost exactly the conversations we had about the telegraph. We need this perspective, otherwise we'll ignore voices and ideas from the pre-Internet era at our peril.
4. The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq by Phillip Knightley (1975 with a new edition from 2004)
Want to start speaking sensibly about media bias and get past the head-banging discussion of the "liberal media" and who is more biased than whom? Read this and remember: "The first casualty, when war comes, is truth," said American Senator Hiram Johnson in 1917. Keeping an eye on the next administration means understanding this, because war is and will be used to distract us from what really matters. Trump uses Twitter for this now. Imagine when he can use war itself.
5. Essays on Aristotle's Rhetoric edited by Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (1996)
I know what you're thinking: "Dude… seriously?" But here's the thing: We live in a time when belief and argument are at the pulsing center of our civic life. Reading Aristotle without a guide is hard. This has been my guide and can be yours. These essays discuss emotion, and persuasion, the role of composition in influence, and whether the truth can prevail against a lie if told with equal eloquence. Don't read through it. Pull it from the shelf, sharpen your blade, and then return to the battle for the soul of American democracy.