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Television News and American Public Life, 1948-1991
By Robert J. Donovan & Ray Scherer
Cambridge University Press, 1992, 357 pages, $17.95

In this absorbing media history, veteran journalists Robert J. Donovan and Ray Scherer chronicle the rise of television news and its impact on American politics from 1948 to 1991. In the first half of the book, they present a dozen case studies in which TV coverage "changed the course of events and built or destroyed the careers of public figures." These instances include the death and funeral of President Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the McCarthy Hearings, Watergate, and the Iran-hostage crisis. Snarling police dogs on television galvanized the civil rights movement; telecasting from Cape Canaveral roused the public and moved Congress to keep feeding the space program; coverage of the Vietnam war actually reflected, rather than caused, the shifts in American public opinion; the televised Watergate hearings devastated President Nixon's image; and the daily reporting on the Iran-hostage crisis effectively put Jimmy Carter out of office. The defining events of the post-World War II era, the authors illustrate, are video events.

In the second half of the book, Donovan and Scherer evaluate television's impact on four areas of politics: the presidency, diplomacy, Congress, and press journalism. Washington politics, they write, has become almost a strictly television event. Consequently, politicians (including the President, as a chapter on the Reagan years vividly documents) not only use television to influence viewers, but are themselves influenced by it.

Television is an astonishingly compliant medium. They illustrate the effectiveness of negative or sleazy campaign ads, for example, even (or perhaps especially) when they are aired with the specific intent of being withdrawn and denounced soon afterwards.

The arrival of television has had a dramatic impact on the press as well, the authors suggest. Unable to compete with television's hour-by-hour coverage of breaking news, newspapers have had to resort to more analysis and background — a function previously performed by the news weeklies. Newsmagazines have adjusted in turn by adopting many of the features formerly handled by monthlies.

The authors conclude with survey of four recent world events brought to life for millions of viewers worldwide through televsion: The Chinese student protests on Tiananmen Square, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the war in the Persian Gulf, and the old-timer's failed coup in Russia. These events, they write, have made television perhaps the single most powerful medium of global communication.

Donovan and Scherer's retrospective is more narrative than analytical. Many of their conclusions are either common knowledge or expressed — in true journalistic fashion — through the voices of others. Quoting former NBC News president Reuven Frank, for instance, the authors contend that "television news has the power to transmit the experience itself rather than information about the experience." In another example, they maintain that "it is the government, not the press and television news, that sets the so- called national agenda." They quote historian and biographer Stephen E. Ambrose, who wrote of the Reagan administration: "of course, the government lies; one would have to be deaf and dumb not to know that." Nevertheless, the are perfectly upfront when they agree with Ambrose that the American press is "the best and freest in the world."

Copyright 1993 by Scott London. All rights reserved.