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Slick Spins and Fractured Facts: How Cultural Myths Distort the News.

Before the invention of moveable type, when I was in graduate school at Brooklyn College, the social scientist Alfred McClung Lee taught me two memorable lessons: human decisions determine the contents of The New York Times, and what the Times omits is often more important than what it publishes. Until then, I had assumed that the Times was created daily by some eternal force, like whatever produced the Grand Canyon. And it had never occurred to me to notice what wasn't there. I figured, as Jerry Seinfeld would later remark, "that no matter what happens in one day, it exactly fits in the newspaper"; but Seinfeld's irony would have escaped me.

Lee's lessons were just the tip of an iceberg. Caryl Rivers, a professor of journalism at Boston University, reveals what's underneath. Slick Spins and Fractured Facts offers an apt, wide-ranging examination of the media failings that are bolstering stereotypes and hastening our nationwide plunge into cruelly bigoted policies. Skipping polemics and abstractions, Rivers explores the relationships among news, political propaganda and public opinion. Slick Spins doesn't aim to provide novel theories or detailed research. Yet it can teach the reader who consumes print and broadcast news unwarily to develop a critical eye and ear, whether that reader is an autodidact or a Ph.D. And it will sharpen the perceptiveness of the reader who is already a seasoned media watcher.

Two or three dozen small errors and awkward turns of phrase in the book should have been caught during copy-editing, and the type used for footnotes is too delicate for comfortable reading. Such fly-specks aside, Slick Spins and Fractured Facts is stimulating and pithy. Even before I finished it I got better at spotting what is really happening, or not happening, in the latest articles and broadcasts. Retrieving a discarded front-page Times article about the laundrywoman who donated $150,000 to a Mississippi university, I sensed its warm, fuzzy subtext for the first time: this unlettered, selfless woman proves that diligent po' folks have happy endings; without Caucasians or the government helping one whit, an 88-year-old black woman ends up wearing French silk shoes.

Newsweek presents its report on sleazoid politician Dick Morris, who got caught with his head up his fly, as a tale "of a powerful man brought down by a woman." Ri-i-ight. Delilah made him do it. The New York Times trumpets, "Yet Another Sex Difference Found: Gaining Relief From a Painkiller." Thanks to Rivers, I now note that the researchers studied fewer than fifty people, and that the scientists who warn against exaggerating the role of sex hormones are buried in the article's twenty-seventh and last paragraph. Another Times piece, about an African American who had been a highly successful Cadillac dealer, explains that consumers' changing taste has undermined hundreds of auto dealerships. But the subhead blames him: "As Glory Fades for Cadillacs, a Failed Dealer Sues G.M." See? These people are inept.

Despite the media's reputation as a wolf pack at worst, or at best as a watchdog protecting us against villains, Rivers writes, "a more apt animal metaphor...might be Garfield - fat, cynical, slovenly, hanging on the screen door by his toenails for lack of anything better to do, thinking Bored. Bored. Bored. I'm so bored I could scream!"

ABC's David Brinkley has since proved her point. Right after the last election, he called President Clinton "a bore [who] always will be a bore." For decades, Brinkley has been sneering indiscriminately at politicians. He has struck me as contemptuous of public officials who do their honest best, indolent about nailing malefactors, and arrogant enough to believe that the first goal of politics and policy is to entertain journalists. (Journalists, understandably fed up with indiscriminate hostility from civilians, don't help matters by wearing buttons like those reportedly sported by some members of the press covering the 1996 Dole campaign: "Yeah. I'm the Media. Screw You.")

The consequences of the media smugness that Rivers astutely condemns are seen in the case of columnist Joe Klein. After lying repeatedly about his anonymous authorship of Primary Colors, Klein wasn't sacked by Newsweek. Instead, he used its pages to defend the odious Dick Morris, then shifted to another table in the media clubhouse, becoming Washington correspondent for The New Yorker.

Rivers argues that print and broadcast media are circulating politically slanted, historically absurd, scientifically sloppy and statistically insignificant "news." Based on thirty-odd years of experience as a journalist and critic, she sees no media conspiracy meant to reinforce the nation's selfishness and parochialism. Rather, media flaws spring automatically from the shared preconceptions of journalists - usually upper-middle-class, suburban, white Protestant men - who think their own perspective is objective and universal. Well-intentioned though these men often are, they are oblivious to "the daily struggles and the little terrors of getting by" that many Americans endure.

When Rivers became a journalist in the 1960s, she recalls, her colleagues frequently came from the working class and felt some compassion for grassroots people. Today's editors and reporters commonly identify with the wealthy and powerful, sharing their dinner-tables and perks. "In newsrooms all across the country interest in the powerless and the wretched is waning." Editors and reporters are joining millions of other Americans in kissing them off "as whiners, wimps and pseudovictims."

That kiss-off is exacerbated by right-wing extremists, whose myth-making is heedlessly magnified on the air and in print. The myths Rivers dissects may be familiar to readers who are veteran media watchers. But Slick Spins is no rehash, unsubstantiated thumbsucker, or abstruse pontification in the guise of scholarship. It unifies analysis and interpretation, cogently buttressing them with the findings of other authorities.

A batch of the myths zap women, of course. We are simultaneously ditsy Doras - contemptibly weak madonnas awash in raging hormones - and Medusas - psychobitches, Lady Macbeths and megalomaniacal whores. These antithetical forms of character assassination have trapped Hillary Rodham Clinton and Professor Anita Hill in a crossfire. Coverage of the women's movement has ranged from trivialization to trashing, and feminists are still caricatured. Would you want your daughter to marry a strident, hairy, neurotic, sex-starved, militant, freakish, ugly, man-hating harridan?

When gender, race and class intersect, myth-mongering gets more complex. The same media which Rivers says fabricate trends - ostensibly finding that educated white women who work outside the home are careering toward coronaries - tell America that women of color and women who are broke should quit being parasites and obtain paid employment. Appalled, she says:

The picture of the poor - welfare mothers in particular - that has emerged from the media as I write has been one that is so savage, so lacking in compassion, that it takes my breath away.... So what if white-collar crooks make off with millions, and the welfare queen bilks us out of a couple of thou? She's the one we'd like to throttle.... [W]e hate welfare mothers.


Inflaming public biases, many news organizations peddle the fictions that welfare created the black underclass and that single-parent families are pathological.

Rivers reviews the horde of white racist slanders that infest journalism. The African American woman appears as a slut, her brother a demonic criminal. Asian Americans become cunning invaders or the model minority, playing the violin with one hand and acing the math exam with the other. Hispanics are illegal aliens or violent drag pushers. People of color are employable only when standards are lowered. White murderers who blame their crimes upon black men are presumed to be truthful. When facts don't match a stereotype, a news organization can fake 'em, as Time magazine altered a cover photo to make O.J. Simpson look more sinister. The African American who reviles his own kin, like Clarence Thomas, is lionized alongside the white woman who dismisses date rape as piffle.

Rivers knows that the media don't operate in a vacuum. We would not have mean, supine news organizations, she observes, without fuel from affluent right-wing propaganda mills; without public ignorance of American history regarding poverty, immigration and crime; without white male paranoia over multiculturalism and affirmative action; and without politicians diverting attention from the real causes of the nation's problems and the real costs of addressing - or aggravating - them. Put all this together and it constitutes a vicious circle, a Slick Spin cycle. "The laziness of pack journalism allows cultural stereotypes to multiply like bacteria on the locker-room floor," Rivers concludes. "Your best bet, if you'd really like a glimpse of the press at work, is just to put the Friskies out on the porch."
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Author:Shear, Marie
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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