REPUBLIC OF DENIAL: Press, Politics and Public Life

REPUBLIC OF DENIAL: Press, Politics and Public Life

William Powers

By Michael Janeway. Yale Univ. Press. 216 pp. $22.50

Read Time:
2m 9sec

Reading this book, I kept thinking of Stephen Blackpool, the worker-hero of Hard Times, Dickens’s 1854 rebuke of the early industrial age. "Tis a muddle," the poor soul says toward the beginning of the novel, establishing what will become his sad mantra. "Tis just a muddle altogether, an’ the sooner I am dead, the better." As Janeway unspools his thoughtful but ceaselessly gloomy interpretation of our times, the goal seems to be to plunge the reader into Blackpoolian despair.

Janeway, a professor at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism and former editor of the Boston Globe, believes that just about everything in American public life has turned dead rotten. In the old days, the time between World War II and the 1970s, the government and the Washington press "did business about the great issues of the day in an atmosphere of great trust." Yes, the country faced awful problems, but national "unity" and "coherence" made the problems seem tractable.

Then public life fell apart. Politics and the press, which, working in concert, had helped knit together the broad American community, became unrecognizable. "By the late 1990s, the combination of structural decay in American governance and politics and populist nihilism about both hung over the country like a toxic cloud." As for the future, the author glumly anticipates "more of the same."

Janeway buttresses his argument with extensive citations from academic studies, polls, journalism, fiction, and other sources, always marshaled in just-so fashion. In one passage, for instance, he calls on poet William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (1947) and philosopher Sissela Bok’s Secrecy (1982) to evoke the mixed motives and feelings of journalists who cover politicians’ private lives. He is a master of subtle distinctions—his nuances have nuances—and his skill in making fine points sets him apart from the usual exegetes of the grand public narrative.

But Janeway’s nuances are all in service of a thesis so unrelentingly pessimistic that one wonders how a gray-area connoisseur ever came to embrace it. Eulogizing the newspaper business, he barely mentions the fact that newspapers—and journalism itself, perhaps— are being reborn on the Internet right now, which is as much a cause for hope as for despair. Though Dickens killed off Stephen Blackpool, the Industrial Revolution wound up being not half bad for humankind. One wants to ask Janeway: couldn’t the same be said of our times?

—William Powers


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