Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Reader review: Journalism's Roving Eye

Nell Darby reviews Journalism’s Roving Eye by John Maxwelll Hamilton.

by Nell Darby,

Academic and former journalist John Maxwell Hamilton, in his latest book, attempts to explore the way the American media has reported foreign affairs since the days of the early settlers up to the period of the second Iraq War. It is a dense and meticulously researched book, but is perhaps inhibited rather than freed by its wide-ranging subject matter. Hamilton glosses over pre-20th century reporting, and is especially brief with 18th and early 19th century subjects, which is a shame, as this section has the scope to be particularly interesting.

Hamilton’s study focuses on white male reporters, editors and newspaper proprietors. The author justifies this approach by explaining that ‘the role of reporter was chiefly a man’s part’. However, he names enough female reporters, editors or publishers in passing to make one wonder why they are only mentioned in brief. The Associated Press’ Edith Lederer, as well as Marguerite Higgins and Katherine Graham, get a few mentions, but otherwise, women are grouped together in a single chapter, which is given the unfortunate heading ‘Send The Whole Bunch Of Them Packing’. Journalists such as Martha Gellhorn are virtually ignored, and female correspondents are marginalised from the main narrative.

Likewise, just one chapter is devoted to black reporters. This is equally inexcusable; Hamilton states that the first black newspaper in America was established in 1827, yet there is no mention of it in the somewhat cursory section of the book dealing with pre-20th century media, where a description of its establishment would have been timely and interesting. Rather than being part of the book’s roughly chronological sequence, it is instead relegated to one paragraph in the single chapter dedicated to ‘black journalism’. It is sad that race and gender are not seen as part of mainstream history.

The emphasis of the book is, inevitably, on war. John Maxwell Hamilton is particularly assured in his writing in the section of the book that covers the relatively recent events of the Vietnam War. Focusing on the events of the war, rather than on a particular personality, this chapter flows with greater ease than others. It considers a variety of reporters over a broader period of time, establishing their similarities and differences and how views shifted over the course of the war. The chapter also examines government propaganda and attempts by Kennedy, for example, to influence the media’s depiction of the war.

Because Hamilton began writing this book in 2000/2001 relatively little time is spent looking at modern conflicts such as Iraq or Afghanistan. The coverage of earlier wars cries out, however, for a detailed comparison of how modern conflict differs. In the last chapter, there are, nonetheless, references to citizen journalism and to modern examples of news bloggers, such as Iraq’s Salam Pax, which hint at the state of foreign reporting today. This chapter thus forms a natural epilogue, stressing the fact that journalism is in flux and that traditional forms of reporting are being replaced to a certain degree by internet-based dissemination of material and the use of accounts by non-media workers.

At times, the author’s style makes the narrative jerky. His use of separate boxes, alongside the main text, detracts from the narrative. Hamilton also includes certain statistics, which often lack contextualisation and adequate explanation as to how they contribute to the chapter and main argument. In some chapters the narrative is organised chronologically, but other accounts jump around in time, which also breaks up the narrative. Lastly, certain excerpts of original newspaper reports featured within the main text are overly long and would have benefitted from further editing.

The main problem with this book is that it is overly amibitious. It tries to cover too much; both too broad a period and too many types of media. It is still interesting; but would have been a more fulfilling read if Hamilton had focused on what he is more comfortable writing about, such as the Vietnam War. It is a history of US foreign reporting; but not a wholly satisfactory one.

Nell Darby is a freelance journalist, specialising in history and media. She is the author of Foul Deeds And Suspicious Deaths In The Cotswolds (Pen & Sword, 2009).

1 comment:

Angela Michelli Fleming said...

Curious, this book just won the Goldsmith Prize.

As you pointed out race and gender is not addressed in this book. This book is not about race and gender – it is about the history of foreign reporting. You seem to have missed the point of the book completely; its focus is the evolution of foreign reporting told through memorable and historically important characters. This is a history that has never been written and it is told in a way that the casual reader will find it informative and enjoyable.

Of course, wars are given a lot of weight in this book. Reporting of wars by foreign correspondents has changed the way news is brought to the reader. Reporting from the Crimean War, William Howard Russell – the father of war correspondents – brought change in the way British papers wrote for their readers. This trend continues. The history of foreign reporting cannot be adequately told without bringing to the table the impact war makes on reporting.

Blog Directory