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Volume 11, No. 8—November 2001  
Table of contents for this issue  

We asked five experts to recommend the best recent books about the media.

Michael Schudson, professor of communication and adjunct professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego and author of The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life (Free Press, 1998).

"A fundamental question in media studies is the extent to which communications technology affects human thought and institutions. This was Marshall McLuhan's grand theme. Progress in addressing this question has come only when big pronouncements have been cut down to bite-sized chunks. A key work, widely known in literacy studies but often overlooked, is Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole's The Psychology of Literacy (Harvard, 1981;, 1999). Based on research conducted in Africa, the book is a fairly technical controlled-experiment study of how different forms of literacy influence the development of various cognitive skills. Scribner and Cole show that under different social conditions, the same hardware—in this case, paper-and-pencil literacy—can have very different consequences for human cognition. Technology matters, but, after Scribner and Cole, old-fashioned technological determinism should be dead.

"A central assumption in media studies is that mass communications, by its very nature, represents a decline from the purity of face-to-face interaction. Stated or implied, this premise is so pervasive that no one gave it careful examination until John Durham Peters in Speaking Into the Air (Chicago, 1999). In a work that almost flaunts its unconventionality, Peters argues that face-to-face communication (on the model of a Socratic dialogue) has its own tyrannies and illusions, whereas mass communication (on the model of the sermons of Jesus) can maintain a respect for individual autonomy not found in one-on-one speech. With wit and eloquence, this book turns media studies upside down."

Susan Herbst, chair of the political science department at Northwestern University and author of Reading Public Opinion: Political Actors View the Democratic Process (Chicago, 1998).

"In Impersonal Influence: How Perceptions of Mass Collectives Affect Political Attitudes (Cambridge, 1998), Diana Mutz explores how people's opinions about social and political issues are influenced by anonymous others 'out there' in television and newspaper reports. How affected are we by poll data gathered from unidentified people we will never meet? Do the economic circumstances of our friends and family shape our views of the economy, or are our opinions more likely to be influenced by what we see on television? Mutz takes George Herbert Mead's provocative notion of the generalized other and shows us that the other is now represented by the American news and entertainment media. This is imaginative, historically grounded work, and it's full of terrific new empirical data."

Robert W. McChesney, research professor at the Institute of Communications Research and the Graduate School of Information and Library Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (New Press, 2000).

"Two classic books on journalism and media will be rereleased next year. Early in the year, Pantheon will publish a revised and expanded edition of Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. The new version of the book explains—convincingly, in my view—how Herman and Chomsky's 'propaganda model' applies to the post­Cold War world. In the fall, the University of Illinois Press will reprint Upton Sinclair's The Brass Check. Originally self-published in 1919, the book was the first great systematic critique of the corrupt and antidemocratic nature of 'capitalist journalism.' Although it had sold more than 150,000 copies by the mid-1920s and is arguably Sinclair's second-best book after The Jungle, the book subsequently faded from view. In recent years, with the commercial assault on the autonomy of professional journalists, The Brass Check is again very relevant, even mandatory, for those looking for a historical perspective on the place of media in a democratic society."

Carolyn Kitch, assistant professor of journalism at Temple University and author of The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media (North Carolina, 2001).

"From Lara Croft to Xena to the unforgiving taskmistress on The Weakest Link, tough women populate today's entertainment media. The emergence of these intimidating female characters is the focus of Sherrie A. Inness's Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture (Pennsylvania, 1999). Inness explores whether such characters and their predecessors—the Bionic Woman and the title characters in Thelma and Louise, for instance—really represent progress in how women are portrayed in the media. The debut of the earliest television tough girls coincided with the height of the second wave of the U.S. women's rights movement. While they appeared to serve as role models, Inness writes, these women warriors 'helped to reaffirm stereotypes about the sexuality and femininity of women, attributes that worked to diminish the impact of the women's toughness.' Such mixed messages, Inness shows, continue both to confirm and to deny the impact of feminism. Some of Inness's arguments echo those of Caryl Rivers, whose Slick Spins and Fractured Facts: How Cultural Myths Distort the News (Columbia, 1996) is an insightful examination of press coverage of women, minorities, and the poor."

John V. Pavlik, professor of journalism and director of the Center for New Media at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and author of Journalism and New Media (Columbia, 2001).

"Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality (Norton, 2001), co-edited by Randall Packer and Ken Jordan with a foreword by William Gibson, is a compendium of classic writing about information technology and its role in society. Drawing from the work of a remarkably diverse group of writers, including Norbert Weiner, John Cage, William Burroughs, Lynn Hershman, Tim Berners-Lee, and Vannevar Bush, the editors explore five aspects of new media: integration, interactivity, hypermedia, immersion, and narrativity. They have made some inspired choices. The section on integration, for example, opens with an excerpt from Richard Wagner's 1849 treatise 'Outlines of the Artwork of the Future,' in which the composer predicted that the separate branches of art—music, architecture, painting, poetry, dance—would reach new poetic heights when woven together in drama. In many ways, this integration is what new media are all about."

Andrew Hearst


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