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The Powers That Be

The Powers That Be [PDF]

Halberstam finished The Powers That Be in 1979, just as its subjects; CBS, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, and the LA Times were about to begin their inexorable decline.

He captures some of these factors, particularly the shift away from family ownership to listed, profit-centred companies, and the political backlash (largely from the Right) as television and investigative reporting both increased Presidential power while simultaneously replacing traditional party politics, becoming Oppositions in their own right.

However, the Internet was still an obscure project run between a few universities, large corporations and the military, its devastating implications for print media and, to a lesser extent, TV news then unfathomed.

Consequently, The Powers That Be is a chronicle of a lost age, its titans Bill Paley, Phil Graham, Otis Chandler and Henry Luce now footnotes and the organisations they founded mere shells. Reading it, one is struck by the overlap between their prime and the height of the American century, both periods bound by many of the same delusions of worth, mission, indispensability and independence from the realities of power.

As the title suggests Halberstam isn't naive about the compromises and complicities of this great joint enterprise but his sympathies remain largely with the journalistic establishment, his portraits just a little too glowing, his praise generous verging on fulsome and his mastery of fascinating detail and anecdote sometimes to the detriment of the bigger picture (among other things, his gloss of the Nixon trip to China as a big stunt hasn't aged well).

An amazing work of research, born of one of the greatest voices in American journalism, the Powers that Be thus seems incomplete, Halberstam's proximity to so many of these great events and players provides a rich but partial portrait of an incredible period.
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