Reviewed by The Dubya Report staff.
In April 2002 the Washington Monthly revealed that, whereas other administrations had used polls to determine the popularity of a range of policy options, the Bush administration used polls to determine the best rhetoric with which to market policies that might not be popular. John DiIulio confirmed the Bushies' public-relations approach to government when he confessed to reporter Ron Suskind that "staff, senior and junior ... consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible." (See The Dubya Report's
"Spinning Dispensationalism" and
The substitution of rhetoric for reality, or marketing hype for substantive communication is one of the themes that runs through columnist and journalism professor Walt Brasch's new book, Sex and the Single Beer Can. It is a practice that brings together communications media, corporate America, and the political realm. In one example, Brasch notes the Congressional testimony in October 1990 of a 15-year old girl who reported having seen newborns removed from incubators, and other atrocities, allegedly perpetrated by Iraqi soldiers. What was not publicized at the time is that the girl was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US, and her testimony was orchestrated by New York PR firm Hill & Knowlton. Hill & Knowlton received tens of millions of dollars from Kuwait to promote US support for the Gulf War "to preserve what we thought was 'democracy,' but was more probably America's obsession with oil for energy...."
A compilation of hundreds of Brasch's recent columns, augmented by several additional essays, the new volume from Lighthouse Press explores how communications media influence what is valued in society.
The trend toward consolidation of media organizations, and the blurring of distinctions between news and entertainment have helped fuel an obsession with appearances and possessions. With a sardonic tone characteristic of much of the book, Brasch notes that on February 4, 1997 more people followed the O.J. Simpson civil trial verdict than watched the State of the Union address. Observing that the day was also marked by Martha Stewart's buy-back of the $200 million of her company that was owned by Time/Warner, Brasch suggests Stewart and Simpson enter into a partnership: Simpson could appear on Stewart's home-improvement broadcasts cutting paper dolls; Stewart could decorate O.J.'s Brentwood home.
Brasch notes, as another example of media selectivity, that on a day when the massacre in Rwanda continued apace, warlords were still fighting in Somalia, Haitian soldiers murdered two dozen fishermen, and South African politicians campaigned in the nation's first election on which all citizens could vote, the "story of the day" -- repeated ad infinitum on CNN and reported by other networks that night -- was that theater popcorn was dangerous.
Brasch, a veteran newspaper reporter and political activist, has grouped his essays together into large sections (Information and Society, Entertainment, Persuasion, Encore), and further into topics such as The First Amendment, Literacy, Television, etc. He treats subjects as diverse as censorship, violence in media, first amendment rights, and the use of sex to sell products. In addition to his reportage, Brasch's comic "ersatz friend" Marshbaum appears from time to time to provide a foil for Brasch's satiric wit.
As a compendium of essays, the book's structure lacks the overarching narrative shape that one might find in a volume written of-a-piece. Nonetheless in Sex and the Single Beer Can Brasch offers keen insight and a fresh perspective on topics that have moved to the center of the national political debate. From the time Fox News declared Bush the victor in Florida, based on analyses by his cousin John Ellis, to W's recent decision to appear on "Meet the Press" it has been clear that media's power to influence public attitudes is a key component in the political life of the nation. Brasch's perspective is even broader, however, questioning what society values and how it sees itself. Ultimately Sex and the Single Beer Can asks more questions than it answers.
Walt Brasch's Wanderings will return to The Dubya Report shortly.