The Powers That Be

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

When David Halberstam chose The Powers That Be as the title for his book, it was no doubt a reflection of the popular usage of the phrase rather than an allusion to its Biblical source: “The powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1). He, conversely, delineates for the reader the evolution of CBS, Time, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post through their several incarnations in terms of the men and women who made it all happen. In each case there was the brilliance of one personality to illuminate the early path of the initial bright and dedicated staff. The individual prowess of the staff members reflects upon and lends credibility to the organization from which they spring. As all of the early stars that brought the organization to prominence fade or fall, the organization becomes the end rather than the means. The evolution of the particular news medium in question marks a shift from the sorts of powers that were (political parties, the legislature) to the sorts of powers that “be” (the electronic and print media giants).

David Halberstam has spent many years reporting the news for the New York Times; he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1962. His previous best-seller The Best and the Brightest (1972) chronicled the events and personalities of the Vietnam War era. Since that time, he has interviewed more than seven hundred individuals who, separately or as members of an organization, have had a hand in shaping the news media. The result of this research is The Powers That Be, which is concerned with American political history and its relationship to the growing influence of the news media from the rise of Franklin D. Roosevelt through the fall of Richard M. Nixon. Through innumerable anecdotes loosely strung together with biographical and historical material, Halberstam illustrates the increase in power of the press and television since the end of World War I and how that increased power has altered the character of its vehicles.

Halberstam writes about people and their relationships to one another. He writes about editors and reporters, husbands and wives, mothers and sons, and myriad other pairings, extracting from these juxtapositions all the possible drama, often doing more to satisfy public curiosity than to help the reader gain a greater insight into the minds and motivations of the people involved. In a book in which so much space is devoted to minibiographies, it is unfortunate that the only photographs of Paley and Luce and the others are on the dust jacket.

Halberstam begins with CBS and its rise to prominence through the budding medium of radio under the guidance of William Paley. Much of the information in this early section directly reflects the material presented in Erik Barnouw’s excellent three-volume History of Broadcasting, in a much condensed and glossed-over arrangement. The author recounts the early years of CBS primarily as a reflection of Paley’s ability to build a business, combined with his instinct for what sorts of programming would do well. The presence of Paley is felt throughout the work whenever CBS comes under discussion, long after his real presence was the major force at the corporation, as though the author feels haunted and challenged by Paley’s success. Paley is described as a sensualist, a hedonist, and above all else, a salesman interested in profits; he is presented in opposition to many of his staff members who are painted as liberal and idealistic and therefore somehow purer and nobler than their leader. Edward R. Murrow is showcased particularly in this regard because his early reporting of World War II did so much to advance CBS in the public consciousness. The network evolved into a business concerned with success (in this case its Nielsen ratings), much as any other business. This is the first of many instances in which Halberstam writes of an idealistic reporter providing respectability for an organization which would not otherwise be so because of the corporate leadership’s interest in profits. Halberstam writes that the “powers” are often not so much the owners or the major media organizations themselves as the reporters who bring the organizations to life. In the author’s view, all reporters seem to be good because they thirst for truth, while all editors, network executives, and other...

(The entire section is 1788 words.)