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Amusing but Shallow Treatment of a Serious Issue
on September 30, 2004
If the Bush Administration has achieved nothing else, it has spawned a massive flow of literature critical of its principals, its actions, and the sprawling, right wing media wolf pack that aids and abets it. Add to this collection James Wolcott's ATTACK POODLES AND OTHER MEDIA MUTANTS.
Wolcott starts with the premise that a network of conservative media personalities serve the Republican Party as "attack poodles," a term he claims originated with the British press in 2002 describing those who defended Tony Blair from any and all criticism. He introduces the reader to a broad array of these right wing pundits, many familiar, many less so to most readers. Since they are all variations on essentially the same theme, they read like clones of one another and seem difficult to differentiate.
Wolcott is at his best lambasting and lampooning the behavior and so-called argumentation of his targets, deftly showing their shallowness, their deliberate recklessness with facts, and the absurdity of their claims and positions. In doing so, he indirectly demonstrates that much of what poses as "media" today is nothing more than entertainment mixed with propaganda in the service of a cause and rarely in the service of truth.
At his worst, however, Wolcott is shallow himself, tackling too many subjects and too many personalities too quickly. He goes after anyone and everyone, from Judith Miller to Matt Drudge, from Bob Novak to Dennis Miller, from Peggy Noonan to Maureen Dowd to Howard Fineman to Bill O'Reilly. This is all well and good, except that in the end, you are left with the feeling that there are only two honest news reporters in America, and one of them is James Wolcott (the other, oddly enough, is Lou Dobbs). It seems that Mr. Wolcott has an axe to grind with virtually every media personality he's ever seen, met, read, or heard of, as if he'd "never met a reporter he didn't hate." If the state of modern journalism is truly so debased, perhaps the author could address more than just its most abject practitioners.
ATTACK POODLES has a great deal to say, and some good points to make, but the author is so stridently negative that it wears you down. Additionally, he seems to relish prose that, in trying to be hip and funny, comes across as crass and sophomoric, like a high school senior trying to write a Harvard Lampoon story. Using four-letter words does not add impact or persuasiveness, it just cheapens Mr. Wolcott's arguments. Nor do ad hominem attacks such as the following (in re Ann Coulter) constitute legitimate or insightful criticism: "She is the Paris Hilton of postmodern politics, an elongated zero, a white-hot sex symbol symbolizing nothing."
This is an enjoyable book if you like seeing someone trash Rush, Fox, and company, but read it for the chuckles, not for its analytical depth. The targets of Mr. Wolcott's ire deserve everything he gives them and much more, but in the end, it's not enough to simply bad-mouth the bad guys for 250 pages. The subject deserves much more serious discussion than Wolcott gives it. See, for example, Lewis Lapham's GAG RULE or even David Brock's THE REPUBLICAN NOISE MACHINE, or better yet, check out Thomas Frank's WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? Read ATTACK POODLES for its comic relief, but not much else. As for the closing chapter on what to do about the situation, follow the advice of Brooklynites who would say, "FUGGET ABOUD IT!" One of the lamest book closings I have ever seen, enough to make Roger Ailes laugh all the way to the bank and back again.