Jul 1 2000

Booknotes’ Slanted Shelf

C-SPAN slights left-wing authors

Booknotes is an entertaining program on the C-SPAN cable network. Hosted by general manager Brian Lamb, the show features hour-long author interviews every Sunday evening. Lamb is an intelligent interviewer, choosing guests who have written informative, politically interesting non-fiction and presenting them in a conversational, audience-friendly format. Unhappily, Booknotes also displays a pronounced conservative bias in its choice of guests.

Lamb’s interests, reflected in the authors and books he chooses, tend toward American politics and history. He seems on a crusade to explain our national history, especially that of his own lifetime, to viewers of a younger generation. It’s a worthy goal, but one that is undercut by choosing the most conservative writers to tell the story.

Consider the years 1998 and 1999: Conservative historians Daniel Pipes, Ernest Lefever and Paul Johnson appeared with recent works forcefully expressing their particular points of view–as did former President George Bush, his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and author Shelby Steele. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., nominally liberal, but a supporter of the war against Vietnam and an intense opponent of the New Left during the ’60s, offered a book (The Disuniting of America) lambasting a straw man multiculturalism. And P.J. O’Rourke, in his usual mode, made fun of liberals and liberal economic policies with Eat the Rich.

Virginia Postrel, editor-at-large of the libertarian journal Reason; Amity Schlaes and Max Boot, editorial writers for the Wall Street Journal; former U.S. Rep. Floyd Flake and author James Glassman all pushed conservative, neo-liberal or libertarian economic nostrums. Conservatives Pat Buchanan, Norman Podhoretz, Allen Weinstein and Robert Conquest offered works strongly advancing conservative interpretations of the people and events of the Cold War era. Finally, outsider conservative F. Carolyn Graglia discussed her anti-feminist diatribe (Domestic Tranquility: A Brief Against Feminism) and Balint Vazsonyi lamented the supposed encroachment of “socialism” in the United States (America’s 30 Years War).

From the center of the political spectrum, journalists Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Max Frankel, Roger Mudd and Dan Rather offered memoirs, insider gossip or feel-good history. An exception was Juan Williams, formerly of the Washington Post, who discussed his biography of Thurgood Marshall. Only Richard Gephardt brought centrist ideas or policy recommendations to Booknotes‘ audience.

Gamely outnumbered were the left voices of Randall Robinson, Molly Ivins, John Lewis, William Greider and Eric Foner. It was a relief to see well-spoken people of the left on national television, but their political presence in no way matched the advocacy of the right-wingers. Foner’s book (The Story of American Freedom) was a cautiously centrist history of freedom in the U. S., while Greider’s work (Fortress America) was a fairly mainstream critique of military policy. Robinson and Lewis discussed their memoirs, but only Ivins took on the right, presenting clearly progressive, well-thought-out policy recommendations with her usual verve.

Worthy projects

Despite these problems of political balance, Booknotes nevertheless offers much to praise. One of the show’s worthy projects is bringing the history of the black experience in the United States to a predominantly white audience. Numerous authors have appeared on Booknotes who have written about African-Americans or African-American issues. Most of these could be characterized as politically progressive.

There have also been a handful of centrist politicians on the show over the years, including Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gephardt and Sen. Robert Byrd. Several European politicians of left stripe have appeared as well, including Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Schmidt, West Germany’s Social Democratic chancellor during the ’70s.

The problem is that such balance as Booknotes displays is evident only in terms of a misleading and overly broad characterization of the show’s guests as either liberal or conservative. When it comes to ideas, policies and historical interpretations, however, the right predominates, the center is represented and the left is mostly left out.

Moreover, fierce political advocates of the right are “balanced” by centrist politicians of no particular ideological intensity and by minority writers whose aim, important though it is, is primarily to simply tell their story to a broader audience. The conservatives come to the table with books that strongly advocate a political agenda, advance a right-wing slant on history or criticize people and ideas of the left. Their appeal is both adversarial and intellectual. Guests from the center and the few that hail from the left tend to bring memoirs, biographies or reportorial accounts. The appeals they offer are usually moral and exhortatory rather than intellectual or political.


Fixing the balance

To achieve balance, Booknotes needs to regularly present left writers of a more ideological stripe to balance the right-wing advocates it has preferred so far. Its host could also be more aggressive in identifying and challenging the biases of the conservatives who appear on his show.

In the last several years, Booknotes has directed much attention to the Truman/McCarthy era, with histories by right-leaning authors such as Irving Kristol, Edward Jay Epstein, Allen Weinstein and especially Sam Tanenhaus, who appeared on two evenings to discuss his controversial biography of Whitaker Chambers. Yet Booknotes ignored Ellen Schrecker and her excellent work on that period (Many Are the Crimes). Instead, this February saw Arthur Herman present his book, Joseph McCarthy, which lends credence to McCarthy’s fulminations.

To balance the libertarian economic writers who appear regularly, Booknotes might have presented Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute (Reclaiming Prosperity) or William Greider’s forceful progressive indictment of global capitalism (Who Will Tell the People). Instead, the critique of the global economy was presented by reactionary Pat Buchanan (The Great Betrayal) through his chauvinistic lens.

And missing entirely from the show are some of the finest writers and thinkers of the contemporary left, including Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, Studs Terkel and Ralph Nader. (Part of Booknotes‘ problem is its insistence on only featuring books published in hardcover–excluding most of the books produced by important left publishers like Common Courage, South End Press and Monthly Review.)

More than half the works featured on Booknotes are uncontroversial, either non-political by their nature or historical treatments of political controversies long dead. Examples are Einstein: A Life by Denis Brian and Flu, a history of the 1918 influenza pandemic by New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata. Lamb’s interviewing style is ideal for works such as these; he’s a tutorial interviewer, having a knack for finding exactly the right background questions that will enable the uninformed viewer to properly understand the material being presented.

Since most of his guests have valuable information to impart, Booknotes is a significant improvement over the low quality that pervades most television programming. Lamb’s method breaks down, however, when a guest is making dubious or outright false assertions, or is misleading by omission. His approach is the antithesis of confrontation, often accepting without challenge the most blatant falsehoods. David Horowitz’s self-serving misrepresentations of the New Left and Black Panther Party, for example, went unrebutted.

James Loewen, a history professor at the University of Vermont, is one of the lucky few left-oriented, ideologically engaged authors to have appeared on Booknotes. His 1994 analysis of history textbooks, Lies My Teacher Told Me, argues that, mostly by omission, the textbooks used by high schools and universities in the United States reflect propaganda both glorifying our national history and whitewashing its darker sides. Ironically, notwithstanding Loewen’s appearance and despite Booknotes‘ laudable intention to enlighten, the program regularly misrepresents recent American history and, in the process, helps miseducate its national audience.

John Cowan, a writer in Santa Cruz, California, is working on a book about political economy from a left progressive standpoint.