Copyright: Ian D. Richardson Email:

(First published in BBC Worldwide magazine, 1992)

An analysis of war reporting -- or pretentious nonsense?

Book review by Ian Richardson

Anyone who pays good money for a non-fiction book has a right to expect that they will be informed, intellectually challenged and entertained -- and that the author, specially when that author is a professor at a top American university, should stick to points roughly pertinent to the title. In my view, War and Television by Professor Bruce Cumings fails on all counts.

To be honest, this is a more a review of the introduction to a book, rather than of the book itself, because if one is to judge a book, at least in part, by the introduction, then this book must be judged to be tediously self-indulgent.

There are frequent references to the philosopher Nietzsche -- no doubt to establish some sort of academic street credibility -- and an irritating meander through such irrelevant topics as the Kennedy assassination and "What is liberalism?" before reaching heights of pretentious nonsense with impenetrable sentences such as this gem:

"This argument is, of course, vintage Louis Hartz, who drew heavily on Toqueville, this liberalism rests on miles of submerged convictions, on icebergs of the unstated, on hidden premisses which have a liberating propensity for the bourgeoisie in this most bourgeois of nations, but totalitarian propensities for non-liberal systems: whether feudal, communist. Catholic, orthodox Jewish, Confucian, Platonic, or Islamic, organic systems exist to be dissolved." Eh?

At this point, Page 14 of the introduction, I threw in the towel and sought hope in the references to two major players in the coverage of the Gulf War, CNN and the BBC. There were some mixed observations on reporter Peter Arnett's coverage from Baghdad, but little else on CNN and nothing of consequence in just six references to the BBC, except to quote complaints that the corporation was exceptionally wishy-washy, made by a producer from a rival commercial TV company.

Professor Cumings' book seemed to be not so much about the general and fascinating topics of war and television, but more a whinge about his treatment over his contribution to a Thames Television documentary on the Korean War. At one point he complains bitterly: "…my credentials as a historian [were] challenged by those who have none, know-nothings telling me where to get off, character assassination by people of no character." But fear not, the severely-aggrieved professor takes comfort from the knowledge that he can go back to Chicago University "where my colleagues…do not challenge my standing or assail my character." A pity really. A little more constructive criticism might well help the good professor write better books.