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Attack Poodles and other Media Mutants, by James Wolcott
oday's book review is a nonfiction, political book by the man who maintains what I would unhesitatingly call "the best written blog on the internet." The book is by James Wolcott, his eponymous blog is here, and the book is Attack Poodles and other Media Mutants.

I've been reading Wolcott's blog for a few months, since seeing a link from somewhere or other, have since read through a substantial portion of his archives, and while he doesn't update all that often, and I seldom learn anything reading his entries, (I've almost always already read about the news he posts about.) I still savor his every update simply for the brilliance with which he manipulates the English language.

I knew nothing about Wolcott before I stumbled upon his blog, but he's apparently a writer of some note. He covers politics at times, but more often writes about media and entertainment, from the best sort of elitist, "this is all trash but I still enjoy some of it," attitude. Wolcott is currently a senior writer for Vanity Fair magazine, a publication I have never so much as held in my hands. I love his blog though, since even when he's talking about things I know/care nothing about, he write so cleverly that I'm carried along, as though shanghaied by the crew of a luxury yacht.

In light of my opinion of his work, my anticipation was quite a-simmer when I picked up his book from the library. What did I think? To the scores:

Attack Poodles and other Media Mutants, by James Wolcott
Concept: 6
Presentation: 6
Writing Quality: 8
Presents/Explains the Topic Clearly: 4
Entertainment Value: 6
Rereadability: 2
Overall: 5
As I said, I've been reading Wolcott's blog for some months, and enjoying it because he's such a good writer. He does politics, but also a lot of pop culture stuff, entries in which he talks about movies and books and tv shows, while also sparring the time to take down idiots in politics or blogging or other fields, and doing so in very entertaining fashion.

I was disappointed with this book, though. The writing was solid, but (at least with this material) Wolcott's not really a writer suited to book-length. He's brilliant in article length, or blog post length, since he communicates well and invariably gets in at least one or two ripostes that would make anyone proud. One of my favorite lines of his was when he characterized someone's utterances as, "fruit bat screechings." I don't recall who, though my un-googled memory leans towards Ann Coulter, but it hardly matters. It was the turn of the phrase that grabbed me.

Looking at his blog now, (April 13, 2006) here are two lines from just the first paragraph of his most recent entry that I love. "That's when I think the rightwing carousel began to break down and the painted horses lost their rhythm, pawing the air to no avail... That they could get it so wrong was a sign that they had lost touch and couldn't mold public opinion on every issue as if it were the mashed-potatoes mountain in Close Encounters of the Third [Kind]." Lovely allusion, and ethereal simile, virtually back to back. Seriously, when's the last time you heard anyone make any sort of analogue to the mashed potato mountain in Close Encounters? Is there an award for this sort of thing?

I'm off topic, though. His book has numerous lines like that, and there was at least one on every page that made me pause with a self-reflective, "damn that was a good one." Unfortunately, the subject matter of the book was far from engrossing, and it went on much too long.

The book is about what it says it's about. Attack poodles, the pampered, fangless lapdogs who make up much of the mass media, pets who gladly roll over for any authority figure while begging treats from the sausage-fingered hands of their spokesmen. Lap dogs who happily take any table scrap they're given rather than living as they should, as vicious media wolves, eager to bring down big game and rip out its steaming entrails for the benefit of their audience. Or at least as stray dogs, roaming the mean streets and taking what they can.

Okay, I'm straining metaphors here, inspired by Wolcott's style, but his book is essentially a summary of the worst media outrages of the last few years, as so many supposedly-independent reporters lost all spine and adversarial instinct as they were charmed and tamed by George Bush's dubious virility. Attack Poodles is a survey and a summation of Bush lackeys in the media, reporters and pundits who back up Dubya and his administration on everything, even if the Administration's goals and methods contradict everything that reporter previously believed in. The book does a fine job of that, but perhaps too fine, since it goes on and on, delving into far more detail about far less important media figures than I felt any need to be informed about.

Long chapters talk about the gutless coverage at CNN during and during the prelude to Bush's Iraq Attack, and there are similarly-exhaustive passages about MSNBC's flirtations with right wing nuts like Michael Savage. Those sections are fun when the target is someone famous and deserving of puncturing, like Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh. But when Wolcott spent pages on unknown and long-forgotten reporters on cable news networks, I found my eyes glazing. I don't watch those channels and don't spend much time thinking about them, so while I'm interested in the skew of their reporting in the large scale of things, the individuals, especially the very non-famous ones, do not interest me. Cable news junkies like Wolcott will obviously enjoy them a lot more than I did.

On the whole, the book has a lot of good paragraphs and pages, but I've read dozens of blog entries on this subject, so very little of it was news to me. And reading old news, no matter how cleverly-written, grows tedious. I've seen similar material covered in other books, including recent ones by Molly Ivins, Eric Alterman, and others, and I realize in retrospect that I didn't finish those books either. So who knows, maybe it's just me.

I am certain that any reader who hasn't read much about the rightward skew of opinion in American media will find this book more interesting than I did, and since you'll likely enjoy Wolcott's writing as well, I'm recommending it for you. Despite the fact that it ultimately bored me.


Originally posted April 13, 2006.

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