May 2005

Rowan Riley

nonfiction

Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants: The Looting of the News in a Time of Terror by James Wolcott

While the war in Iraq unabashedly continues, a subtler war is being fought in spin rooms and on bookracks across America. Ever since the birth of the 24-hour news channel, political pundits on the right and left have been attacking one another with a ferocity normally reserved for animals on the Discovery Channel. For proof of this barely intelligibly media war, one needn't look any further than the display tables at Barnes & Noble, where books such as Ann Coulter's How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must) are shelved without irony next to Al Franken's Lies and Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.

Adding to the list of political books with catchy, populist titles is James Wolcott's Attack Poodles and other Media Mutants. Although tearing down the right-wing political machine is the books primary raison d'être, what separates Attack Poodles from other leftist books of its time is that it scrutinizes the commentariat, who, according to Wolcott, is more concerned with shameless self-promotion and staying on message, and far less concerned with serving a democratic populace.

Although Wolcott demonstrates an uncommon hatred for political figures -- going after bobble heads and serious journalists alike -- his biggest bone to pick is with the system itself. He blames the media for misleading the public about Iraq's weapon capabilities. Given Wolcott's background as a novelist, culture critic and self-professed news junkie, it is hardly surprising that he has focused his razor sharp wit on the media.

While it is true that Bush enjoyed an unprecedented amount of support from both side of the political spectrum in the months following 9/11, it is inflammatory to say, as Wolcott has, that the nation, "robed Bush in the shaman role of healer-avenger-protector" and that "reporters from powerful breakfast papers humbled themselves like subjects in the court of Siam." Wolcott's prose is florid and his speech entertainingly hyperbolic, yet he provides neither the evidence nor the insight needed to rest the blame squarely on the shoulders of journalism or punditry.

So, at times, he is given to political sophisms, but Wolcott's knowledge of news commentary, talk radio and the Internet is so extensive that one has to wonder about his social life. He is at his best when mercilessly hacking away at the television commentators and talk radio hosts who dominate his world.

In a chapter titled "The Poodle Parlor," he describes Bill O'Reilly, Fox News commentator par excellence, as a towering inferno that is "as sensitive to criticism as Patty Duke in Valley of the Dolls, and as prone to volcanic eruptions." And in an effort to be "fair and balanced," Wolcott also pays mock respect to The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman by saying, "Hallowed be his name in the highest quarters." He then goes on to compare Friedman's hawkish outlook on Iraq to the late General Curtis LeMay who, Wolcott points out, inspired the character General Jack D. Ripper in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

The term "'attack poodle," in its political sense, was first used by the British press in 2002 to describe the fierce new labourists who fearlessly snapped at the enemies of Tony Blair. Wolcott evidently seized upon this expression, adapting it to fit the American political scheme. "Watchdogs for George Bush" and "tail-waggers for war" are two of the many metaphors he uses to describe this journalistic pedigree. Discussing the author and radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, he says: "The Republicans have no more loyal four-legged friend than Limbaugh, who trots ahead without a leash. He's so tethered to conservative orthodoxy that he doesn't need one."

Wolcott's hilarious portraits and anecdotes give politics an almost cartoon reality, but readers looking for any sort of coherent political narrative should think twice before picking up Attack Poodles. While it certainly beats out the latest political satire, All The President's Pets, in which The Daily Show's Mo Rocca uncovers a top-secret pact between U.S. Presidents and their pets, the book falls short of substance, and, in the final chapters, reduces itself to wondering whether Peggy Noonan deserves the "Best in Show" award.

After finishing Attack Poodles, most readers would conclude that, in actual fact, Wolcott deserves "Best in Show" for being the rarest of pedigrees: a New York liberal, in love with pop culture and his Tivo.

Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants: The Looting of the News in a Time of Terror by James Wolcott
ISBN: 140135212X
Miramax Books
336 Pages