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'Unfreedom Of The Press' Is Full Of Bombast And Bile

Long considered fringe, the right wing radio host Mark Levin has had a few good years: He picked up a weekly Fox News show ("Life, Liberty & Levin"); he counts conservative political commentator Sean Hannity as his best friend; and the president recently tweeted in support of his new book, "Word is out that book is GREAT!"

On his show, Levin speaks in the unmistakable tenor of a man experiencing road rage or shouting at a customer service representative. In a recent episode, he yelled at an absent Beto O'Rourke ("Nobody likes a weak man, Beto...Nobody likes a weak man like you."), attacked Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's looks ("her eyeballs are popping out of her head, like ping pong balls."), called Sen. Mitt Romney an "ass," and Sen. Dick Blumenthal a "pathetic, loathsome liar." The media didn't escape his invective either, from CNN's Brian Stelter ("that little creep") to MSNBC's "whole conga line of freaks working its way right up to Rachel Mad Cow."

This is the starting point of his new book, Unfreedom of the Press. The media, Levin writes, constitute "a profession whose members form a class or aristocracy of strident, pretentious, arrogant, and self-righteously superior individuals, rarely capable of circumspection or improvement."

Levin hopes to prove this by tracing the history of American media from the early days of the revolutionary press to what he calls the modern "Democratic party-press." Along the way, he looks at The New York Times' inadequate coverage of the Holocaust (full disclosure: I write freelance pieces for the Times), and touches on a handful of clear problems in American media, from the often poor distinction between reporting and opinion to the distorting incentives of the Internet.

But the book is largely filler. Quotations and paraphrasing make up the majority of the book's central chapters. Lengthy and irrelevant block quotes from historians about, say, colonial printing practices ("The use of type commenced in Virginia about 1681...") give the book the air of a padded student essay. He has boasted that the book's chapter on The New York Times would contain major revelations: "What the New York Times did has not been well exposed in the popular culture, and I'm doing it." But in the book, he simply quotes the work of well-known scholars and journalists on the Times' mid-20th century failure to cover the extent of the Holocaust. He conducts no interviews, presents no original research, and visits no newsrooms.

According to the FDA, for something to be marketed as cheese, most of its makeup has to be cheese, not filler. Otherwise, it is generally called "cheese product." If there were similar rules for books, Unfreedom of the Press would have to be sold as "book product."

When Levin does offer his own analysis, it can approach parody. In one example, Levin suggests that in order to see how unjust the media's treatment of Trump is, all we have to do is compare it with the way the press garlands its most cherished progressive idol.

Yes, I speak of the Broadway hit "Hamilton: An American Musical."

As proof, Levin quotes from Ben Brantley's gushing Times review ("I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show. But 'Hamilton,'... might just about be worth it.") This adoring write up, Levin suggests, provides a stark and telling contrast to the paper's treatment of the Russia investigation.

Here, a reader might reasonably ask: Does the difference in press coverage between "Hamilton" and the Russia probe proceed from media bias and hypocrisy, or from the fact that one of those things is a musical and the other an investigation of a sitting president?

According to Levin, it is the former: "The same Democratic party-press that seeks President Trump's indictment, impeachment, and tar and feathering for his noninvolvement in a supposed Russian collusion scheme celebrate their remake of Hamilton despite Hamilton's collusion with the British during the Washington presidency." He continues, "Now that Hamilton's collusion with Britain has been made broadly known, will progressives care? Of course not." (Levin is citing a claim by the historian Lance Banning that despite the U.S's official neutrality in the conflict between the British and the French during the French Revolutionary wars, Alexander Hamilton had "confidential" communications with the British. But I want to reiterate that we're talking about a review of a musical).

Levin often appears to misunderstand the sources he quotes, either because he does not notice or chooses to ignore humor, irony, or nuance. In one representative instance, a quote from New York Times journalist Jim Rutenberg has been cut to appear to echo Levin's claim about left-wing media bias, when Rutenberg's ultimate point is that harsh coverage of Trump is merited, and in fact "is what being taken seriously looks like." At other times, the quotations are merely beside the point.

Levin has long been a merchant of questionable goods: He uses his popular radio show to hawk nutritional supplements he implies will boost resistance to measles. He was also instrumental in spreading a conspiracy theory that then-President Obama tapped Donald Trump's phone during the 2016 election, an allegation Trump later tweeted — but for which there is no evidence. More recently he "revealed" a left-wing plot to ship illegal immigrants to Florida in order to alter voter demographics for future elections (there is no evidence of this). But people seem to be buying what he is offering: When this review was published, Unfreedom of the Press was the bestselling book on Amazon.

This can be put down to a few factors, including the presidential endorsement, the approach of Father's Day, and Levin's pre-publication rounds on the talk shows. On his radio program, Levin has marketed the book as a way to stick it to the media, to get a book "exposing" The New York Times onto the The New York Times bestseller list. In this framing, Unfreedom of the Press is little more than a free gift with purchase. What people are actually buying is not a book but a message to the Times and the media at large. And the message, to use a favored Levin phrase, is "SCREW YOU."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.