One of the great mysteries of our time is the awfulness of the American media. The world’s greatest nation gets its intelligence about the rest of the planet mainly from television, a medium dominated by air-headed bimbos and himbos – ‘I’m Cindy and he’s Grover’ – real-life car chases of narcoleptic tedium and the weather in the United States. (I survived a hurricane in Miami once, as the natives boarded up and belted out. It seemed little different from a wet weekend in Manchester.) The rest of the world gets a look-in so long as it does not conflict with the ordained clichés of the world-view from Ohio, or wherever. American newspapers are dull, pompous and waste acres of forests on local bits and pieces, unless they have been made up wholly by some of the many fantasists that they employ, in a country which desperately needs a properly functioning Private Eye. (The only exceptions are the magazines, which are superb.) But by and large, the American media is a mirror reflecting a dumb, self-absorbed and obscenely trivial society – and that is puzzling, because America is full of incredibly clever, decent and altruistic people.
Charles Glass’s second book, The Tribes Triumphant, doesn’t really provide an answer to that conundrum, but more ammunition for the Dumb America lobby. He’s a brilliant, literate and hugely informed expert on the Middle East, who used to work for ABC television as a star reporter. Now he’s pretty much