On August 15, 2006, a book review I wrote appeared in The Boston Globe. In it, I explained my enthusiasm for “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” by journalist Lawrence Wright. It is “a book of synthesis, of re-emphasis, of explaining seemingly isolated events in an improved context,” I wrote. “Perhaps the most important re-emphasis is how the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency — for what appear to be petty, bureaucratic reasons — failed to share information with the Federal Bureau of Investigation that might have halted the airplane hijackers from carrying out their missions in New York and Washington.”
In the book review, I explained how Wright helps readers make sense of confusing, isolated breaking news accounts by constructing a coherent narrative built around four characters: John O’Neill, an FBI counterterrorism specialist who just weeks before 9/11 accepted the job as World Trade Center security chief, then died in the rubble of the collapsed towers; Osama bin Laden, the wealthy Saudi Arabian businessman turned al-Qaeda financier and public leader; Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor believed to serve as al-Qaeda’s planner of deadly operations, and Prince Turki al-Faisal, director of Saudi Arabian intelligence agencies trying to stifle the al-Qaeda brand of terrorism.
“The War in Iraq and 9/11: Recent Investigative Books”Despite the review appearing on a Tuesday and running on page six of Section E, Melissa Ludtke, Nieman Reports editor, read it. She wrote me the next day to say that she was “struck especially” by my reading so many recently published, intricately reported books about 9/11 and Iraq. “I was also interested in how you characterized Lawrence Wright’s book as being the best example of narrative storytelling and for providing a synthesis of extremely isolated events in an improved context.”
Furthermore, Ludtke said, she found it interesting that I included Wright’s explanation of how his reporting “required constant checking of hundreds of sources against each other, and it is in this back-and-forth inquiry that the approximate truth — the most reliable facts — can be found.”
My review, Ludtke remarked, “prompted me to think about some broader journalistic issues, in particular, the present and future role that investigative books like Wright’s are likely to play in a news media environment in which newsroom resources for this kind of reporting are being squeezed, news outlets are more fragmented, and in which the digital news environment means that in-depth, contextual reporting is becoming a rarer commodity. Journalists, it seems, are in increasing numbers turning to book writing as a way of reaching the public with the type of content, context, perspective and information that years ago might have found a more welcoming home in the news outlets where these journalists work.”
I am uncertain whether an increasing number of journalists are turning to book writing because of diminished resources in daily print and broadcast newsrooms. Quantifying the phenomenon accurately would be difficult, if not impossible. But I am certain about other phenomena:
- The irony of so many readers relying on books when attention spans are supposedly so attenuated that publishers and editors in lots of newsrooms deem in-depth journalism superfluous.
- The guts demonstrated by publishers who pay advances for public affairs books like “The Looming Tower,” despite the high probability of them being money losers. These publishers are in the company of those in corporate suites who — despite a bottom-line culture — encourage, or at least tolerate, high-quality investigative and explanatory book-length journalism.
- The stupidity of daily newsroom gatekeepers for refusing to treat books as news — even as space for book reviews is diminishing in many outlets. The result is countless potential book readers never even hear about important titles that would help them better understand daily news reporting.
The outpouring of superb books by talented journalists about controversial events does not surprise me as much as it seems to surprise other commentators. That is because I have been privileged for 30 years to view the panorama of investigative journalism from a perch occupied by nobody else during the same span. As a result, I am perhaps the most bullish journalist alive when it comes to the current state of in-depth reporting.
The perch I have occupied and continue to occupy is provided by an organization called Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), with about 5,000 members across the United States and around the globe. I joined IRE shortly after its founding in 1975, became active almost immediately, served as its executive director from 1983-1990, and have never ceased to write for and help edit its magazine.
IRE is based at the Missouri School of Journalism, just a few miles from where I live, making it convenient for me to examine the remarkable in-depth journalism pouring into the office every day. The stories come from journalists at newspapers large and small, magazines local and national, broadcast outlets of all market rankings — and book publishers. I can guarantee that many of the journalism outlets submitting superb in-depth journalism have never entered the personal radar of many reporters and editors.
Is the situation perfect? Of course not. I wish more news organizations turned out more investigative and explanatory pieces than they do. Still, my relatively rosy outlook is not exaggerated or naive. Far more high-quality, in-depth journalism is being disseminated each year than any individual can absorb, and a great deal of that high-quality, in-depth journalism is arriving in book format.
What Makes Investigative Books Different?
“The Iraq mess is a large and tempting target,” Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz noted in his newspaper on October 16, 2006. “And despite a huge volume of coverage over the last several years, a considerable amount of material remained beneath the surface, awaiting excavation by authors. Some critics grumble that the journalists should have gone public with their information sooner, rather than saving it for books. But it takes time to build a case and to coax information from people who may have little interest in joining the daily political sniping.”
Thomas E. Ricks, the author of “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq” and a Washington Post reporter, told Kurtz that one former Coalition Provisional Authority official supplied “every e-mail he had sent to the unit’s boss, Paul Bremer.” A commander gave Ricks “a CD-ROM with every PowerPoint briefing he had received.” Sources even gave him the classified plan for invading Iraq. Ricks said he never would have obtained such information in 2003. “They would have deemed it too sensitive. Two years later, who cares?”
In his book, “The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11,” former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind revealed useful contextual information about the relationship between President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Suskind told Kurtz that books, unlike deadline reporting, can break through a White House administration’s “message discipline.” Suskind said “What you can do in a book that gets around the daily battle over news cycles is you can say to subjects that they will be rendered in context.”
Those who practice journalism, especially journalism in the nation’s capital, grasp precisely what authors such as Ricks and Suskind are saying. Their ability to break news in long-gestating books is not a surprise. If anything surprises me, it is the willingness of book publishers — even those that are part of bottom-line oriented corporate conglomerates — to disseminate works that challenge the conventional wisdom and power structures.
But I am even more bewildered — and definitely dismayed — by the failure of newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets, including their online iterations, to treat the investigative discoveries of the book authors as headline grabbers. Books by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward are among the rare exceptions. His third book about the George W. Bush administration generated headlines regarding the egomania and incompetence of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a different portrayal from Woodward’s other books describing the administration’s engagement in the Iraq War. The Woodward book documented how Rumsfeld excluded Bush’s national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, from war-related decision-making. The CBS television news magazine “60 Minutes” devoted a segment to the new Woodward book, even though it had previously passed on interviewing many other journalists who disclosed new information about the Iraq War before “State of Denial” appeared.
David Rosenthal at Simon & Schuster commented to New York Times columnist David Carr on the first day of Woodward’s sales that “a book has a much longer arc than one day. But it has been on sale [just] one day, [and] it is already causing a ruckus, dominating the Sunday morning shows, and will determine the agenda for weeks. It is interesting to me that in an age of blogs, Webs and texting that a book, something which is essentially a tortoise, can carry the most immediacy.”
Jack Shafer, media writer at slate.com and former editor of the Washington City Paper, calls Woodward’s tomes “newsbooks.” They include news because sources and subjects are more willing to speak candidly about the events of last week, last month or last year than about today’s controversy. Furthermore, books promise a modicum of influencing posterity, unlike less contextual pieces disseminated by newspapers, magazines and broadcast newsrooms.
Books As News
The sad story of books as news is so foreign to so many journalists that it requires elaboration. While providing this, I want to express my intellectual debt to the small number of commentators who have addressed the situation previously. I owe the largest debt to Carlin Romano, a public intellectual who freelances for numerous outlets, teaches in university classrooms, and is primarily employed by The Philadelphia Inquirer as a book critic.
Near the beginning of a lengthy essay Romano published in the Media Studies Journal 15 years ago, he wrote these sentences: “Newspaper work draws people who like to cut corners, deal superficially with subjects, make generalizations without support, and read book reviews rather than books. The book, which ideally treats subjects at extensive and appropriate length, offering either the documentation or human riches that a subject demands, strikes fear into the heart of a newspaper person’s psyche. In the realm of Plato’s prose forms, the book would be the sworn enemy of the newspaper article. And so it makes sense that the modern newspaper has, since birth, largely conspired against the book. It has treated the book’s birth upon publication — except in special circumstances — as an event that doesn’t count as news. When you’re talking about coverage, it’s always been better to be a crime than a book.”
When Romano wrote his essay, civil war raged in the former Yugoslavia. Extending his comparison from crime and books to genocide and books, Romano wrote “The next mortar shell lobbed in a Sarajevo market comes with its entrŽe into U.S. coverage guaranteed. Yet … a scholarly book on Yugoslavian nationalism from the Indiana University Press, which details the history of ethnic cleansing in places such as Bosnia, gets no automatic attention, and maybe none at all.”
A relatively small number of magazines are providing the contextual coverage found primarily in books. For example, James Fallows’ excellent book, “Blind Into Baghdad: America’s War in Iraq,” is essentially a gathering of articles he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly. The Lawrence Wright and George Packer books grew out of their reporting for The New Yorker magazine. The New York Review of Books runs in-depth analyses of current controversies by those who write books; the same magazine publishes in-depth reviews that treat books as news. A superb example of such a review appeared there in the December 21, 2006 edition. Under the headline “Iraq: The War of the Imagination,” reviewer Mark Danner filled 11 pages of the publication with an insightful piece based on the recent war-related books by Bob Woodward, Ron Suskind, and James Risen. On October 5, 2006, under the headline “Cheney: The Fatal Touch,” The New York Review of Books published an analysis of the vice president based on close readings of 16 books, old and new, by the always scintillating cultural critic Joan Didion.
Public radio stations are also notable as being places where substantive interviews with journalists who are book authors take place. These outlets also offer the possibility of stimulating dialogue taking place with listeners. Occasional discussions with journalist authors occur also on the Lehrer “NewsHour.” The exceptions, however, emphasize the rule: News organizations that see themselves, rightly, as existing mostly to provide breaking stories will often fail to provide their audiences with vital context. As a result, those news organizations should feel an obligation to cover books far more fully than they currently do.
If I ran a newsroom, I would create a book beat with the same stature and space allocations as the White House beat, local politics beat, business beat, education beat and, especially, sports beat. I’d designate writers and journalists the likes of Carlin Romano, Joan Didion, and Mark Danner to staff the beat. Then almost every day I would make sure those who constituted our audience would have the ability to read interviews with authors of important books, plus in-depth reviews and analyses of the books’ news content by my Romano-Didion-Danner-like staff writers. With digital media in its ascendancy, informative excerpts from such books could be only a click away.
It’s an idea I doubt will happen, given the lack of inclination I’ve observed, not to mention the slide in the opposite direction by some news organizations as fewer book reviews are published and payment for doing them drops to ridiculously low amounts. A decade ago, a dozen or so major metropolitan newspapers still published separate book review sections; that number will soon be reduced to five.
All of this leaves us where we began — observing the odd juxtaposition between journalistic institutions that fail to recognize the value of this contextualized news against the book publishers and consumers who appear to acknowledge — with their pocketbooks — its value.
Steve Weinberg is the author of six nonfiction books, with numbers seven and eight in the editing process. He writes features and reviews for newspapers and magazines, plus teaches part-time at the Missouri School of Journalism.