Can books fill the news media’s gaps?

October 1, 2007

The big untold stories of the early Bush years have been pouring out in an unusually rich bumper crop of books. Powerful, in-depth accounts of ineptitude, arrogance, mendacity that were largely absent from newspapers and broadcast news in the first half of the decade are now driving a remarkable rebirth of hard-cover journalism.

The subjects range from fiscal policy to warrantless surveillance, with many of the books focused on the origins and conduct of the fiasco in Iraq. Some are the tell-all memoirs of former insiders – greedy, repentant or both – but most are the off-the-clock work of mainstream journalists.

The phenomenon is the subject of a nifty, well-observed essay in the current Columbia Journalism Review by Elisabeth Sifton, a veteran book publishing executive. As much of the daily press ricochets between hyper-local coverage, consumer tips, celebrity mush and Web-borne micro-news, people who really want to know what’s going on are forced to look elsewhere. What an irony, Sifton writes, “to have books, not newspapers, … show that intellectual coherence and long-range public interest are not mere stodgy relics of the past.”

This, she acknowledges, isn’t altogether new. Journalists have long turned to books as a path to financial independence, relief from the corset of straight facts and a furlough from daily deadlines. The modern classic of the genre is the late David Halberstam’s masterly 1972 book on the engineers of the Vietnam catastrophe, “The Best and the Brightest.”

But we’re in a different age now. After all, Halberstam focused on the Kennedy-Johnson administration, and his work came out nearly four years after it ended. As good as it was, by then nobody over the mental age of 11 could be surprised by the deceit and stupidity Halberstam described. He furnished detail and meaning. He was out of the news business.

Not now. The stories these books relate are hot. They speak to the competence, honesty, integrity and motives of the people who are in charge right now. They are precisely the coverage we need from the country’s best reporters.

So if they hit the news media – the newspaper front pages, TV nightly news or Web news sites – only as an incidental byproduct of hard-cover publication, does that matter?

I think it matters a lot.

First, books are not a timely medium. Even when they’re brimming with relevance, they cannot help but bring stories that could have been told months or even years sooner. Hence, they invariably depend on news embargoes, something journalists normally bristle at. This embargo is no less harmful to the public than any other, even if it benefits the reporter.

Second, books reach a very different audience – book-readers. It’s a population that skews richer, more elite and less representative of the mass of Americans than even the shrinking audience for newspapers and TV news. And it’s much smaller.

Third, this means that most of the people who learn about a book’s disclosures do so through second-hand news reports or chatter spawned by its publication. So we’re back to relying on the same news media the journalists work for, except now we’re getting the stories late and in truncated form.

Finally, I worry about the incentives this arrangement insinuates deep into the profession of journalism. What happens when strong, routine coverage is nothing but a loss-leader for our best reporters, paying them little but giving them vital access and material for their next books? How does that square with their duty to make publicly significant information public – meaning now, not for an autumn ’09 book rollout?

And who will trust the news organization whose credibility is perpetually undermined because its top talent have their eye on side ventures for which they are deliberately withholding newsworthy material?

Still, as Sifton writes, “These books vindicate our confidence in the unique abilities of print media to inform, entertain and enlighten the public,” and I think that’s important. But I don’t think that was ever really in doubt.

What is in doubt is whether the best of the journalism traditions that arose in the print era will find a suitable home in the post-newspaper age. Books may be a temporary refuge or a weekend retreat, but they cannot be a primary residence. Great reporting  factual, richly detailed and burning with significance – belongs on the most powerful and most universally accessible channels we have for news, which are those that are still taking shape on the Internet.

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