Brief Encounters

Short reviews of books about Masson v. New Yorker and immersion journalism at Harper's magazine.

Literary Journalism on Trial: Masson v. New Yorker and The First Amendment

By Kathy Roberts Forde

University of Massachusetts Press

304 pages, $28.95

The Masson case was, like so many other libel cases of the last third of the last century, protracted and clouded. At its core was the question of whether Janet Malcolm, a New Yorker writer, had attributed words to an interviewee, the Freud scholar Jeffrey Masson, that falsely portrayed him as a braggart and a fool. In the wake of Malcolm’s 1983 article, Masson filed suit, denying the accuracy of quotations that had him characterizing himself as (among other things) “an intellectual gigolo.” After a considerable interval of legal wrangling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a false quotation could indeed be libelous. But in the final trial, in 1994, Masson lost—hence, a standoff. Kathy Roberts Forde, a professor at the University of Minnesota, leads the way with surprising clarity through the tortuous proceedings. She also describes significant dramas playing out behind Masson. First, she shows that the case inflicted another in a series of blows to the freedom of discussion guaranteed in the groundbreaking case of New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), which placed libel law under the protective wing of the First Amendment. Second, she sees the legal battle as one more symptom of the tension between traditional reporting and the freer-form modes that came to be known as the New Journalism. Malcolm, although more a conventional New Yorker writer than an innovator, was widely attacked as representative of the purported carelessness and irresponsibility of the New Journalists. Forde’s discussion of these matters is consistently engaging. And for good measure, she throws in an amusing chapter on earlier libel cases involving The New Yorker, including the magazine’s effort to deal with the delusionary Cat Woman, who was devoted to ridding the city of its strays—a dispute that lasted from 1938 to 1943, and was ultimately settled for the sum of $25.

The Scripps Newspapers Go to War, 1914–18

By Dale E. Zacher

University of Illinois Press

304 pages, $45

There are few more combustible combinations than a father, a son, and a newspaper chain. By 1914, the news organization created by the crusty E. W. Scripps (1854–1926) included twenty-two newspapers, the United Press wire service, and the feature-oriented Newspaper Enterprise Association, the whole comprising an entity that insiders called the Concern. The Scripps empire was progressive in orientation, supporting Wilson twice for president and attempting to maintain neutrality in the early days of World War I. But ultimately the Concern was swept into the war fever of 1917 and succumbed to jingoism and sensationalism, supporting Wilson’s drastic war measures. However, the real drama at the Concern was behind the scenes and strictly Oedipal—the story of the aging founder seeming to give power to his two sons, then seizing it back whenever they showed flutters of independence. The most embarrassing moment in this family drama came when E. W., after noisily supporting the draft in his newspapers, sought dubious exemptions for his boys. In the end, the fallout from this intra-family struggle was the breakup of the chain, with the dissident West Coast papers, under elder son Jim, seceding. The story is told effectively by Dale E. Zacher of the University of Arkansas and is an excellent addition to the flourishing Illinois “History of Communication” series.

Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person from Harper’s Magazine

Edited by Bill Wasik

The New Press

336 pages, $26.95

Whatever the varying merits of this patchwork of articles, they at least offer views of the unfamiliar. There is an interval with the rambunctious junior auxiliary of the “Family,” a mostly secret religious organization that has attracted many federal officials; a trip with an organization that carries bride-seeking American men to Ukraine; and the work of an ostensibly arts-oriented group that commits fanciful vandalism at the Queens Museum in New York. In almost every piece, the writer is a participant, either disguised or in the open. Under treatment herself, Barbara Ehrenreich tells of her encounter with the breast-cancer culture of stuffed animals and good cheer that has grown up around the illness, and will have none of it. The young Willem Marx gets himself deeply involved in the Pentagon’s system for feeding purportedly good news to the Iraqi media. Daringly, Ken Silverstein runs a scam that gets high-powered D.C. lobbying firms to trot out their wares on behalf of Turkmenistan—a beleaguered nation with which, of course, Silverstein has no connection whatsoever. The collection could have done with more annotation: What was the impact of these stories? What happened afterward? Not a clue.

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.