Brief Encounters

Short reviews of books on journalists William L. Shirer and E.J. Edwards, plus the documentary Page One

The Long Night: William L. Shirer and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by Steve Wick | Palgrave Macmillan | 288 pages, $27

In 1941, William L. Shirer, one of Edward R. Murrow’s team of CBS correspondents in Europe, wrote Berlin Diary, an account of his nearly seven years covering the Nazi regime, which he loathed not only for its barbarity but for its crude censorship of his scripts. The book became a best-seller in an America just awakening to the dangers of aggressive totalitarianism, as did his later history, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Steve Wick’s The Long Night is a suspenseful recasting of the same period covered in Berlin Diary, using the published diary but more importantly the original handwritten pages Shirer smuggled out of Berlin when he left at the end of 1940. They are now archived at Shirer’s alma mater, Coe College, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Wick, a Newsday senior editor, disavows any claim to being a historian. Still, he has used his resources scrupulously and illuminates, more than does the 1941 book, the heavy personal toll that remaining in Berlin took on Shirer and his family.

The President Is a Sick Man by Matthew Algeo | Chicago Review Press | 255 pages, $24.95

On July 1, 1893 only weeks into his second term, President Grover Cleveland disappeared from the White House. Nothing was heard of him for several days, until he turned up at his summer house on Buzzards Bay, just west of Cape Cod. And he was not seen publicly until he returned to Washington on August 4, and then only briefly. On August 29, The Philadelphia Press carried an exclusive by its Washington columnist, E. J. Edwards, under the headline, the president a very sick man. Edwards revealed that in fact the president had undergone surgery for a tumor in the cigar-chewing area of his mouth while on a yacht bound for Buzzards Bay. All participants had been sworn to secrecy, but one—the dentist-anesthesiologist—had leaked.

Those involved denied the story and Edwards was all but drummed out of his profession, although the story was accurate and respectful. Poor Edwards had to wait until 1917 for vindication by one of the surgeons. It’s a tale of its time: Who now can imagine a president staying out of sight for a month? And who can imagine a reporter punished for printing a leak? Matthew Algeo of NPR News tells the story engagingly, if somewhat discursively.

Page One: Inside The New York Times, a film by Andrew Rossi; written by Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack | Magnolia Pictures, Participant Media, and History Films | 88 minutes

Page One: Inside The New York Times and the Future of Journalism edited by David Folkenflik | PublicAffairs Books | 192 pages, $15.99

Page One, the brisk new documentary with a dull name, portrays The New York Times as it rides out the digital tsunami. The historical standard of comparison is the Times portrayed in The Kingdom and the Power, Gay Talese’s 1969 account of the newspaper in its Abe Rosenthal period, approaching the apex of its power and affluence. The Times of 2010 is now designated a “legacy” medium (cant for old-fashioned) under strain from the ills that have killed or bankrupted lesser newspapers.

The filmmakers had the happy idea of narrowing their inside view of the paper to a few relatively narrow slices: Bill Keller, the executive editor, is seen dealing with the problems raised by WikiLeaks, accusing The Huffington Post of being a mere aggregator, and presiding over a rather somnolent page-one conference. But the most prominent figure is the media columnist David Carr. His grizzled presence reminds me of old Humphrey Bogart playing the tough editor defending the honor of a dying newspaper in the classic Deadline-U.S.A. (1952). Carr, as he goes about his work, uses gruff language to defend and uphold the worth of his embattled employer. He is well aware of the new threats, but asserts stoutly that the Times still thrives as a news institution, whatever the means that may eventually be used to distribute it.

Carr is complemented by the media department editor, Bruce Headlam, a talented aphorist. Overall, the film is more friendly than critical, to the point that the newspaper itself is sponsoring semi-promotional screenings. The accompanying book assembled by David Folkenflik, media correspondent for NPR News, contains a batch of articles and discussions bearing in one way or another on the documentary’s themes.

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.