The Second Draft of History

Where newspapers fall short, news books continue to succeed
October 2, 2007

When William Russell telegraphed his reports from the Crimean War to The Times of London in 1854, English readers learned what their soldiers were facing only moments, it seemed, after the barbarous events. This virtual simultaneity was new to journalism, and it was heady stuff. Russell described shocking circumstances that were being denied or played down in government debate about the conflict with Russia, so public attitudes were quickly affected. The two volumes of Russell’s dispatches published in 1856 only consolidated their importance.

Since that day, books by news reporters have usually been, unlike Russell’s, quite different from the regular dispatches on which they may be based and which they aim to surpass. They’re not exactly history, but they certainly contribute to our understanding of historic events—and they sometimes make news. How can that still be true? Russell’s reports had no competition, but today readers are inundated at all hours with breaking stories coming from every possible quarter. Yet amid this information glut, news books still matter, and we should appreciate why.

I don’t have the inside skinny on why newspaper editors permit, condone, or merely endure having their staff writers take off time to compose books, but I can attest to the reasons why we book publishers like it when they do. The reporters are often genuine experts on fascinating subjects; liberated from column inches, they add detail and color, improve and correct, expound more fully on the medium- and long-term implications of events; they also vent their own opinions, which in classical newspaper work should be rigorously omitted—and all of these are prerequisites for a good book. The best work usually comes from reporters who’ve planned a book all along—though sometimes they don’t decide to write one until the middle of a big story and then have to play catch-up—and they weave threads of varying weights and textures. Most important, they step back and reconsider What It All Meant. They change the perspective and, let’s say, the teleology. Their books can be newsworthy, then, simply because of the revised framework of understanding, the fresh re-ordering of known facts.

The ambitious, clarifying narrative of the best news books is what readers want and, I would say, what citizens deserve. It’s because newspapers themselves were once the source of such narrative material that news books by celebrated reporters became popular staples in the book trade. And they weren’t hard to publish, provided you got the timing right. During the Cold War, books that helped make sense of that inscrutable foe, the Soviet Union, were important in this way—for example, Robert G. Kaiser of The Washington Post’s Russia: The People and the Power (1976); and, when that power fell apart, the superb David Remnick’s reports from Moscow recast as Lenin’s Tomb (1993). Joseph Lelyveld’s marvelous Move Your Shadow (1985) was composed after that writer’s second assignment in South Africa; he thanked his New York Times editor for understanding his “compulsion to return” to Johannesburg, and indeed this double dip gave both his work for the Times and his book great depth and richness.

War reporting, to return to the Russell paradigm, is a special category, naturally. The circumstances of battle and patriotic reflexes being what they are, the war book tends either to celebrate the ordinary soldier’s extraordinary experiences and virtues (Ernie Pyle) or to offer a blistering exposé of the war leadership’s craven, error-ridden, duplicitous inadequacy (David Halberstam). Yet exceptions to this dual tendency are often the best of all; in the case of the Vietnam War, Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977), Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History (1983), and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie (1988) deservedly reached huge audiences who appreciated their moral complexity and multifaceted interpretation. It’s worth noting that Herr, a feature writer for Esquire and Rolling Stone, wrote his book a half-dozen years after his return from Vietnam; Sheehan, who had been in Vietnam for UPI and The New York Times, delivered his manuscript to Random House sixteen years after it was due. Great war books convey the immediacy of battle, but they take time to write, and readers don’t mind the wait.

Blockbusters about political scandals always thrive—the genre not invented by, but today best known as practiced by, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men. People already knew of Woodward and Bernstein’s celebrated Post coverage of Watergate because it had helped to drive events, but they still wanted the book, just as they needed Theodore White’s books about the 1960 and 1964 presidential campaigns. The significance of certain political rituals or agonies can only be appreciated when a good writer exploits their dramatic meaning.

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Despite these famous successes, a book project hatched by a news reporter is a creature of uncertain parentage and upbringing, and it risks being spurned or disregarded. News editors may find it hard to tolerate a reporter’s sudden enthusiasm for chasing a story that looks great in a book proposal but isn’t helping the paper, and they regret the interruption in an otherwise promising career trajectory. Book editors tire of writers’ perennial, loony hope that behind every huge headline lies a potential best-seller. Truth is it takes unusual tenacity, shrewd intelligence, and stylistic verve to make news books work. For every prize-winning The Lost Children of Wilder (by The New York Times’s Nina Bernstein), four or five efforts fall by the wayside.

What draws readers to good news books is, beyond the narrative excitement, the thematic coherence they impose on an incoherent public world. Even though they may arrive late, they bring important events into focus, and give them authoritative personal clout. News editors once strived for this kind of constancy in the news pages, too. But today one gets the impression that it’s no longer a prime goal, perhaps thought of as old-fashioned and slowpoke, even though the news media’s resources and traditions are uniquely well suited to composing this famous “first draft of history,” the meta-narrative of events, people, and movements that unfolds daily and is understood over the week, month, or year. Today, newspapers (or their corporate owners, for sure) seem to prefer meeting the torrent of TV and Internet news head on, matching the sometimes hysterical buzz around evolving stories with new-found sprays of relevant information or featured color pieces on hot topics or obscure peculiarities, covering the stuff when the public pays heed but dropping it thereafter—all at a breakneck pace.

Of course, newspapers are trying, in their panicked way, to deal with the fact that, thanks to the decline and aging of their readership, the advent of the Web, and the money crunch created by falling circulation and loss of advertising revenue, their old ways of doing business are defunct. But they’re also showing a loss of confidence in the virtues of print itself, as if they would be doomed unless they match the nonprint media’s emphasis on things that don’t really matter. If so, then they’re forgetting a basic truth: print media have never been easy to make money in, and the only publishers who stay in the black are those who actually believe that print publication can accomplish something that nothing else can—whether high-minded or basely commercial, whether for the public interest or for private gain, whether for readers of true news, art, and history, or for consumers of profit-driven entertainment and marketing.

This has been true ever since Gutenberg. The very nature of print—its relative slowness, the required due diligence and imaginative engagement that are part and parcel of its laborious processes, the need to check and proof (or prove) before printing, the promise (and threat) of permanence, the freedom and power given by knowing that the printed word (read or unread) will endure for posterity, the peculiarly public yet intimate act of reading—draws together readers and writers in an exchange that conveys value in an intense, memorable way. Both involved parties recognize the unaccountable power of the printed word, and their ancient pact, when respected, can put television, text messages, and ephemeral Web sites in the shade.

It may be the case that newspapers must, like television news organizations, squeeze and belt-tighten, close foreign bureaus, consolidate staff. Perhaps, as they claim, they don’t have the dough to give reporters leeway to explore difficult terrain and make their own discoveries as they once did—whether in Houston or Afghanistan. Long-running investigative series become an endangered species. And, we are told, the papers must please a younger cohort with a famously short attention span and only fleeting interest in hard news. But to respond like this is to enact a self-fulfilling prophecy, to create an ethos that repudiates, or forgets, the continuing public appetite for keeping up with the news by reading it. And it makes for a cynical, vicious circle: the dumber we are, the dumber our papers make us.

Yet wait a minute! Readers are showing, not only in their use of the Web but in their purchase of books, an age-old, still insatiable appetite for intelligently reported news; when they can, they devour five-hundred-page tomes about events near and far and make best-sellers of them. What an irony—to have news editors fear they might no longer attract readers with sustained, individuated attention to the perils of our time, and to have book publishers demonstrate the opposite! To have books, not newspapers, capture a still-important growth potential in the print world and show that intellectual coherence and long-range public interest are not mere stodgy relics of the past! While the newspaper hares hop off to their 24/7 rolling cybernetic deadlines, is the bookish tortoise winning the race?

Nowhere is the paradox clearer than in the media’s failure—now the stuff of remorseful legend—to report effectively on the policies and politics of the Bush administration, and in the redemptive contribution news books have made to our eventual enlightenment.

The shameful story begins during the Clinton years, when television and print media capitulated to the cartoonish simplicities of 24/7 infotainment as provided by Fox News, Matt Drudge, and the like. While they largely resisted the urge to match these new competitors’ hyped-up excitement quotients (thank goodness), they adopted their low standards for newsworthiness and their idea of what the meta-narrative actually was. Ignoring the motives of their sources, scores of reporters went after raunchy, vulgar, leak-filled, and partially invented tales about Bill Clinton that were too juicy to ignore, though they had little to do with the misjudgments and policy failures of his presidency, which were certainly manifold, and everything to do with his political enemies’ desire to bring that presidency to an end. “Disgraceful things did happen” in those years, Joseph Lelyveld, executive editor of The New York Times at the time, later acknowledged in a review of Sidney Blumenthal’s The Clinton Wars (which I edited). “On more than one occasion, an Internet gossip columnist did set the agenda for mainstream news organizations. Stories without sources did gain instant currency. Some were fabricated.”

The sloppy journalistic habits of the 1990s included the Washington press corps’ age-old enthusiasm for being part of the capital’s power elite rather than a skeptical witness to it. After the very same operatives who, in the 1990s, had schemed to plant or leak the anti-Clinton stories came to office in 2001, post-Bush v. Gore, the press, having feasted on their goodies for years, gave them a respectful wide berth. But by then it was morally asleep.

We book publishers noticed that during 2002, while pundits and the press praised the government for its response to 9/11 (and reporters moaned about the administration’s implacable denial of access), tens of thousands of readers developed new browsing habits and went to the Web sites of foreign newspapers, of knowledgeable experts on the Middle East and Central Asia, of other sources who supplied missing information and analysis. Daily and weekly hits at The Guardian, Le Monde, and Juan Cole’s blog Informed Comment, for example, increased exponentially. No wonder, then, that we competed for writers who would shed light on the murk. News books were urgently needed not, as in the past, to consolidate what we learned from newspapers or on television, but to flesh out the stories the media weren’t telling us (except for a few heroic reporters here and there, notably in Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau).

By 2004, the trickle of such books became a stream. Woodward’s Bush at War was already a best-seller, and Anne Garrels’s Naked in Baghdad had given us an idea of what was really happening in Iraq. Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty, about Paul O’Neill, Bush’s hapless first Treasury Secretary, was a chilling exposé of the president’s leadership style, and the book became a news story itself when an angry White House reaction boosted sales. More books followed in quick succession, among them James Mann’s Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet and James Bamford’s A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies.

But it was late—months after the statue of Saddam Hussein had been pulled down and Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” and “Bring ’em on” stunts. The carnage was worsening, public knowledge about the ongoing chaos in Iraq was sketchy at best, and coverage of the administration’s behavior in Washington seemed incoherent and contradictory. American readers learned from Hans Blix about wmd, from the 9/11 Commission about the failed hunt for terrorists, from Seymour Hersh and Jane Mayer at The New Yorker about Abu Ghraib, but the big story wasn’t coming through. True, it’s never easy for newspapers to keep up during wars, but as Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a former Baghdad bureau chief at The Washington Post, acknowledged, they’d been unprepared for events after the fall of Baghdad: “In many ways, we were just like the Bush administration: We didn’t have a postwar plan.”

News executives wouldn’t—haven’t—acknowledged their part in the systemic catastrophe of American governance during this time—in congressional oversight, media coverage, and executive action. Robert G. Kaiser, an associate editor of The Washington Post, wrote defensively in February 2004 that he wouldn’t dispute that his “and other news organizations could have done much better. We are archetypal examples of imperfection. We do our thing at breakneck speed 365 days a year, and we make mistakes on every one of them.” As if the problem were the daily deadline! No, the issue was the media’s acceptance of the administration’s ever-changing, specious rationales for war; at the Post itself, the astute Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank had repeatedly cited government sources who questioned those rationales, but their dispatches had often been buried.

In 2004, the editorial note of contrition became a new genre. The New York Times, egg all over its face because of its questionable coverage of the administration’s claims about Saddam’s WMD arsenal, contributed a notorious example on May 26, of which this is but a small excerpt: “In some cases, information that was controversial then [in 2003], and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged—or failed to emerge.”

The misleading, possibly illegal, methods by which the administration gulled and lulled Americans into believing its false arguments about the need for war eventually became well known, but not until after the 2004 election. And it was books, not newspaper apologies, that finally got people’s attention—books written by reporters who understood deadline pressure but grasped the public obligation to convey the big stories about the public’s business. Here came The Washington Post’s Steve Coll with Ghost Wars and the peerless Anthony Shadid with Night Draws Near; George Packer of The New Yorker with The Assassins’ Gate; James Risen of the Times revealing in State of War the administration’s deceits about its program for warrantless wiretapping; Ron Suskind, again, with The One Percent Doctrine; Thomas Ricks’s devastating Fiasco; Bob Woodward with the third in his war trilogy—to name a few. Each of these was a well-argued, well-researched, and compelling narrative about one or another facet of America’s engagement with the world, about what our leaders were doing in our name. People were desperately hungry for these books, and they fell all over them. They—the books and their readers—helped to change the public debate about where America was going, and, I believe, they affected the outcome of the 2006 election.

There’s a permanent lesson here, I think. These books vindicate our confidence in the unique abilities of print media to inform, entertain, and enlighten the public. Their authors, trained in a print tradition that honors these intentions, found a large readership who still appreciated it. John Milton, in his great defense of a free press, Areopagitica (1644), wrote that books “doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are,” and preserve “the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.” For all the “anvils and hammers” in “the shop of warre,” there were, he wrote, in “the mansion house of liberty…pens and heads there, sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas.” Only in this effort of reading, he believed, would citizens appreciate “the force of reason and convincement.” 

Elisabeth Sifton is a senior vice president at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.