Brief Encounters

Short reviews of books: the AP, the I. Lewis Libby trial, White House communications, and abuses of civil liberties
December 27, 2007

Breaking News: How the Associated Press Has Covered War, Peace, and Everything Else

By Reporters of the Associated Press, with a foreword by David Halberstam

Princeton Architectural Press

432 pages, $35

In this multi-authored new history of the Associated Press, Larry Heinzerling refers to his fellow foreign correspondents as “the infantry of international journalism.” In fact, the term “infantry” could be applied to the whole corps of AP staffers, past and present; they have served as journalism’s foot soldiers, reporting what needs to be reported, even when the world isn’t necessarily paying close attention, and even when it doesn’t provide them with much in the way of riches or glamour. In its century and a half as a nonprofit cooperative, the AP has produced relatively few celebrity journalists; indeed, staffers didn’t even get bylines until the 1920s.

The AP has chosen a workable strategy for this volume, assigning its veteran reporters to tell war stories, in both the literal and the broader sense, about other reporters, preserving the tales and lore of, primarily, the AP’s work in the twentieth century. This means that credit is at last given to many who did brave but unacknowledged work, and that those who blundered are not spared. There are dozens of pictures from AP photographers, who have won a good many more Pulitzers than the reporters, and a warm recollection by David Halberstam of his friends at the distinguished AP Saigon bureau of the early 1970s.

The United States v. I. Lewis Libby

Edited and with reporting by Murray Waas, with additional editing and reporting by Jeff Lomonaco

Union Square Press

584 pages, $12.95 paper

Murray Waas, a disciple of Jack Anderson, the ultimate outsider, has assembled a plump volume of the trial and grand-jury records in the case of I. Lewis Libby, chief of staff to the vice president, convicted in March of obstruction of justice and lying in the case involving disclosure of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. The transcripts make clear that Waas may have had less interest in Libby’s missteps than in the foibles of a cohort of Washington’s current insider journalists, among whom Tim Russert, Bob Woodward, Judith Miller (jailed for a time for refusing to testify), and Robert Novak (who first revealed Plame’s identity to the public), were the most celebrated. Their accounts of dealing with Libby and other members of the administration constitute an encyclopedia of insiderdom—the anonymous-source-concealment dance, the sometimes transparent charade of selective source protection, the willingness to be spun in exchange for access to power. Most embarrassingly, the trial revealed the far-from-precise methods of top-rank journalists—lost notebooks, illegible notes, shaky recollections. It could happen to anybody, of course, but these were supposed to be among the best.

Managing the President’s Message: The White House Communications Operation

By Martha Joynt Kumar

The Johns Hopkins University Press

345 pages, $35

Not everybody may realize that during the seven years that The West Wing ran on network television, there was another, nonfictional White House operating in Washington. It is portrayed in Managing the President’s Message by Martha Joynt Kumar, who is a professor of political science at Towson University and a part-time fly-on-the-wall at the White House, where she has observed and evaluated presidential communications since 1995. Although she apparently had access to almost any White House staffer, she was closest to the press operation and found a home in the basement of the press room. She interestingly describes how controversies in the news looked from the inside, vividly recounting the travails of recent presidential press secretaries in dealing with increasingly recalcitrant reporters. In White House terms, for example, the I. Lewis Libby controversy played out less as a legal action than as a crisis of truth-telling for Scott McClellan, who, she asserts, lost his job because of it.

Bill of Wrongs: The Executive Branch’s Assault on America’s Fundamental Rights

By Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose

Random House

214 pages, $24.95

Sadly, the unmistakable voice of Molly Ivins diminishes and all but vanishes in this last book to bear her name. It is nothing against her collaborator, Lou Dubose, or the book’s detailed recounting of abuses of civil liberties, to say that only the introduction is pure Ivins in the first person. She winningly recounts her fifteen years of going into the constitutional boondocks to speak on behalf of the First Amendment. She takes a last look at the current scene and avers that, were it not for her phlegmatic nature, she would be so freaked out she would be “staging a pitched, shrieking, quivering, hysterical, rolling-on-the-ground, speaking-in-tongues fit.” Well, even a little bit of Molly helps, but there won’t be any more. She died too young, at sixty-two, last January.

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.