We think of books as a more accurate and disciplined medium than newspapers, perhaps because a book’s lead time can stretch into years as opposed to the days or hours of preparation backing a newspaper story. Books conjure images of carefully constructed prose, endless bibliographies, and scores of pages of 6-point footnotes that trap the Truth. Newspaper stories, on the other hand, are thought to be thinly sourced and painted with a hasty, broad brush, sometimes dripping yellow or purple.
The work of New York Times reporter James Risen weighed against that of James Risen, book author, cuts against that presumption. I mean no disparagement of Risen, an excellent reporter, when I rate his stories about the high-tech domestic surveillance by the National Security Agencyin the Dec. 16, Dec. 21, and Dec. 24 editions of the Times as superior to the chapter covering the same topic in his new book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.
Nothing in State of War’s 8,000-word NSA chapter contradicts these 8,500 words written by Risen and Justice Department beat reporter Eric Lichtblau for the Times. And while the differences between the two versions are subtle, by my reckoning the newspaper’s treads more cautiously and reads more authoritatively. For instance, the chapter names U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth as the chief judge of the FISA court who was “quietly notified” of the secret NSA eavesdropping operation and then “didn’t stand in the way” of the program. The Times leaves Lamberth’s name out. The Times cites “[n]early a dozen current and former officials,” who remain anonymous, to support its case. The chapter doesn’t enumerate its blind sources. The chapter sources to “two lawyers” the estimate that 10 to 20 percent of search warrants issued by the FISA court grew out of the secret surveillance program. The newspaper doesn’t venture such an estimate. The chapter repeatedly summarizes Bush administration justifications, intentions, and beliefs without explaining who voiced those sentiments.
Comparing something static, such as a book, to an ongoing set of newspaper articles, is wildly unfair. The Times articles benefit from 1) having appeared in a series, with each installment moving the story ahead; 2) collecting the “no comment” comments from government officials that can be read as a kind of confirmation; and 3) Risen being backstopped by his Times editors (no Judith Miller jokes, please!). State of War, on the other hand, appears to have been composed and published under a broad cloak of secrecy lest its scoops be stolen between the time (weeks ago? months ago?) it was delivered to its publisher and the time it reached bookstores today.
Risen’s NSA chapter moves cinematically, while the Dec. 16 newspaper version rat-a-tat-tats in a no-nonsense, inverted pyramid style that shakes you awake. It’s the difference between a Frontline documentary and a tight legal brief. When he begins State of War’s NSA chapter like a magazine piece, describing NSA head Michael Hayden as “balding and soft-spoken” and provides a mini-chronicle of his life and that of the agency before gently dipping into the big story, I understand. He’s giving the non-news junkies and future readers the back story and providing them with a comforting mattress of words.
Yet as the section unfurls, Risen makes a brief but completely unsourced revelation, which, if written to length, could probably be a book unto itself. In a “remarkable” accomplishment from 1990, never made public, “the CIA and NSA jointly stole virtually every code machine (and their manuals) in use by the Soviet Union, giving NSA’s code breakers a remarkable advantage on Moscow,” he writes. Such an assertion could never make it into the Times or any other quality daily without being tethered to some document, spy, or anonymous official. I’m not saying I doubt Risen’s shocker, merely illustrating the book business’s lower journalistic standards.
Or, say, when Risen writes in his chapter about the “small, select group of like-minded conservative lawyers” in the Justice Department who Attorney General John Ashcroft assigned to write legal opinions to support the secret NSA surveillance. “They may have been some of the same lawyers involved in the legal opinions supporting the harsh interrogation techniques,” Risen writes, bringing two thoughts to mind: 1) They may also not be and 2) such unsupported speculation would never pass muster in the Times.
Enough of my ungrateful carping: James Risen deserves our thanks for both his book and his newspaper work. But my point stands. The fundamental difference between good book chapters and good newspaper articles boils down to this: The highest journalistic standard in New York book publishing is one of liability. “Did we libel anybody?” At newspapers like the Times it is, “Is it true?”
Am I wrong about Risen vs. Risen? Take the Shafer Challenge: Read the Times stories above and then Chapter 2 of State of War at your neighborhood Borders and send your findings to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)