Whoever said long stories put off readers hasn’t scanned the New York Times best-seller list lately. Even though newspapers and magazines have crammed their pages with Iraq reporting, readers seem insatiable on the topic. The current Times list features four heavily reported and lengthy books about the Iraq adventure: Hubris, by Michael Isikoff and David Corn; Fiasco, by Thomas Ricks; State of Denial, by Bob Woodward; and Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran.
All four titles belong to the genre I call the “newsbook,” which straddles the space between contemporary history and daily journalism and is usually hooked to Washington and politics. Unlike most conventional histories, newsbooks are written by journalists and they’re composed at breakneck speed. Isikoff and Corn, for example, signed their Hubris contract in November 2005, marked up and added to galleys in mid-August 2006, and published the book ahead of schedule in September.
Just because newsbooks are turned out fast and reflect the news cycle in which they’re published doesn’t make them quickie books, those team-written paperbacks that newspapers, magazines, and clip-job artists produce within weeks of disasters like the Challenger explosion, 9/11, or Hurricane Katrina. Nor are they kin to the campaign pageants that Teddy White and others used to publish the year after a presidential election. What distinguishes newsbooks is their hard-news edge: They break the sort of news that the dailies follow for days and sometimes weeks. And they change the course of the political debate. This effect is amplified, of course, when newspapers and magazines run excerpts, as the Washington Post did for its employees Woodward, Ricks, and Chandrasekaran, and Newsweek did for its reporter Isikoff.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein probably invented the genre with The Final Days, their scoop-filled 1976 book about the Nixon White House. (All the President’s Men is a terrific book, but its lack of breaking news disqualifies it from newsbook status.) I write “probably invented” because my friend and Slate contributor David Greenberg points to a proto-newsbook from 1938, The 168 Days, by Joseph Alsop and Turner Catledge. It covers President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1937 attempt to pack the Supreme Court. So, just to be safe, let’s call TheFinal Days the reawakening of the genre and Woodward its godfather.
How do newsbooks break news on beats already super-saturated with reporters? Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell dealt with this question in her Sunday column. A reader wrote Howell that she regards it “immoral” for Post journalists to withhold their revelatory accounts from the newspaper until their book is ready to be excerpted in its pages. (I’m paraphrasing.) Longtime Postie Karen DeYoung, author of a new—and yes, recently excerpted in the Washington Post—biography of Colin Powell, tells Howell that people are more willing to go on the record with a book author as opposed to a daily beat reporter because it gives them an opportunity to speak to “posterity.”
Sources who think they’re speaking to posterity when they talk to book authors are deluded. If anything that passed through their lips contains news value, the nugget will be ripped out of its bookish context and be splashed on Page One.
Some of Godfather Woodward’s sources are persuaded by the different—some would say lower—journalistic standards he observes. Woodward persuades some sources to sing by promising not to quote them or describe them as a source, which gives them the deniability they desire. (Call it speaking to posterity without pain.) When it comes time to write, Woodward assumes the omniscient position and describes what people were thinking or what they said without attributing it to anybody. Woodward breaks mucho news this way, and I’m not as critical as most about his unorthodox techniques. He stakes his reputation on the quality of the information he collects as opposed to its provenance. Given that newspaper and magazine editors forbid reporters from practicing Woodward-like techniques, it’s absurd for readers to expect reporters to achieve Woodward-like results.
The scoops found in the newsbooks indicate that the competitive pressure of the daily deadline buries as much potential news as it unearths. David Corn tells me that sources on Capitol Hill often won’t disclose inside information about what’s happening today—which every reporter is asking them about—but these same sources will be more forthcoming about last week’s events, which are no longer the hot subject of the moment. By standing outside of today’s news cycle, newsbook authors can recognize patterns and make connections that escape beat reporters filing four or five pieces a week.
One valid criticism of newsbooks is that there often isn’t enough news in them to fill a three-part newspaper series. That’s often true, but lots of long magazine stories can be distilled to a similar concentration. If the long book offends thee, I say skim it!
Reporters who sign newsbook contracts should expect 16-hour days chasing leads they might get scooped on. But for their entrepreneurial efforts they can hope to reap the fruits of their labors. Every newsbook writer hopes that the newsbook capitalism that made a millionaire out of Woodward will make him a millionaire, too. The Washington Post harnesses newsbook greed better than any newspaper in America, granting book leaves at the drop of a hat. When it eventually excerpts the better books written by staffers, both the staffer and the paper benefit: The staffer gets a publicity push, and the paper gets a story it wouldn’t have otherwise.
What explains the success of the current crop of newsbooks? I’ve only touched on a few of the many good newsbooks published in recent months. Such reporters as James Risen (State of War), Ron Suskind (The One Percent Doctrine), Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor (Cobra II), George Packer (Assassin’s Gate), and others have lit up the best-seller lists with their Iraq newsbooks. It’s a very good book list when you think about it.
War is always very good to reporters, but merchandising books is much easier than it was, say, 15 years ago. Back then there was only one cable news channel, CNN, and it didn’t do a very good job of showcasing books. Today, all three channels reserve hours each week for newsbook talk. Back then Borders and Barnes and Noble had yet to occupy every mall and retail area in America. Today, a pallet of Woodward’s book welcomes you as you enter the Pentagon City Costco. And back then books weren’t presold on Amazon, because Amazon didn’t exist. Also, publishers have gotten slightly better at manufacturing and distributing timely books to exploit the news cycle’s dips and turns, and book publicists have gotten better at building hype.
Let’s reserve the final credit for the newsbook’s ascent to readers, that much-maligned group that is said to crave a diet exclusively composed of shorter news stories, gossip columns, and blog entries. Every time they buy a newsbook, they’re voting with their dollars for complex, in-depth journalism. Isn’t that good news?
Disclosure: David Corn is a very good friend of mine. Michael Isikoff is a friend, but not so good. In fact, it’s been so long since I’ve socialized with him, I’d say he’s not a friend anymore but merely somebody I know. I’m friendly with Thomas Ricks. I interviewed Rajiv Chandrasekaran once. And I had a sandwich with Bob Woodward 13 years ago and still maintain he didn’t get a goddamn thing out of me no matter what you read in his books. Share your Woodward story via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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