As someone who for the past fifteen years has been writing a column that largely focuses on the news media, I’ve read what is no doubt an altogether unhealthy number of books on the subject. Most of them were instantly forgettable while some created a brief buzz but failed to pass the test of time. And then there were those select few that merited a permanent spot on the bookshelf.
The following titles stand out from the rest and make instructive and pleasurable reading for anyone with an interest in the impact of the news media on our lives.
The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune (Alfred A. Knopf, 1986) by Richard Kluger: Massive award-winning book tells the story of the newspaper that for decades ranked right up there with The New York Times in the scope of its news coverage – and was widely acknowledged to have been a better-written, livelier read than the Times.
Media Circus: The Trouble With America’s Newspapers (Times Books, 1993) by Howard Kurtz: An anecdote-filled look at an industry that was already in deep trouble by the mid-1990s. Kurtz focuses on a number of problems that had been steadily eating away at the credibility and economic viability of the nation’s daily newspapers, from the incessant focus on sleaze and scandal to the ultimately destructive demands of labor unions. Written before the Internet changed everything, the book is somewhat dated but worth reading nonetheless.
A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures (Simon & Schuster, 1995) by Ben Bradlee: Top-notch autobiography and insider’s view of Washington from the former executive editor of the Washington Post. Bradlee’s most revealing admission is that had it not been for the press (himself prominently included) covering up John Kennedy’s personal and political sordidness, Kennedy probably would have been impeached or forced to resign the presidency.
Coloring the News: How Political Correctness Has Corrupted American Journalism (Encounter 2003) by William McGowan: A sobering look at how liberal pieties and the push for “diversity” in hiring practices led to increasingly skewed news coverage by such mainstream media institutions as The New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today.
The Great American Newspaper: The Rise and Fall of the Village Voice (Scribner, 1978) by Kevin McAuliffe: Whatever one thinks of the Village Voice’s politics, there’s no denying the weekly’s important place in the history of 20th-century American journalism. This crisp account covers the Voice from its founding in the 1950s to the start, in the mid-70s, of what turned out to be a slow but steady decline.
Read All About It! The Collected Adventures of a Maverick Reporter (Summit Books, 1982) by Sidney Zion: More than a collection of essays and columns, the first part of the book is a hard-boiled memoir of the newspaper business in the 1960s and 70s, when Zion worked as a reporter in New York for the Post and the Times. The story of Zion’s role in the Pentagon Papers controversy – and the shabby treatment he experienced at the hands of A.M. Rosenthal and other Times executives – is worthy of a book in itself.
Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps (Oxford University Press, 2005) by Donald A. Ritchie: Traces the evolution of media coverage news of our nation’s government and its leaders. Ritchie’s account begins in the sleepy early 1930s and takes readers through the rise of television in the 1950s and 60s, the advent of 24-hour cable news in the 1980s and the game-changing Internet revolution we’ve all been experiencing since the late 1990s.
Theirs Was the Kingdom: Lila and Dewitt Wallace and the Story of the Reader’s Digest (W.W. Norton, 1993) by John Heidenry: Characterized by its blend of political conservatism, non-denominational religious inspiration, down-home humor and old-fashioned patriotism, Reader’s Digest was long scorned by the literary and academic establishments but loved by millions of readers around the world. This finely written yet exhaustively detailed account traces the Digest’s fortunes and tells the not always flattering truth about the people behind the publication.
Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics (Free Press, 1991) by Larry Sabato: Examines all the major (and some not so major) political scandals of the seventies and eighties and how they were covered by the news media. Sabato, a professor of government, interviewed more than 200 reporters and politicians in the course of his research.
Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time (Times Books, 1996) by Howard Kurtz: One of the surprisingly few good books to trace the growth of talk radio and TV shoutfests – and still the best of the lot. Kurtz zeroes in on such phenomena as “The McLaughlin Group,” Phil Donahue and his ever-shriller television progeny, radio shock jocks, and household names like Larry King, Rush Limbaugh and Ted Koppel.
Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way (Random House, 1991) by Ken Auletta: The 1980s were a time of turmoil for CBS, NBC and ABC, what with corporate takeovers, the rise of cable and the revolutionary impact on the nation’s viewing habits of a little contraption called the VCR. Auletta’s detailed recounting of those years makes this arguably one of the two or three most important books ever written about television.
Tick…Tick…Tick: The Long Life and Turbulent Times of 60 Minutes (HarperCollins, 2004) by David Blum: The story of how “60 Minutes” blossomed from a barely watched experimental program in the late 1960s into an American media institution. The details aren’t always pretty, but that’s what makes the book so compelling.
The Powers That Be (Knopf, 1979) by David Halberstam: More than thirty years after its publication, this still ranks as one of the best all-around histories of the American news media. Halberstam, whose writing style could be leaden at times – especially in a book exceeding 700 pages – compensates with an abundance of interesting anecdotes and insightful observations.
The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight (Crown, 2006) by Marc Weingarten: How a group of iconoclastic writers in the mid-1960s – Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson and Jimmy Breslin, among others – changed the way journalists viewed their craft, utilizing unconventional narrative styles and novelistic creativity rather than the staid old “Just the facts, ma’am” approach.
The House That Roone Built: The Inside Story of ABC News (Little Brown, 1994) by Marc Gunther: For decades ABC was an industry joke, a distant third to CBS and NBC in both prime-time programming and news coverage. Then the late Roone Arledge, who’d already made ABC into a sports powerhouse, took over the news operation in 1977 and took it to the top. A lively account of that transformation.
Who Killed CBS? (Random House, 1988) by Peter Boyer: As ABC News moved upward in the 1980s, CBS – the network of Edward R. Murrow, William Shirer and Walter Cronkite – headed in the opposite direction, thanks primarily to a misguided policy aimed at injecting more entertainment into news coverage. Add an unstable ownership situation, draconian budget cuts and the consistently weird behavior of Dan Rather and you’ve got all the elements for a fascinating story.
The Place to Be: Washington, CBS, and the Glory Days of Television News (Public Affairs, 2008): The glories of CBS News before the crash and burn of the 1980s. Mudd, a CBS correspondent from the 1950s through the 1970s, gives the reader an intimate account of what it was like to work for the premier electronic news outlet of the time.
It’s Alive! How America’s Oldest Newspaper Cheated Death and Why It Matters (Villard, 1996) by Steven Cuozzo: Whether or not one agrees with Cuozzo’s premise that tabloid journalism “put[s] the nation back in touch with itself,” this behind-the-scenes look at the ups and downs of the New York Post is both informative and humorous.
The Kingdom And The Power (World, 1969) by Gay Talese: Published way back in 1969, the book remains invaluable for its inside view of the individuals who ran The New York Times when the paper was at its apogee. It doesn’t hurt that the author, a Times reporter for many years, is a master prose artist whose work always sparkles.
My Times (Grosset/Putnam, 1993) by John Corry: A highly individualistic first-person account of one man’s life at The New York Times. Corry, a political conservative who wasn’t afraid of tilting against the Times’s liberal consensus, is also a superb writer and sharp-eyed observer who packs more relevant information into this slim volume than most authors would have managed in a book two or three times as long.
Behind the Times (Villard, 1993) by Edwin Diamond: Diamond wrote this book shortly after Arthur Sulzberger Jr. succeeded his father as publisher. Diamond’s writing tended toward the pedantic, but the book’s strong point is its examination of how the Times evolved as a newspaper and a business.
Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of The New York Times Means for America (Encounter, 2010) by William McGowan: The perfect book to read after the above-mentioned Behind the Times, it traces the Times’s headlong descent into identity politics and political correctness under the reign of Sulzberger Jr.
Fit To Print (Lyle Stuart, 1988) by Joseph Goulden: To date the only full-length biography of longtime New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal. Generally perceived to be an unflattering look at its subject, the book offers a plethora of juicy tidbits about life at the Times from the 1960s through most of the 80s.
Four other recommended books about the Times are Hard News (Random House, 2004) by Seth Mnookin, about the scandals that afflicted the paper during the Howell Raines era from 2001-2003; The Times of My Life and My Life With the Times (Random House, 1999) by former Times executive editor Max Frankel; City Room (Putnam, 2003) by former Times managing editor Arthur Gelb; and The Trust (Little Brown, 1999) by Susan Tifft and Alex Jones, a detailed history of the Ochs-Sulzberger dynasty that owns and runs the paper.
About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press.
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