Last year the Monitor proffered readers a list of books for summer reading that was, it must be said, several intellectual notches above the usual beach-and-bungalow fare. The theme of that list was U.S. presidents. This year’s theme, naturally, is especially close to the Monitor’s heart – the news media.
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 a troubled industry by the Washington Post’s ubiquitous media critic. Kurtz focuses on a number of problems that have been 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 revolution, 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.
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 important place the weekly holds in the history of 20th century American journalism. This crisp account covers the Voice from its founding in the 1950’s to the beginning of its slow, steady (and still ongoing) decline in the mid-70’s.
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 1960’s and 70’s, 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.
Theirs Was the Kingdom: Lila and Dewitt Wallace and the Story of the Reader’s Digest (W.W. Norton, 1993) by John Heidenry: With 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 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 1980’s 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.
The Powers That Be (Knopf, 1979) by David Halberstam: Twenty-eight years after 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 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 and insightful telling of that transformation.