100 books every journalist must read

A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward

A Bintel Brief, Isaac Metzker (ed.)

Those who criticize some of today’s Spanish speakers in America for failing to become “real” Americans fail to realize that the nation’s immigrants traditionally held onto their language and looked to their own media for support and comfort. “A Bintel Brief” — a bundle of letters — was a column in the Jewish Daily Forward starting in 1906. It gave Yiddish speakers a way to understand their strange new land. It’s fascinating to see what the concerns of these immigrants were — especially how universal they were. Journalists of today often need reminding that there is very little new in our craft. Take, for example, interacting with our audience. Some new artifact of the digital revolution? Tell that to the editors who responded to thousands of readers, one at a time, through the Bintel Brief.

Other voice: Jennifer Siegel, Jewish Daily Forward. “Through the column, relatives were reunited, orphans found new homes and difficult communications were proffered under the cover of anonymity. Among the first three printed letters was a missive from a woman who suspected that her desperately poor neighbor had stolen and pawned her son’s beloved pocket watch.”

My dearest friends of the Forward,

I have been jobless for six months now. I have eaten the last shirt on my back and now there is nothing left for me but to end my life . . .

Answer: This is one of hundreds of heartrending pleas for help, cries of need, that we receive daily. The writer of this letter should go first to the Crisis Conference [address given], and they will not let him starve. And further we ask our readers to let us know if someone can create a job for this unemployed man.

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Boss:  Richard J. Daley of Chicago

Boss, Mike Royko

The politics of Chicago are not the same as the politics of other places. The politics of today’s Chicago are not even the same as they were in the era of Mayor Richard J. Daley. But all politics is local, and there is no finer account of local politics than Mike Royko’s masterful profile of Hizzoner (that’s “His Honor,” in Chicagoese). Remember the anecdote that leads off this post, about the editor who recommended the Bible and Shakespeare? My contribution to the discussion was to recommend “Boss.” If you grew up in Chicago during this period, you knew the things Royko described were going on, or at least you guessed. But you almost never read about it in the news. Royko’s column was an exception. He was a sharp and persistent thorn in Daley’s side. All the more astonishing, then, that he was able to get the cooperation of the sources needed for this book.

Other voice: Studs Terkel, New York Times. ” The revelations are, in telling detail, astonishing. His sources, I suspect, are equally startling; among them, the Mayor’s intimates as well as the walking wounded. … It is a stunning portrait of a clod, his resistable rise, and fortuitousness; of that psychic frontier where the man leaves off and the machine begins. Daley’s pomp and presence are a tribute to doggedness, good bookkeeping and, most important, being around. Of clean habits and a clean constitution, he outsat others, who, were it not for bad livers and worse driving, might have themselves presided under the Great Seal. No wonder he prays regularly and works hard.”

The papers like him. If something has gone well, he’ll be praised in an editorial. If something has gone badly, one of his subordinates will be criticized in an editorial. During the 1968 Democratic convention, when their reporters were being bloodied, one of the more scathing newspaper editorials was directed at a lowly Police Department public relations man.

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The Boys on the Bus

The Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse

After the 1960 election, there was “The Making of the President” by Theodore White, a literary account that made campaigning the stuff of drama. White continued the series through 1972. But that campaign also produced two other books — Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail: 1972” and “The Boys on the Bus.” And it would be hard to look at campaigns as drama again; what they were, was farce. Crouse’s book focuses on the reporters, rather than the candidates. For some politics reporters I know (and, I’m pretty sure, for many others I don’t), “Boys on the Bus” formed their expectations of what it would be like to cover a campaign. Indeed, the book’s so influential that it may bear some responsibility for keeping the atmosphere of those ’72 campaigns alive through today.

Other voice: Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post. “Crouse understood some essential but little-known truths about journalists and journalism: that journalists are deathly afraid of being ‘wrong’ and thus tend to stay within parameters set by the pack; that journalists want ‘to be on the Winner’s Bus’ because ‘a campaign reporter’s career is linked to the fortunes of his candidate’ and they don’t ‘like to dwell on signs that their Winner [is] losing, any more than a soup manufacturer likes to admit that there is botulism in the vichyssoise’; that ‘journalism is probably the slowest-moving, most tradition-bound profession in America,’ refusing ‘to budge until it is shoved into the future by some irresistible external force.’ ”

Even in 1973, [Timesman Bob] Semple did not feel compelled to apologize for the gentle treatment he had given [Bob] Erlichmann. He had been writing about the ‘substance of ideas, pieces of legislation’ rather than about Ehrlichmann’s character, he said. He had avoided denigrating Ehrlichmann’s character in order not to affront Ehrlichmann. ‘I had to keep lines open to Ehrlichmann to find out what the hell Nixon was doing.’

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Brave Men

Brave Men, Ernie Pyle

If World War II truly was the “Good War,” men like Ernie Pyle helped make it so. His reports make every American soldier a humble hero, or at least a good old Joe. They all believe in what they’re fighting for, they have wise leadership, and, aw shucks, they’re just trying to do their best. Even near the end, when he could admit his own weariness, he insisted the troops were uniformly brave, righteous and determined. Yeah, I’m not Pyle’s biggest fan. He’s on the list because he’s an iconic war correspondent and I am occasionally wrong.

Other voice: From accounts in The New York Times after his death in combat. “For three years these writings had entered some 14,000,000 homes almost as personal letters from the front. Soldiers’ kin prayed for Ernie Pyle as they prayed for their own sons. In the Eighth Avenue subway yesterday a gray-haired woman looked up, wet-eyed, from the headline ‘Ernie Pyle Killed in Action’ and murmured ‘May God rest his soul’ and other women, and men, around her took up the words. This was typical.”

I do not pretend that my own feeling is the spirit of our armies. If it were, we probably would not have had the power to win. Most men are stronger. … For them death has a pang, and victory a sweet scent. But for me war has become a flat, black depression without highlights, a revulsion of the mind and an exhaustion of the spirit.

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Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love

Busted, Wendy Ruderman & Barbara Laker

Like “All the President’s Men,” “Busted” is both a report of public misdeeds and an account of how those misdeeds were uncovered by a pair of reporters. But Wendy Ruderman — the voice of the book — has less ego and more writing skill than Woodstein. She and her partner went after crimes of much less import, and in the end their reporting achieved little. Those are not weaknesses here; they make this book a far better picture of what reporting is like. Still, there is something sadly metaphorical: Ruderman and Laker used classic reporting tactics: digging through records, ringing doorbells blind, coming at sources again and again to get them to open up. They even bought groceries and other things for their key source — the kind of thing that would have been no big deal in the Front Page era, but causes noses to sniff in today’s uptight journalism world. They got the goods on nefarious schemes in the local police department. And in the end … no one even got indicted. The travails of the Philadelphia Daily News newsroom — and Ruderman offers the best look ever at what newsrooms are like in the middle of financial turmoil — got even worse, with owners battling each other in court. Just to add that final element of farce, Sarah Jessica Parker plans to star in a TV series based on the book.

Other voice: Rosella Eleanor LaFevre, Philadelpha Magazine. “It’s a personal journey through the newsroom, and Philly’s drug war-torn streets. And because it is so personal, the reader really gets to see the journalists, warts and all. … It’s a captivating story that I tore through in two days. There are moments that inspire riotous laughter and quiet awe, and some that will make your skin crawl.”

At first the merchants were reluctant to trust Barbara and me. … They were scared of retaliation. They were willing to eat the loss, chalking up the cop robberies as a Philly street tax. But little by little, as the merchants realized they weren’t alone, the tide shifted. Every time Barbara got another merchant on board, she euphorically zipped through thenewsroom looking for me, even hunting me down in the bathroom. She looked under each stall until she spotted my kid-size sneakers. ‘Whendy, I just got another one!’ Barbara whooped. We’d have entire strategy meetings in the bathroom with Barbara yelling ideas at me over the stall door.

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blog-cissy

Cissy: The Extraordinary Life of Eleanor Medill Patterson, Ralph G. Martin

Cissy Patterson was the first woman in America to edit and publish a major newspaper (the Washington Times-Herald). In this list, she represents a particular kind of publisher that had faded away, but seems to be making a comeback as newspapers again become playthings for the rich: a wealthy publisher-owner who mixes with the powerful on a equal basis and uses the newspaper as a personal weapon. Media conglomeration had left only a few behind — John Robinson Block and the late Richard Mellon Scaife in Pittsburgh among them. The industry’s decline is bringing them back, so it’s worthwhile to focus on Patterson for clues to what these solo publishers may do.

Other voice: Decora, Not Too Bad. “This book was like a car crash on TV – I didn’t want to watch it exactly, but I got sucked in, and felt compelled to watch the whole thing.”

Harold Ickes, Cissy’s closest friend in the Roosevelt Administration, remarried suddenly in 1938. Cissy had the news early, but the bride-to-be tearfully pleaded with her not to print the story until they were ready to announce it. She promised ‘with all my heart’ that Cissy would have an exclusive release on the wedding. When Cissy saw the story printed in a rival paper, she told her managing editor, ‘We deserved it. You see what happens when you don’t print the news?’

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Citizen Hearst

Citizen Hearst, W.A. Swanberg

When a reviewer calls a book “exhaustive,” he is trying to indicated both that it exhausts all there is to be said about the subject and that it is exhausting to read. Swanberg’s lengthy biography is both. There are other books about Hearst that could have made this list, and other media titans who could show up — Pulitzer, Newhouse, Beaverbrook et al. Hearst has the most dramatic life, however. In an age when we wonder about what Jeff Bezos will do with the Washington Post and bewail what sleazy Sam Zell did to the Tribune holdings, it’s worthwhile to put all that in the context of an age when newspaper barons held real power over the public’s information and dug their fingers deep into the guts of the newsrooms.

In November, 1934, two young men called on Professor John N. Washburne, who taught economics at Syracuse University, saying they were interested in enrolling for his courses. … A few days later, the Syracuse Journal, a Hearst paper, carried a front-page story under the headline, ‘Drive All Radical Professors and Students From the Universities,’ quoting Washburne as having made radical utterances. … The angry professor, realizing that he had been duped by Hearst reporters, repudiated most of the alleged statements. … The Journal came back with a demand that eight professors be discharged as Communists.

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City Editor

City Editor, Stanley Walker

Walker was city editor of New York’s Herald Tribune, which makes a fair claim to being the best dead newspaper in America. “City Editor” only covers a slice of the paper’s history, but Walker captures that particular moment with two-fisted writing. In most newspaper newsrooms, the city editor is at the center of those stories most likely to hit the front page, most likely to sell papers (at least back in the day when an individual story actually could sell papers). City editors are not necessarily chosen for their panache or writing skills, however. Thankfully, Walker has plenty of both.

Other voice: George H. Douglas, “The Golden Age of the Newspaper.” “To get the spirit and the tempo of the New York Herald Tribune in the 1920s and 1930s, one can hardly do better than consult Stanley Walker’s ‘City Editor.’ By no means is it a history of the Tribune; rather it is a compendium of newspaper practices and culture of the golden age and a splended guide to the city rooms of New York.”

He invents strange devices for the torture of reporters, this mythical agate-eyed Torquemada with the paste-pots and scissors. Even his laugh, usually directed at something sacred, is part sneer. His terrible curses cause flowers to wither, as the grass died under the hoofbeats of the horse of Attila the Hun. A chilly, monstrous figure, sleepless, nerveless, and facing with ribald mockery the certain hell which awaits him.

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Close to Home

Close to Home, Ellen Goodman

Somewhere in the ’70s or so, male newspaper editors discovered women. Yes, there had been outliers like Dorothy Thompson before appearing on editorial pages, but only if they wrote about man stuff, like politics and war. Ellen Goodman brought traditional women’s page topics — family, love, diets — to the editorial pages (along with much more). It was the realization that men might want to read about the same things that interested women which made the Women’s Section largely extinct. Read Goodman to see where that started.

Other voice: Ellen Goodman herself, in her last column: “Looking backward and forward. I began writing my column when my daughter was 7, and I leave as my grandson turns 7. I began writing about Gerald Ford and end writing about Barack Obama. I celebrated my lucky midlife marriage in these pages, sent my daughter to college, welcomed my grandchildren, said farewell to my mother. I upheld Thanksgiving traditions in this space and celebrated them with a family that evolved far beyond my grandparents’ idea of tradition. I wrote about values and pushed back against those who believe they own the patent on this word. It has been a great gift to make a living trying to make sense out of the world around me. That is as much a disposition as an occupation.”

Having just passed the halfway mark of my fourth decade (the number 35 still sticks in my throat, but I’ll be all right in a week or two), I am beginning to give up on the idea of ever being one. A grown-up, that is. It has begun to occur to me that life is a stage I’m going through.

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The Complete Works of Nellie Bly: Ten Days in a Mad-House, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and More

The Complete Works of Nellie Bly, Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly pretended to be insane, got herself committed, and wrote about she saw inside New York City’s Insane Asylum for the New York World. Today’s degree-bearing Guardians of Journalism Ethics would no doubt insist she could have obtained her story instead by diligent interviewing, patient attempts to be allowed to visit the facility, and a close reading of official documents. Bull feathers. Read “Ten Days in a Madhouse,” the first selection in this compilation, and understand why journalism is about getting the truth more than anything else.

Other voice: Maria Popova, Brain Pickings. “What she witnessed there — cold baths, forced starvation, beatings, the hovering threat of sexual assault, and a general atmosphere more akin to a concentration camp than to a healthcare establishment — is a timelessly tragic parable for what happens when largely arbitrary circumstances render one group of people helpless and another in power, a heartbreaking real-life enactment of the Stanford Prison Study revealing just how much cruelty humans are capable of when they assume positions of authority, however minuscule, over those less fortunate.”

At 10 o’clock we were given a cup of unsalted beef tea; at noon a bit of cold meat and a potato, at 3 o’clock a cup of oatmeal gruel and at 5:30 a cup of tea and a slice of unbuttered bread. We were all cold and hungry. After the physician left we were given shawls and told to walk up and down the halls in order to get warm.

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