Saturday, April 5, 2008

Five Best

Veteran newsman Roger Mudd reports that
these are essential works about journalism.

Wall Street Journal

1. The Press
By A.J. Liebling
Ballantine, 1961

Lest we all forget what journalism was like before television arrived, Joe Liebling's "The Press" is mandatory. Between 1945 and 1963, the year he died, Liebling wrote 82 signed "Wayward Press" pieces for The New Yorker magazine, establishing himself as America's pre-eminent press critic. But dissecting the newspaper business was hardly his only interest. It is not a stretch to credit Liebling with creating the literary genre of journalism. He once described himself as a "chronic, incurable, recidivist reporter," but his view of the press was anything but worshipful. His finest pleasures came from puncturing such pooh-bahs of journalism as Col. Robert McCormick, William Randolph Hearst and Westbrook Pegler. He praised Pegler for his "courageous defense of minorities -- for example, the people who pay large income taxes." Liebling left no known disciples.

2. The News Business
By John Chancellor and Walter R. Mears
Harper & Row, 1983

Written in 1982, when John Chancellor and Walter Mears were at the zenith of their careers, this book tells you exactly how things work. Mears was the Washington bureau chief of the
Associated Press (he retired in 2001), and Chancellor was the anchor of "NBC Nightly News" from 1970 to 1982. They discuss everything from leads, sources and quotes to analysis, words and delivery. Chancellor, an expert on talking journalism, points out the problem that a broadcaster would have reading a wire story about "four armed men." The listener would hear "four-armed men." But changing it to "four men with arms" would only make it worse. The solution, says Chancellor, is the inelegant but clear "four men with guns." Mears looks back to March 30, 1981, the day President Reagan was shot, when Mears and the AP revised their running story 13 times. A president had been shot and wounded. "That had to come first," says Mears. "After that, every paragraph had to reflect a decision." The book is worth every penny if only for Mears's deconstruction of his own copy.

3. The Journalist and the Murderer
By Janet Malcolm
Knopf, 1990

There is no quicker way to set a journalist's teeth on edge than to tell him that, deep down, he knows that what he does is "morally indefensible" unless he is "too stupid or too full of himself to notice." To make sure we get the point, Janet Malcolm does not let go: A reporter, she says, "is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." Her searing indictment of journalism stems from a case involving a writer, Joe McGinniss, and a murderer, Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, accused of butchering his wife and children in 1970. McGinniss, the author of the best-selling "The Selling of the President" (1969), was given full access to the deliberations and strategy of the MacDonald defense team even though he did not disclose that he had become convinced of MacDonald's guilt. Indeed, McGinniss continued to play the sympathetic friend to MacDonald until he finished the book. Malcolm's work, even with its flaws and sweeping pronouncements, is uncomfortable reading for journalists because it goes to the heart of how they treat their sources. McGinniss, of course, was no work-a-day reporter, but Malcolm is right -- the power is not with the subject but with the journalist.

4. The Elements of Journalism
By Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel
Crown, 2001

"The purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing" -- as clear a statement of purpose as has ever been written. Former newspapermen Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel know what they are talking about. The problem, of course, is that journalists labor in an extraordinarily complicated world that sometimes gets in the way. They are paid by the corporation but work for their readers; their copy is screened by editors who are appointed by management; the pressure of entertainment news eats away at their purity; and their owners, more and more coming from outside the news business, are motivated primarily by the bottom line. In 1997 the authors assembled the Committee of Concerned Journalists, composed of 25 leading members of the profession, in an attempt to restore journalism's fading credibility. After three years of studies and public forums, Kovach and Rosenstiel laid out the committee's findings in "The Elements of Journalism." The central message: Unless journalists themselves

"reclaim the theory of a free press," they "risk allowing their profession to disappear." The book was an immediate best seller. Translated into 22 languages, it is a standard textbook in almost every journalism school in the country. It also belongs on the shelf of every citizen who reads the paper or watches the tube.

5. Reporting From Washington
By Donald A. Ritchie
Oxford, 2005

Not until I read Donald Ritchie's superb book did I learn why Dan Rather and Fred Graham and Bob Schieffer and Marvin Kalb and I had to report while standing in front of the buildings we covered, even in the rain. It was because CBS News management declared that only Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid could be filmed indoors and sitting down. This engrossing, finely written book covers the past 75 years of news coverage from the nation's capital. The chapters on the press are rich in detail, but I'm in awe of the account of television, the field I know best. Yet I did not know that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, which underwrote NBC's entire news operation in the late 1940s, would not allow "Camel News Caravan" to show pictures of anyone holding a cigar except Winston Churchill (cigarettes were fine, of course) and that on the desk of the show's anchor, the nonsmoking John Cameron Swayze, was a prominently placed ashtray.

Mr. Mudd, a former correspondent for CBS, NBC, the PBS "NewsHour" and the History Channel, is the author of "The Place to Be: Washington, CBS and the Glory Days of Television News."

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