How to Think About 'I'm Saving It for My Book'
The key question is why we might have needed to know sooner
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
With the coming of Fall, the turning of leaves will be accompanied by the turning of pages in a new crop of political journalism books. That in turn will yield the inevitable escalation of a debate about whether it was appropriate for the authors of these books to withhold from earlier publication, by the news organizations that primarily employ them, the juicy bits that are now being revealed to boost book sales. The New York Times alone will have at least two entries in this brouhaha. This week I want to unpack the debate a bit.
First, of course, this is not a new subject. It has been actively discussed at least since the appearance of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Final Days, their second Watergate book, which was published in 1976, complete with Kissinger and Nixon praying on their knees.
Let’s begin with some practicalities. Some of the material gathered by reporters for such volumes, from Watergate through January 6 and beyond, is given to them on the understanding that it won’t be published immediately. Some will have come with an express agreement that it will be held for books, where, sources may feel, it can be put in a larger context or appear after the sources’ circumstances have changed or simply after tempers may have cooled a bit (yes, that used to happen). Before calling out a reporter/author, it’s essential to know the ground rules under which the material was received, and whether the impetus for delaying its publication came from the author or the source.
The value of the volumes
Next, let’s say aloud something I hope we all share: we want to encourage the publication of such books. They permit greater depth, and can afford the better-informed perspective that often comes with the passage of a bit of time. At their best, political journalism/history books are the anti-Twitter, washing out hot takes that don’t survive a couple of fervid news cycles and facilitating research that cannot be done instantly.
Then we come to the reasons, good and less good, we might wish information had come out sooner. Giving voters the best information on which to make their sacred judgments is a very good reason. That requires that the information be published long enough before a particular election to make it to voters.
Outside the context of books, it’s why readers in Oregon were justifiably furious over the scandal surrounding Sen. Robert Packwood, whose sexual predation was known to both the local Oregonian and the Washington Post when he was re-elected to a six year term in 1992, only to finally be exposed by the Post 19 days later. (Packwood, facing expulsion from the Senate, finally resigned in 1995.)
A bum rap for Woodward
But by the same token, Bob Woodward’s withholding for months in 2020 his interview with Trump making clear that the then-president knew how lethal COVID was, even as he downplayed it in public and stifled an effective response, seems justified. Woodward’s conversation with Trump occurred in February and was published on September 15, three days before early voting began anywhere.
Perhaps because of this timeline, Woodward’s critics asserted that quicker disclosure was required on the basis of public health. That seems to me less compelling. By the time Woodward had established that what Trump had told him in February was true—never a given with Trump, as we are still reminded constantly—the danger of the virus had been widely publicized.
The notion that Trump acolytes would have changed their behavior upon learning of this private utterance, or that the disclosure would have compelled Trump to himself act more responsibly, both seem to have been conclusively falsified by what (didn’t) happen after Woodward’s book came out. This was a political issue, not one of public health per se, and the voters were informed in ample time to turn out the president, as they did, by seven million popular votes and 74 in the Electoral College.
In the weeks ahead, the questions to ask are why the scoops— and there will be scoops, assuming the publishers are doing their jobs as they seek to recoup big advances— might have made a difference if known sooner. Again, the relevant elections, even if just for Congress, are well after publication, so that’s not an issue. Is there critical evidence that could have made a difference to the January 6 Committee? To the Mar-a-Lagogate criminal inquiry? It will be important to describe this logic chain, not just to note the general relevance of the revelations.
Above all, I hope the criticism of book authors and their publishers for telling us things we hadn’t known, but not telling us sooner, will itself be more measured than it has often been in the recent past. People wanting to publicly criticize a book, for instance, should do us all the favor of first reading it— at least in relevant part. They should take the time to understand the sourcing, even if that slows the use of their Twitter finger. And they should make clear why we needed to know sooner, rather than just expressing resentment about having been themselves unaware.
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Do you have thoughts on the notion that when a reporter is employed by a news organization, and that employment is quite likely a substantial factor in the reporter’s access to a source, the news organization has some entitlement to the information gleaned while on the payroll? It seems a bit problematic for the reporter to use the newsroom credential for access, but at the same time claim the information gathered is not for use in that role, “it’s for my book.”
It is worth discussing the entire phenomenon of reporters writing books in the midst of an active newsroom career. There are important ethical considerations I never hear mentioned, including the extent to which they operate differently than reporters who are not imminently planning to write a book. It would be nice to see news organizations get together and decide whether this is a problem altogether.