The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

[Boston Globe]

In today’s Boston Globe, I’ve got a review of George W. Bush’s Decision Points. The presidential memoir has become a very odd and very unique media event — an event where the book’s release matters more than the book itself. So the question I kept returning to was this: How does Bush’s book work as a book? That is, does it offer something as a narrative, linear reading experience that the hype does not? The short answer is, yes, it does (Bush’s book is much better than most presidential memoirs); but, no, it’s not always for the best (one reason it’s better is that it captures Bush’s voice and mien, which will turn off plenty of readers).

Anyway, I’ve been making the release vs. book point a lot in the last few weeks — writing about presidential memoirs and TV and, on CBC’s Q radio show, talking about Mark Twain’s autobiography. But I did want to single out one example from Bush’s book. Other than the Kanye West kerfuffle, which I won’t even dignify with a post, the juiciest Decision Points item has been that Barbara Bush showed a young George her miscarried fetus. This story began to circulate even before Bush’s first author interview with Matt Lauer — the New York Post ran a story based on a DVD of the pre-taped interview that it had “exclusively obtained” — but Lauer’s interview really got the ball rolling. MSNBC gave the story the following headline: “Bush: Mother’s miscarriage shaped pro-life views.” The Huffington Post went with: “Bush’s Opposition to Abortion Grew After Mother Showed Him Dead Fetus in a Jar.” The Daily Beast assembled a team of psychoanalytic experts to parse the revelation. The New York Times promised Bush had “started a national conversation — both about his mother, Barbara Bush, and about the complex psychological fallout from miscarriage.”

But the Times did so in a story that was making every effort to prop up this “national conversation.” And that’s how this stuff works. The Bush headlines and absurdist post ops share a tenuous relationship with reality — and no relationship to the former president’s book. First, Lauer was the one who kept pushing the abortion angle. (Bush’s exasperated response: “The purpose of the story really wasn’t to try to show the beginning of a pro-life point of view. It was really to show how my mom and I developed a relationship.”) Second, the Decision Points version says nothing about abortion or the brandishing of a fetus. Here’s the entire (and entirely mild) episode from the book:

One day, shortly after I learned to drive and while Dad was away on a business trip, Mother called me into her bedroom. There was urgency in her voice. She told me to drive her to the hospital immediately. I asked what was wrong. She said she would tell me in the car.

As I pulled out of the driveway, she told me to drive steadily and avoid bumps. Then she said she had just had a miscarriage. I was taken aback. This was a subject I never expected to be discussing with Mother. I also never expected to see the remains of a fetus, which she had saved in a jar to bring to the hospital. I remember thinking: There was a human life, a little brother or sister. [Bush’s emphasis]

In Bush’s book, this is a genuinely affecting moment — not only on its own, but also because Bush describes the death of his younger sister Robin a few pages earlier. In our media ecosystem, however, it has become a perfect example of how the reaction to presidential memoirs plays out — very little initial substance, followed by a string of stories offering diminishing returns, often in the form of metacoverage (reaction about the interview which was about the book, etc.). Like I said, very odd, though maybe not very unique.

The Drudge Report and Bush’s Decision Points

[New York]

In this week’s New York magazine, I’ve got a short little essay arguing that presidential memoirs exist not to be read so much as to be discussed. That’s clearly the case with Bush’s new Decision Points, though the full details of his TV tour didn’t surface until after my story had gone to press. Still, the history of this genre — or, more accurately, the history of the promotion of this genre — gave me more than enough to go on. Bush’s book, like all presidential memoirs, will matter less as a weighty tome than as a multimedia launching platform. While all of the media depend heavily on books — think of the forthcoming reviews, Op Eds, and blog posts digesting Decision Points’ greatest hits — the most important format will be the least bookish: television. At one point in my essay, I mention the now-forgotten TV genre of the “electronic memoir.” Well, there’s no need to sell an electronic memoir when a book will accomplish the same thing: getting you and your message on TV.

That’s what’s happening with Bush’s presidential memoir, and that’s what’s been happening since Truman’s. Still, there are a few new things about the promotion of Decision Points: a book trailer; an elaborate and viral-friendly Facebook contest; and what sounds like an amazing ebook, which will include the text of Bush’s speeches, some of his home movies, even handwritten letters and extra photos. (Decision Points won’t be the first presidential memoir ebook, surprisingly enough — there was a palmOne edition of Clinton’s My Life.) But the weirdest digital aspect of this is that the first real details from Bush’s book appeared on The Drudge Report. Media reporters got pretty sloppy here: most of them described this as a “leak,” and some even assumed Drudge had the entire book. But there’s no reason to believe any of that. After his “**Exclusive** **Must Credit**” throat clearing, Drudge wrote:

“It was a simple question, ‘Can you remember the last day you didn’t have a drink?'”

So begins President George W. Bush in the opening chapter [“Quitting”] from the most anticipated book of the season, the DRUDGE REPORT can reveal.

Drudge wouldn’t respond to my requests for comment. But that “can reveal” seems pretty telling. In fact, if I had to bet, I’d say Crown leaked him this information directly. The publisher’s employees haven’t kept especially quiet about Bush’s book (for example). And they can’t be unhappy with what Drudge wrote. Indeed, when it comes to leaks, Crown couldn’t have — I don’t even know what the right metaphor is anymore: scripted? written? — a better result.

But will she listen?

I’m still working on my essay on political scandal, and that work is still producing wacky asides. This one comes from Richard Strout, who reviewed Time columnist Hugh Sidey’s book on Lyndon Johnson, A Very Personal Presidency, for the New York Times Book Review in 1968:

Superficial, uniformly interesting, it is written in the slick, lucid Time-Life style and is crammed with quotable paragraphs that you want to read aloud to your wife.

Well, then. At least Time put Phyllis McGinley on its cover in 1965. She was the only woman writer to get that honor in the 1960s.

In which I finally find a reason to post about Chelsea Clinton’s wedding

One of the most influential legal articles ever written — and an article I keep running into since I’m working on an essay about political scandal — is Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis’s “The Right of Privacy” (1890). “The Right of Privacy” still surfaces in even non-academic settings, as in this recent New York Times Magazine story on privacy in the Internet age:

Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis complained that because of new technology — like the Kodak camera and the tabloid press — “gossip is no longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious but has become a trade.” But the mild society gossip of the Gilded Age pales before the volume of revelations contained in the photos, video and chatter on social-media sites and elsewhere across the Internet.

You can make a strong case that the shameless coverage of political weddings — Warren to Mabel Bayard (daughter of Senator Thomas F. Bayard); Grover Cleveland to Frances Folsom (a friend of Mabel’s); and several others within Warren’s family — led to the writing of “The Right of Privacy.” In fact, Amy Gajda makes precisely this case in “What if Samuel D. Warren Hadn’t Married A Senator’s Daughter?” [pdf]. Gajda’s essay makes for a fascinating and accessible read — especially in the context of all this saturation-point publicity surrounding Chelsea’s wedding.



Over at Deadspin, I’ve got a dispatch-slash-photo gallery from last night’s LeBron James television special, which was staged in Greenwich, CT. The special generated tons of coverage in both the standard and Watching-the-Watchmen traditions, but I tried to focus on how the media manufactured and replicated its stories. You don’t need to blame anyone at this event to admit that the media ecosystem deploys its resources in a mysterious way.

If you like the story, you might also like the first thing I wrote for Deadspin—another investigation of media malpractice, this time about the story of a 9-year-old pitcher banned by his baseball league for being “too good.”

Also, the real winner in all this, to my mind, is Kobe Bryant—he’s no longer the NBA’s Iago.

Cheshire’s Library Controversy

[New Haven Advocate]

In this week’s Advocate, I’ve got a story on Brian McDonald’s In the Middle of the Night, a true-crime take on the horrific Cheshire home-invasion case from a few years back. The story ended up focusing on the reaction to McDonald’s book as much as the book itself—especially when local residents started calling for the library to ban the book and launching ugly personal attacks at the head librarian. As I write in the story:

Let’s be clear: The only real villains in this mess are Komisarjevsky and Hayes, and, even three years later, it’s impossible to consider Petit’s tragedy without feeling fear, sympathy, and regret. But this tragedy occurred in and was assimilated by a culture that loves lurid details, easy-bake opinions, and petty personal concerns. And, in the reaction to McDonald’s book, you’ll find this culture’s usual suspects—duplicitous lawyers, lazy journalists, small-town politicos, quickie cash-in publishers, and a whole lot of people who’d rather react than read.

One thing I couldn’t work into the story was more on McDonald’s own career, which is fascinating. He described himself to me as “a reluctant true-crime writer” who took on In the Middle of the Night (and a previous entry in St. Martin’s True Crime Library series) “simply because I needed the work.” But McDonald’s far from a hack. He’s written three other books, including My Father’s Gun, a well-reviewed memoir about his family’s three-generation history with the NYPD. And I’d argue that, other than its poor pacing and organization, In the Middle of the Night also demonstrates his talents—as I say in the story, it’s a solid entry in the true-crime canon.

Of course, the only way you’d know that is if you actually read McDonald’s book.


[New Haven Advocate]

Good news about the media is rare, and, when it occurs, it’s tempting to just nod and slowly back away. That’s basically what happened when Michael Schroeder rescued several small-town Connecticut newspapers in 2008. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other national organs jumped on his last-second bid. Since then, though, no one’s checked in to see how he’s changed the papers—or if he’s got a realistic chance at turning them around.

My new cover story at the New Haven Advocate tries to remedy that. James Smith, Schroeder’s top editor, gave me free reign in his newsroom at the New Britain Herald (“I like cooperating with the free press,” he said), and I spent a couple of days talking to reporters and readers, in addition to Smith and Schroeder.

In the last few years, Connecticut newspapers have lost local readers at a much faster clip than the rest of the country, so the state of the Herald might offer some clues for other areas. Of course, everything’s shifting quickly—that link, to a Hartford Business Journal story from 2007, names the big papers as hot buys and the small ones as toxic assets. At the very least, though, Schroeder’s Herald offers a chance to study a smaller paper, instead of the NYT– and WSJ-level stuff that dominates so much of the metamedia discourse.

Here’s some context I couldn’t work into the story.

  • As I mention in the story, New Britain newspaper readers split between the Herald and the Hartford Courant. No one’s more excited that 2009 is coming to a close than the Courant. In the last year, America’s oldest continually published newspaper lost its top two editors, its Washington bureau, its top local political reporter, and, in the most public embarrassment, George Gombossy, the consumer columnist who says he lost his job for writing stories critical of Courant advertisers. Not surprisingly, the Courant‘s also lost more than 20,000 subscribers in that same period—including one New Britain man who told me about the time Gombossy helped him get his money back from a local Best Buy.
  • If you’re interested in the sordid history of the Journal-Register Company, which, from 1995 to 2008, owned and tortured the Herald, start with this great American Journalism Review story. This Philadelphia CityPaper story outlines the JRC’s nasty reaction to that story;  this Forbes feature is also worth reading. As I mention in my story, the JRC promised to make only “minimal changes” when they bought the Herald—then laid off a dozen people in their first week.