In Defense of Soundbites

[Boston Globe]

In today’s Boston Globe, I’ve got an essay on soundbites, the media, and political coverage. Ever since 1992, when Daniel Hallin documented that the length of the average TV soundbite fell from 43 seconds in 1968 to 9 seconds in 1988, people have worried about the shrinking soundbite and what it all means. In the early 1990s, critics blamed this trend on the “Age of MTV.” Today, of course, it’s the Age of the Internet. But as I try to show in my essay, soundbites have dropped in length for a variety of reasons — economic, political, historical, and professional. What’s more, they’ve been dropping for a long time, as new research suggests that newspaper quotations began shrinking in a similar way in the 1890s.

Instead of soundbites, then, we should worry about the tone and focus of our political discourse. And there’s no doubt that this, too, has evolved. In 1968, for example, Spiro Agnew said at a press conference that “Mr. Nixon is trying to cast himself in the role of a Neville Chamberlain.” Agnew meant to say that Hubert Humphrey had done this and quickly corrected himself. As Hallin noted, though, Agnew’s gaffe aired uncorrected and in the middle of a long soundbite on how the Democratic ticket had gone “squishy soft” on Communism and crime. Nobody blanched at his slip because something like it didn’t — and doesn’t — matter.

(One other note: the same year Hallin published his research, a Harvard sociologist named Kiku Addato published a research paper that corroborated Hallin’s findings. I didn’t mention her because it seems Hallin got there first — he told me he noticed the shrinking soundbite while researching his book on the media and Vietnam — and because her analysis lacked his complexity. You can read a .pdf of Addato’s paper here.)

More Mark Twain

[On the Media]

Well, now Mark Twain’s Autobiography has really arrived. On this week’s Saturday Night Live, Bill Hader trotted out his terrific Julian Assange impression. “If I am falsely imprisioned for one more day,” Hader-slash-Assange says, “anyone purchasing Mark Twain’s new autobiography on Amazon as a Christmas present for their father will instead send him the book Everyone Poops.”

The joke makes sense, as enough people are buying the book to keep it on the New York Times best-seller list, hovering between second and third. But Twain’s success started long before the holiday shopping season. This summer, the media came together and anointed the Autobiography’s forthcoming edition as a major literary event. The Times didn’t get there first, but it did put Twain on the front page. And its story is wholly representative: coming this fall, after a century-long embargo, readers will finally meet a realer, darker Mark Twain. A few weeks later, Newsweek devoted its entire cover to Twain and his upcoming book (“Now we must get reacquainted all over again”). Thanks to the coverage in the Times and Newsweek and elsewhere, Twain went viral.

But there’s success, and then there’s success. And Twain’s book has exceeded everyone’s expectations. Plenty of bookstores have run out of copies and had to create wait lists, as the Times noted in another lengthy story. In fact, Twain’s autobiography has become a holiday success story with a full roster of heroes: the author (a serious literary figure), the publisher (an ideas-driven university press), and the printer (a small, employee-owned press based in Michigan). The book got an initial print run of 7,500, but there are now more than 500,000 copies in print — still only a third of the initial print run for authors like George W. Bush and John Grisham, but enough to turn heads even in publishing’s blockbuster age. To keep up with the demand, Twain’s Michigan printer has kept three shifts going — it even rehired some of the people laid off during the recession — and taken to shipping the book off in semi trucks packed with 10,000 copies each.

So, again, it’s a holiday success story, and I don’t want to sound like a literary grinch.  But it’s worth examing how, exactly, the book became such a hit. The media continues to commission tons of reviews, but here, at least, reviews never seemed to matter since the book debuted on the best-seller lists at a time when only one or two had been published. Instead, the book seemed (and seems) to benefit from its pre-release hype — the kind of embargo-powered nonsense that led Saturday Night Live to describe it as a “new” book. A few weeks back, I wrote a story for Slate outlining why the embargo was nonsense, and some of the better reviews — the New Yorker‘s, the Washington Post’s —have also pushed back against the hype. In this week’s Times Book Review, Garrison Keillor goes a step further, in a review that might be best described as affably brutal: Twain’s Autobiography is “a wonderful fraud on the order of the Duke and the Dauphin” and, later, “a powerful argument for writers’ burning their papers.”

I also don’t want to sound like I’m taking credit for this; if you review a 736-page “autobiography” that, thanks to various scholarly apparatuses, amounts to only 264 pages of text, you damn well better point it out. But the bigger point is that nothing the media has done can stop the media’s snowballing hype. Let’s remember that, this summer, the editors from the Mark Twain Project, which handles Twain’s literary estate and receives his royalties, gave the Times a few juicy quotations and some “exclusive” online excerpts of Twain “speaking from the grave.” As recently as 2009, the Project was in deep financial trouble. Clearly, that’s no longer the case — and all it took was the Project sacrificing its scholarly integrity. I’ve had chances to follow up on my Slate story with interviews on CBC’s Q show and on NPR’s On the Media, both of which you can find on my handy new media appearances page.

And speaking of financial trouble: it doesn’t bode well for Tina Brown and Newsweek that I completely missed that cover story while researching my original story.

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.