Sunday, September 05, 2010
Book review: A peek inside The Post
"Morning Miracle" is an epic drama about royal succession at an incomparable American newspaper.
We've heard it too many times: Newspapers are dying. Yes -- and no. New communication technologies are dying faster. Eight-track tapes and the Sony Walkman are gone. Napster and MySpace are passe.
Yet, you're still reading this Roanoke Times -- probably on paper -- and today's Washington Post, you can be sure, contains a miraculous tonnage of good reporting, good writing, careful editing and tidbits that are funny, serious or utilitarian, all in that foliated log of a dead tree.
Ben Bradlee, the legendary editor of The Washington Post through Watergate coverage until he retired in 1991, said his paper should be called The Morning Miracle because, as he put it, "It's a miracle we get it out every morning."
It's more of a miracle today. Half of the staff has been cut or bought out, and since 2008, the Post has been losing subscribers and money as well. You still might call it a great paper, as Dave Kindred does.
With a romantic's love of the reporting life, unique access to the inner chambers of the Post and a gift for hand-tooled writing, Kindred tells how, as the subtitle implies, a great newspaper fights for its life.
The result is a book as engaging as any contemporary novel and as telling as any history about America today.
Kindred is my kind of news guy. "I love the smell of newsprint in the morning," he cracks, "and my favorite time of day is thirty minutes to deadline. I believe in going to the losers' locker room, I believe in a god of journalism who answers our prayers if we make one more phone call, and I believe Ben Bradlee had it right when he said, 'Nothing's better than a big story -- not even sex.' "
"Morning Miracle" is like a movie, full of scenes and dialogue and featuring about a dozen characters, plus Kindred himself, a former sports columnist for the Post, as a minor-role narrator.
The cast includes Bradlee; Katharine Graham; her son, the golden heir, Donald; her granddaughter the upstart publisher, Katharine Weymouth; executive editors Len Downie and Marcus Brauchli; and star writers such as David Broder, Walter Pincus, Anne Hull, Dana Priest, Henry Allen and Gene Weingarten.
It is an epic drama about royal succession at an incomparable American newspaper, one that might even be the soul of the nation's capital.
But the book also dramatizes how a big metro daily functions, something that the complainers of "media bias" seem not to understand or care about.
In this book, the daily functioning is intense -- because this is The Washington Post, and because Kindred either eavesdropped or did some deep reporting on how several recent Pulitzer Prize-winning stories were produced.
He gives the reader a rich portrait of the reporters and amazing autopsies of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center series, the magazine feature on the violin maestro being ignored in a Metro station, coverage of the Iraq invasion, the presidential election of 2008 and the Virginia Tech slayings.
Kindred's writing style is a genre that packs details and emotion together in powerful little clumps. It's the style of the best of the big-city columnists and sports writers, and I felt Kindred was in that company when we were at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution together in the 1990s.
One of the recurring notes in this book is that nobody knows what will happen in the near or long-term future.
Too many glib critics blame stupid people for the decline of newspapers. The story here is about how so many smart, honorable, really heroic people also don't know what to do or what will happen at one of America's best newspapers.