Awarding Government Failure

October 19, 2004
Category: Uncategorized

Hey Ellen,

I don’t suppose that government officials who write up the thousands of documents created each year in Washington usually care what the literati think of their prose. But the commissioners who penned “The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States” must be pleased by their rave reviews.

When the report was published in book form by Norton, Publisher’s Weekly gushed that it read “like a Shakespearean drama.” The New York Times, in announcing the book’s nomination for a National Book Award, called the report “eminently readable.” The Christian Science Monitor opined that it “may be the most gripping government document produced in Washington in the past 40 years.”

The report certainly is readable (it even begins by describing the weather on the morning of September 11 like a novel). Its accessibility — and the hunger for news about what happened before and after 9/11 —  is no doubt why the book is still on The New York Times paperback bestseller list, even selling better than books about high school football and a sociopathic killer.

But shouldn’t we be disturbed that the five National Book Award judges in nonfiction —  Diane Wood Middlebrook, Douglas Brinkley, Ted Conover, Thadious Davis, and Katherine Newman — think this is one of the best five books of nonfiction written this year? A book written by the government about its own failures?

As Scott McLemee in his Oct. 17 article in Newsday lamented, where are the books by the investigative journalists who should have been covering this story? He writes:

It is unfortunate that Seymour Hersh’s “Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib” was not nominated for the National Book Award. But it is much more troubling, over the long run, to realize that no other book of investigative journalism comes to mind as a candidate.

And so, by default, we honor an expose of government failure — prepared by a government commission.

If journalists are happy to serve as stenographers to power, then the only people seriously questioning authority will be folks who already have it.
Some have suggested that this choice by the National Book Award nonfiction committee is a political one, intended to indict the Bush administration. If that was their intention, I’m afraid their choice is  a far harsher indictment of the journalism community which has ceded its watchdog role to the very people it was supposed to be watching. What is your reaction? 

Hi Margo,

Hand it to the National Book Awards to usurp the only other contender for the designation “masterpiece written by committee.” I’m talking, of course, about the the King James version of the Bible, circa 1600, which took seven years and, according to Adam Nicolson’s well-received book, “God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible,” “a gaggle of 50 or so black-gowned divines whose names are almost unknown but whose words continue to resonate with us.”

Important as “The 9/11 Commission Report” has been as a benchmark for where we were and how far we’ve come, it has had its critics since it was published, and the momentum for enacting its recommendations seems to have slowed down. I suspect the judges were responding to its high impact this year, but topicality shouldn’t be the top criterion. 

As for the failure of journalists to win nominations, let’s all chant in unison, “We was robbed!” Earlier this month, when we heard Seymour Hersh spoke at Town Hall as part of The New Yorker Festival, you probably remember his response to an audience member who wanted to know why, after 30 years, he and Bob Woodward were still the most prominent journalists in Washington. Why aren’t there more good journalists?, the questioner wanted to know.

Hersh dismissed the idea that journalism had turned into a club for hacks, citing Jon Lee Anderson and George Packer as just two of the many who are doing good work. Well, to cite an example of my own, Anderson, author of a splendid bio on Che Guevara, had a new book out this year — a timely, critically acclaimed work called “The Fall of Baghdad.”   

Consider how odd it is, that in an unprecedented year for political books and while a war rages abroad, the only book deemed worthy of a nomination was a report that all the committee endorsed more because they wanted consensus than because its members agreed with everything it said?

The four other nonfiction candidates — “Arc of Justice,” “Washington’s Crossing,”Life on the Outside,” and “Will in the World” — deal with race, the Revolutionary War, life in prison, and the Bard of Avon. Conspicuously absent are independently produced books about the subjects that have dominated media coverage and the bestseller lists.

It could be argued that the judges feared offending some vocal constituency by choosing any of them, whether it was Bob Woodward’s relatively benign “Plan of Attack” or James Bamford’s more pointed “A Pretext for War” or Hersh’s mince-no-words take on the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war. In considering these contenders, what role did Brinkley’s presence among the judges play, given that he’s John Kerry’s biographer and a frequent commentator on the presidential campaign? Did he inhibit choosing books about his field (which also includes American history), or was he a voice crying in the wilderness among the other judges, who are worlds beyond the Beltway? This year we’ve practically drowned in books about D-Day and WWII, but apparently not a one had what it takes. 

Obviously, I have more questions than answers. But for the record, I think “The 9/11 Commission Report” is a cop-out as a candidate. The federal government needs neither the publicity nor the pat on the back. And what would it do with the prize money? In Washington, the winner’s prize of $10,000 won’t even buy your way past the receptionist. And where do they put that crystal sculpture?   

Hey Ellen,

I think everyone was just so impressed that something coming out of Washington could be so readable!

Still, the choice also reflects a deference toward power that should worry journalists. It doesn’t say much for the judges’ confidence in what journalism is doing these days. The present administration may have fought calling this commission, but once convened, it still has to be viewed as a governmental report. It still amounts to the fox interviewing the fox (no reference to the network intended here) about the raid on the chicken coop. We are amazed that the report is so readable and so honest, but shouldn’t the bar be a little higher than that?

How about hardhitting? The person most directly blamed in the report for the intelligence failures before 9/11 is a man who left the government. The government has far more means at its disposal than any news organization to gather facts — what journalist wouldn’t kill to be able to subpoena the witness? But what the government doesn’t have is a distrust of power, something a real watchdog press is supposed to have. As a journalist, I would rather see authors rewarded for their courage than the government for its failures.