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Festival of Books: The newspaper, from 'blunt instrument' to scalpel

May 1, 2011 |  4:09 pm

Front page 
"The newspaper is a blunt instrument."

That description came from journalist Ralph Frammolino on Sunday in the brief question-and-answer period at the end of the Festival of Books discussion titled "From the Front Page to the Book Shelf" moderated by L.A. Times Editor Russ Stanton.

The statement essentially sums up why the journalists on the panel -- who, in addition to Frammolino,  included Jason Felch, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon and Judy Pasternak -- were motivated to publish expanded versions of their original stories in book form.

Although most reporters are keenly aware of the constraints on their storytelling -- the daily deadlines, the length of the story in print, the attention span of the hurried reader (good ones, anyway) -- they don't often come across stories that merit much more space and time. (Frammolino places the frequency at "one or two stories in a lifetime.")

Panelists had different reasons as to why the subjects of their books were worth the added ink.

For Frammolino and Felch (whose book "Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum" is due out May 24), it was the fact that although their Los Angeles Times series on looted antiquities at the Getty Museum told what happened, it didn't explain how it happened.

"The story that ends up in the paper is the front-page headline -- the 'gotcha' moments, the who, what, where and when," Felch explained. "We never got a chance to give it context and share all the things we found along the way."

For Tzemach Lemmon, whose book "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe," it was a passion to share a story she felt was missing from the narratives coming out of the coverage of the Afghan war.

"From one dress, Kamala created a lifeline that was the difference between survival and starvation," Lemmon said. "She's an example of the kind of inspiring entrepreneurs that were all around us [in Afghanistan], ... and this is my very small way of reminding people of the heroines [whose voices] we didn't hear."

Pasternak, who wrote "Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed," an expanded take on a series that originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times, said it was the extent of the betrayal of Navajo Indians by the U.S. government.

"I'd come across an EPA report that said people were essentially living in uranium huts -- exposed to low-level radiation and radon gas over time. There were these numbered houses and I realized I didn't know what happened to the houses or the people who had lived in them. When I showed the report to some at the EPA, they said: 'I share your concern that this happened.'

"I had this story that spanned four generations and the whole thing was only about four paragraphs in one of the articles in the first part of my series."

"Everything that made it wrong for the [newspaper] series made it right for a book."

What Pasternak and the rest of the panelists didn't need to say was that if they hadn't had the opportunity to perform crude surgery by the blunt instrument of a newspaper story, the later forensic autopsy by scalpel wouldn't have even been possible. 

-- Adam Tschorn

Photo: L.A. Times Editor Russ Stanton and author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon at the panel "From the Front Page to the Book Shelf" at the Festival of Books on Sunday. Credit: Adam Tschorn

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