Jacket Copy

Books, authors and all things bookish

« Previous Post | Jacket Copy Home | Next Post »

Journalism panel: News from the past that makes more sense now

April 24, 2010 |  5:47 pm


Some the riches/annoyances of the Festival of Books are the conflicting panel times and conflicting impulses. I managed to catch about 40 minutes of “Current Interests: Journalists Uncover the Larger Story” before rushing off to another talk. But I left with an object lesson to contemplate: It takes time to understand the full context and nuance of a story. And the more dramatic the story, the more time it needs to “marinate,” as “Columbine” author David Cullen put it.

It took Cullen 10 years to report and write “Columbine,” which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times book prize in the current interest category. Part of the problem, he said, was not understanding at first what he was writing about, beyond the killings of 11 students and one teacher by two other students who then committed suicide.

Much of what Americans thought they understood about the two killers turned out to be wrong. And it took time for the details of their lives and psychological problems to become clear. Cullen, who covered Columbine for Slate.com, quickly got a contract with Random House for a book that, in the initial form, didn’t pan out.

“It was way too early -- I wasn’t ready,” Cullen said. “It was a completely misconceived book.”

He spent the next year or so just “lying fallow ... which is what I needed, just putting it aside.” He revisited the story for a fifth anniversary piece for Slate, which he wrote in a day.

“It was easy, because it was ready,” Cullen said. “And I didn’t know that I had distance from it. And then I knew I wanted to do this book. I completely reconceived it. That’s when I realized I wanted to do the 'before, during and after' story.”

Cullen was the panel's odd man out: Moderator Hector Tobar is a Times columnist, and fellow panelists Rick Wartzman and Barry Siegel are former Times staffers (disclosure: I taught last summer in Siegel’s literary journalism program at UC Irvine and am a former Los Angeles Times writer).

Both writers delved into the past for stories that resonate in the present -- both stories that benefited from some reflection. Wartzman’s “Obscene in the Extreme” looks at the attempt to ban John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” in Kern County after it was published in 1939.

The genesis of the project, Wartzman said, was a chance conversation with a friend who asked Wartzman if he knew the story of the librarian who tried to fight efforts to ban the book from the Kern County Library. That gave him a window into the story of the Central Valley -- and the nation -- divided between left and right during a time of deep economic hardship, with clear parallels to contemporary politics and social ruptures.

“This is a book where the context is everything,” Wartzman said. “The canvas is almost more important than some of the stuff that’s drawn on there. I spent a lot of time just trying to understand the '30s.”

And that, Siegel said, is what is gained by taking time to understand arcs of stories and the frames in which they take place. Siegel’s “Claim of Privilege” looks back at a precedent-setting Supreme Court decision from 1953 that established the government’s right to refuse to divulge certain information under the “state secrets privilege.”

But as time showed, that initial decision was based on a lie. The government had claimed it couldn’t release records of a military jet crash because they contained sensitive military secrets.  Documents declassified since then showed that the executive branch lied to the Supreme Court to avoid exposing its own negligence.

Yet the law -- and the claim of privilege -- are still in force.
“There are some advantages ... in taking the time to tell a story from a great distance,” said Siegel, whose book evolved from a yearlong project for the Times. “We live in an instant-information age. Even before Twitter ... there was a lot of pressure in the conventional mainstream newspaper to beat the competition. To be first. There were some of us who believed that maybe it would be better to be last, and get the true full story.”

It was a good point to mull as I sneaked out early to get to the next panel and then file this blog post. And no, the irony wasn’t lost.

-- Scott Martelle

Journalist Scott Martelle is the author of "Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and class war in the American West."

Photo: Panelists Hector Tobar, Dave Cullen and Barry Siegel debate journalism and the big story at the Festival of Books on Saturday. Credit: Scott Martelle