by Pat Holt
Friday, February 22, 2002
WHEN JOURNALISM IS GOOD: TWO BOOKS ABOUT WEN HO LEE
Two books have just been released about Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist who was charged on 59 counts of spying for China and imprisoned in solitary confinement for nine months before trial.
Cleared of 58 counts, Lee pleaded guilty to the last charge, admitting that he used "an unsecure computer" to download national defense information onto a tape that he retained.
Lee says he took this plea to get the trial behind him, and sure enough, his sentence was the exact time in prison - 278 days - he had already served. The judge issued an unprecedented and now-famous apology.
Then news erupted that described the horrors Lee had been made to endure - the FBI's brutal investigation, the CIA's shadowy part in it, political motivations behind the charges (Department of Energy, White House), governmental use of racial profiling, the "leak" in the New York Times that made Lee a scapegoat, and so forth.
It's an awful story, but as we know, Wen Ho Lee emerged with dignity and grace while just about every federal institution around him was besmirched and bespattered by its often illegal procedures to "preserve national security."
So one turns to these books with the happy thought that at last, Wen Ho Lee will have his say, and this he does does in the account he's written with Helen Zia, "My Country Versus Me" (Hyperion) a book that's suffered, too, from many delays caused by the federal government in the name of national security.
In it, Lee sounds so mild-mannered and naive about politics that our hearts go out to him early on. When he tells us the supervising FBI agent in his case "misrepresented and distorted the truth," we believe him.
When he shows us how another FBI agent tried to entrap him and, when he wouldn't "confess," threatened him with the sentence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (convicted spies who were executed a half-century ago), we feel protective toward him and angry at those federal bullies.
Lee, who held a "Q clearance" (the highest level of security) for 20 years, says he was accustomed to frequent debriefings because working in the elite X Division at Los Alamos meant he dealt with programs involving atomic and hydrogen bombs all the time.
Thus he appears to be so meticulous in his reports about meeting with physicists on trips to China - lectures he gave, papers he exchanged, conversations he had, questions he was asked - that we don't blame him when he says he forgot to mention a conversation here or there.
And, when he tells us that his wife Sylvia was "assisting the FBI" but "has requested that I say nothing more about her involvement with the FBI," we applaud him for "respect[ing] her wishes." What a family man he turns out to be! And what a trusting soul, cooking and gardening for his wife and two kids, and his neighbors, in the midst of an always-busy schedule!
But then we turn to the other book, "A Convenient Spy" by Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman (Simon & Schuster), and what a surprise awaits us. Thanks to these two sturdy investigative journalists (Stober reports for the San Jose Mercury News; Hoffman for the Albuquerque Journal), the gaps in Lee's story - and there are many of them, innocent though he is of the government's official charges - become clear.
The authors ask why Lee did "forget" certain meetings and conversations that he glosses over in his own book. They show that Lee's wife Sylvia didn't just "assist" the FBI but was out there secretly copying correspondence between American and Chinese scientists for the FBI *and* the CIA. They wonder what Lee did with the tape he kept of the illegally downloaded codes (the FBI never found it), and whether he made himself appear more knowledgeable to Chinese scientists about thermonuclear secrets than he ever was.
Well! Turning back, then, to look at Wen Ho Lee's story through the lens of Stober and Hoffman, we resume reading "My Country Versus Me" with a tougher, more critical eye. Here we see how carefully worded are Lee's defenses. For example, he says that "the 'nuclear secrets' I was falsely accused of stealing were not really secrets but were available in the open literature," though we're not sure which secrets he means and how "open" the literature might have been.
"Also, the files I had downloaded as part of my job as a nuclear code developer were not the state-of-the-art weapons codes that the government wanted everyone to believe," he writes. "Euphemistically known as 'legacy codes,' they were in fact far older, more decrepit, and more flawed than the space station Mir." What an odd way to put it. Is mention of the space station Mir truly relevant or a way to deflect our attention?
The point is that in a democracy, everybody gets a say, but nobody gets (or should get) the only say.
"My Country Versus Me" is an inspiring and memorable book, but it's all the better if we know how to read it critically, and for this we must thank the two very thorough, skeptical and ultimately fair-minded journalists who wrote "A Convenient Spy."
Taken together, these two books offer a lesson in honesty and public scrutiny that readers won't forget for a long time. They remind people like me why working with full-length books can be so uplifting.
HOW THE NYTBR MIGHT 'SUPPORT' POETRY
What a surprise it was to see that The New York Times Book Review has decided to run poetry in its book review pages (as announced 2/14). Only a short while ago the Times complained of space problems and cut the "In Brief" reviews by half. Who knows how many books have gone unreviewed because of space considerations?
It's nice to know the NYTBR editors believe "we're living in a neo-golden age of poetry" and want to "show our support for the genre." But how about *reviewing* the many good books of poetry, especially from independent publishers, that are not finding their audience for lack of critical coverage?
In any case, it's not just space that's at stake. When a book review section decides to "support" a genre by running original material, it throws its mission as a critical medium out of whack. Reviewing poetry is an art in itself. If the critics at our "newspaper of record" won't take it on, who will?
WHEN JOURNALISM AIN'T SO GOOD: 'WHERE WERE THE ENRON REPORTERS?'
"Where Did All the Reporters Go?" asks Bill Schiller of AlterNet in an eye-opening piece about coverage of "Enron before The Fall."
Schiller follows the "universally favorable coverage" the media have given Enron "since it was founded 15 years ago." He says that so little critical reporting was done on Enron that "much has been made recently of a story by Bethany McLean, a journalist at Fortune magazine, who stuck her head out to ask 'Is Enron overpriced?' back in March 2001."
Her query was "largely ignored," he says, even by her own magazine, which "named Enron 'America's Most Innovative Company' for six years running and ranked it 22nd in its 100 Best Companies to 'Work for in America' in the year 2000."
So the problem is not just that some prestigious journalists got paid $25,000, $50,000 and $100,000 for sitting on Enron "advisory councils" (see #300) and suddenly forgot their investigative duties.
The real problem is "the pressure on journalists to provide stock tips to readers," says Bill Barnhart, a financial columnist with the Chicago Tribune and president of the Society of American Business Editors. "Journalists should be journalists," he tells Schiller, "not financial advisers."
But even when journalists are trying to be journalists, "they rely heavily on slick PR machines and analysts," says Financial Times columnist David Bowen. "The great majority of business journalists are stretched too thin to be really investigative or they're being fed by spin machines."
It's reminiscent of the Bandwagon Journalism that made Amazon.com look so dazzling and so pioneering that investors scrambled to buy stock in the company during the late '90s. By the time Jeff Bezos was named Person of the Year by Time Magazine, those who were critical of Amazon were made to sound unpatriotic.
The same protective dazzle seemed to enshroud Enron, but "now that the bubble has burst, perhaps journalists will return to their scrappy, skeptical roots," says Schiller. "We can only hope the [Houston] Chronicle and other big newspapers have permanently rediscovered the value of good reporting," he adds. "The idea is to follow the money, not flak for it."
What does this have to do with books? Well, if only one reporter is remembered being critical of Enron, imagine how difficult it would have been to publish a full-length book investigating the company through a similar lens. Soon we'll see an avalanche of "safe" books taking Enron apart, but as Schiller indicates, the timing is a little late.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Whaddaya mean you don't agree with [Ann Beattie's column about author publicity tours]? How dare you! Cancel my subscription at once!
Just kidding. But I don't think Ann has anything against intelligent interviews. in fact, I know she doesn't. She's given many over the years. It's just that they're few and far between, for two reasons. The first is that many interviewers aren't very good at interviewing writers and/or conveying a sense of what the writer's up to. So the interviews often devolve into quasi-celeb features.
The other problem, frankly, is that a lot of authors don't make interesting stories. Simply because someone's written a good book doesn't mean they are terribly forthcoming or smart or clever, or can offer some amazing insight into their work process or the state of American arts and letters. Those of us in the newspaper game want to give space to interviews with authors to support reading and good books. But since my first responsibility is to the reader of the paper, I have to think about whether an interview with a particular author will make good copy. And you know? Sometimes they don't.
I specifically remember one very young, very hot author from England who left a trail of furious and insulted interviewers all over the country, not to mention some very frazzled handlers at a major publishing house. I adored her book, as did many critics, but this young woman with very pearly dental work was so full of herself, she clearly had the idea she was doing the newspaper a favor by agreeing to talk to us. My interviewer came back all but bloodied from having to deal with all this unearned attitude, but he managed an interesting story out of it. I later caught this charmer on the late, great Bookmark show on Bay TV: Slumped in her chair like a bored teenager forbidden to stay out past 11, she mostly grunted in answer to Barbara Lane's questions. If this was an example of a packaged author, she could have been packaged up and returned to the UK as far as I was concerned.
My point is that the purpose of interviews in a newspaper is to engage the reader of the newspaper. This particular author was a singular case, I admit, but others are just nice people who don't really have a lot to say, or enough to say, to make a terribly interesting story.
The other thing about author interviews is that they are difficult to do at a newspaper because your staff is limited and someone actually has to take work time to read the book and then do the interview and then write it up. This is always a problem with William T. Vollmann: I can either assign someone to read his annual thousand-page/thousand-pound book, or we can publish a daily newspaper.
Holt replies: I think the irony for Ann Beattie is that she couldn't know, in the beginning when she was seen as a rising star, which interviews would be professional and which would "devolve into quasi-celeb features," as you say. Just giving interviews, she how feels, contributes to this crazy tendency we have in the United States to make people famous and then forget about 'em. That's why she believes that publicity tours are dangerous for literature, why she hopes her books will transcend her public persona. I hope so too, yet as a reader I also hope she keeps doing appearances. What a void we would feel if the good writers left public discourse to the Jonathan Franzens of the world (tiny joke).
Dear Holt Uncensored:
As a mid-list author, I can't work up much sympathy for Ann Beattie's misery at being "packaged". Personally, I'd love to be more "packaged" than I am, and have all that PR. For those of us who don't have big publishing budgets behind us, getting noticed and even just letting people know your book exists takes endless work. God bless the indies, for selling backlisted books for many years, and even bless those rare chains whose Community Resource Managers are aware, appreciative and helpful. I'll take all the help I can get, from wherever it comes.
Tina B. Tessina,
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re: Attack on Jonathan Yardley's column in the Washington Post in praise of chain bookstores.
Why didn't you include comments from satisfied customers of Amazon, et al., as well as competing bookstore owners?
I buy from Amazon all the time. Their service is excellent, prices are reasonable, used copies are available cheaply.
You ignore the fact that many independent booksellers are selling used books through Amazon, in essence, are partners with Amazon.
Any reasonable empirical analysis would show that Amazon has helped the book business, not hurt it, more books sold at better prices, and that "independent" bookstore owners who are complaining don't like competition and don't care about their customers' needs. Rather, independent booksellers want to control the market.
Why didn't you ask your "independent" sources to open their books and show you the earning figures for their companies before and after Amazon went into business?
Full disclosure: I am an author who sells books on Amazon -- grateful because my local neighborhood prize-winning "independent" bookstore declines to stock them (you might say censors them). I have sold (and purchased) used books via Amazon; and as a result of my happy experiences, I own stock in Amazon. One more thing, we have an Amazon ad on The Idler website. Our local bookseller (the one that does not stock my books) has never bought an ad, even though we publish features on their book talks, including links to their website. (We have never published an article about Amazon, in contrast.)
Holt responds: I haven't heard an independent bookseller worry about Amazon.com for a long time, so don't blame the indies - they've moved on. (It's me who's still complaining!) And remember that independents know more than anyone that you can't "control the market" if you "don't care about the customers' needs."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re: Letter from Steven Khinoy about chains doing some limited good.
Mr. Khinoy sees the issue of indies vs. chains from his side only. If he stopped to think about how half of the indies have gone out of business he would wonder. If he saw that indies have gone from 59% market share to under 17% (in my brief career, I'm only 47) he would wonder. If he really looked closely at where the chains land he would see that they have often targeted communities already well-served by indies (let someone else do the hard part of cultivating serious readers and spenders) he would wonder.
If he understood that his indie makes less on his textbook orders, and B&N more on his trade orders he would wonder. He realizes that the BIGNESS of it all is just an illusion, but still marvels at how no other store has dared to open such a big store (if they had the money and publishers support the big stores do they would dare to). So the illusion has completely seduced him. I had a store in a vibrant community, well-stocked and representing nearly every publisher (at great expense, lots of small orders to many publishers costs a lot more than a few orders for big quantities of "illusory" blockbusters is lots cheaper).
First my customers shifted their allegiance, then the authors quit coming to speak/sign/appear. Then the publishers shifted their support to the big stores. Is it any wonder that stores like ours closed after 63 years (22 under my ownership)?
What I wonder about is what is that unique service that the chains perform? If you say it is that they have duped an entire generation of browsers/coffee drinkers/poets and singles in search of serious dates into thinking that they are "readers" yes, they have performed a unique service. Indies have provided books, not the "add-ons" that the public seems to want. So yes, he is misinformed. And if he would rather shop at an indie he should ALWAYS do so, as the last straggling supporters at my store did, because they were blindly committed to supporting a store that supported the books, the authors, the staff and in many cases through donations and volunteering, the community. If enough people stayed out of those big stores they'd be forced to close 'em!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I'm working on a manuscript for a writer who touches on the Alamo and makes some statements I questioned but wanted to comment on in a relatively informed way. In Seattle for the week, I phoned my former professor of Southwest history in the Bay Area, got a couple of recommendations for reference works, and being the book-acquisitive person I am went down to Elliott Bay to buy the books instead of hitting the library as I had intended. One is "A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory," published last year by Free Press/Simon & Schuster. And if Elliott Bay will take it back, I'm returning it today.
I was excited, opening the book -- most of my reading is unpublished material, and though I love my work, it's such a pleasure to hold and inhale a book. But that excitement began to wane when I realized I was skipping over what we (the editorial we) call flickers -- little pulses of "something's wrong here."
Finally I began making note of some of those little things, and by the time I got to "Ramirez y Sesma's cavalry road down and killed the Texans," my interest in reading any further was also dead. Before that had come "delapidated," and "Congressmen David Crockett," and "red scarlet collars" (I know too well how that kind of thing can happen in the electronic age, but I wasn't feeling empathetic by then), and "publically," just to list a few plain old sillinesses. Under the heading of I love it when you speak French: "Napoleon had cut a swathe through Europe." Meanwhile, either the authors or the editors(?) had the cojones, forgive me, to use "sic" over and over with 19th century spellings in material they're quoting.
Beyond that we have "Samuel Evans and Joseph Kerr each had a father who had served as generals in the U.S. Army." "Jim Bowie had made a living in land speculation ... and in 1830 had he settled in Texas, eventually marrying ..." (That's poetic, at least.) On facing pages, and then a third time a few pages later, various people "wasted little time in ..." The term "soldaderas" is nicely defined early on, but then it's nicely defined again in virtually the same language only a few pages later. Ad inf.
Thus Simon & Schuster road roughshod over any lingering hope I had that the rumors about big publishers and small regard for their readers -- and authors! I don't fault the authors! -- were just rumors. (In the old days there'd be an editor around to fix that sentence.) The copy desk credo lives: A succession of seemingly inconsequential errors can erode the credibility of a whole work. At a newspaper there's generally a second or third edition of the day's paper, a second or third chance to get things right. I note that I've bought the first edition of this book, so is that what book publishers are doing now, too? Puts a whole new spin on "first edition."
Now I'm going to high myself to Elliott Bay and plead my case. Maybe I can sic them on Simon & Schuster.
P.S., next day: Not only did Elliott Bay take back the book, they commiserated, said Simon & Schuster is possibly the worst but by no means the only offender in this regard, and started to refund my $26 and change. I didn't think a righteous bookstore should have to pay for the publishing industry's ______ (fill in the blank -- contempt for its own products? greed in high places?) so now I have an Elliott Bay credit slip to make me look forward to my next visit even more than I usually do. I'd sure like to have my illusions back, too, though.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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