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American Journalism Review
Dirty Harry with a Notebook  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   July/August 1992

Dirty Harry with a Notebook   

The Pelican Brief
By John Grisham
Running Mates
By John Feinstein
The Murder of Albert Einstein
By Todd Gitlin

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp ( began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


The Pelican Brief
By John Grisham
372 pages; $22.50

Running Mates
By John Feinstein
Villard Books
242 pages; $19

The Murder of Albert Einstein
By Todd Gitlin
Farrar Straus Giroux
240 pages, $22

They lie to editors, deceive sources and pose as people they aren't. They pick locks and fistfights, pack pistols and shoot it out with villains. And, naturally, they have sensational sex lives.

These are reporters at least reporters as they're portrayed in several recent novels.

Novels are, of course, fiction. Authors are supposed to make things up. So it won't do to get too sanctimonious about besmirching a noble profession.

Still, after reading several current novels that feature reporters, I began pondering whether the collective portrayal of journalists reflects some cultural stereotypes and, if so, what larger impact it might be having on the public and the press.

One-time lawyer John Grisham has leaped atop bestseller lists with "The Pelican Brief," a page-turner about a law student and a Washington Post reporter caught up in the assassinations of two U.S. Supreme Court justices.

As a novel, it's a compelling if formulaic suspense tale, full of double-dealing and high adventure. Among the double-dealers is reporter Gray Grantham, described as "a serious, ethical reporter with just a touch of sleaze." Just enough sleaze, in fact, to get a key source murdered.

In one early scene, the jittery source calls Grantham from a pay phone and makes him swear not to trace or tape the call. But after the source hangs up, the reporter immediately locates the pay phone by using a version of caller identification.

He assigns a photographer to watch the phone, the photographer snaps the source's picture, and Grantham shows it around. Before you can say Deep Throat, the source winds up, as they say in the mystery game, on the slab.

People also die in John Feinstein's "Running Mates," and it's a reporter who pulls the trigger.

Feinstein, a former Washington Post reporter who has written several fine nonfiction books, has a wise-guy, elbows-out style that, as fiction, is engaging. The improbable but thoroughly enjoyable story line has a couple of state capital reporters chasing down wackos who assassinate a governor of Maryland.

Wisecracking, two-fisted reporter Bobby Kelleher routinely lies his way past dull-witted security guards, makes love to a source, beats up one thug and guns down another.

Feinstein seems to be both wickedly sending up newsroom politics (the editors come across as slightly less treacherous than the murderers) and deliciously avenging himself on every two-bit politician who ever crossed him.

Social critic Todd Gitlin tries something more ambitious in "The Murder of Albert Einstein," a philosophical if slow-moving story featuring TV journalist Margo Ross.

The plot has Ross pursuing evidence Einstein was poisoned. Gitlin's writing seems self-conscious and sluggish compared to that of yarn-spinners such as Grisham and Feinstein.

But he, too, manages to produce a reporter protagonist who lies to her sources, stiffs her editor, and incapacitates a bad guy.

"A journalist breaks down doors," Gitlin has one character say. "That's a violent act... That's why doors are closed in the first place. The question is which doors, and in whose interest."

I don't want to jump these authors for roughing up the image of journalists. Their characters appear no worse than the standard depictions of reporters in fiction and film.

Maybe that's what worries me. There's a danger that this image will take hold: the renegade, no-holds-barred journalist-as-enforcer, Dirty Harry and Harriet with notebooks, cynical, self-obsessed, unaccountable to anyone and all but unable to maintain civil relationships with normal people.

To the degree that we perpetuate this macho swaggering, don't we egg on a public less and less tolerant of using the First Amendment to cover lying, cheating and thieving? Someday soon, the answer to the age-old question, "Whodunit?," may become:

We did. To ourselves.


Watergate in American Memory,by Michael Schudson (Basic Books, 269 pages, $24). The astute sociologist Schudson provocatively re-examines myths and mysteries embedded in Americans' memories of Watergate. In his chapter on the press, he calls Watergate the "unavoidable central myth of American journalism." Among his conclusions: Watergate did not, as is often claimed, spawn a great rush of youth into journalism; it hastened the trend toward "celebrification" of journalists; and it played a role in the "rise of prurient reporting." If you read nothing else in this book, search out the spellbinding quote from Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., who captures in an interview with Schudson the exquisite agonies and bedlam that accompanied the paper's Watergate effort.

The Age of Missing Information, by Bill McKibben (Random House, 262 pages, $20). McKibben has done something truly stupefying: He arranged to tape every minute of television broadcast by a nearly 100-channel Virginia cable system. And then he watched it, more than a thousand hours, including the stunt on "Super Sloppy Double Dare" where a team, which failed to answer a question about Tom Sawyer, had to "turn themselves into 'human tacos' by pouring vats of guacamole on their heads." After a contrasting day of solitude in nature, McKibben meditates on how obsession with television blinds us to the messages of the "realer world."



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