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 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    

From AJR,   April 1999  issue

We Could Miss the Big Story Of the Era   

Or maybe we should review this book.

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

Always a great challenge for journalism is seeing and reporting the big undulations, often not understood or not visible enough, that eventually turn the course of civilization, turn the world. You look for ripples on the surface that may suggest the sea change. Calling this "news that oozes" only partly describes it. The term "trend stories" falls short.

I'm talking about the really big stuff.

Who, beforehand, understood the coming impact of Karl Marx, Adolph Hitler or Sigmund Freud, none of whom would have amounted to much if the timing and conditions had not been right? Who reported the fact and the timing of the sudden, total collapse of the Evil Empire? (A few experts did come close, having measured both the rot and the sparks at hand.)

Now we are seeing lists not just of the century but of stories of the millennium.

I doubt that any tribune of 2,000 years ago understood what effect the arrival of Jesus Christ would have, including the future use of his birth to measure centuries and millenniums. But wait. There were prophecies. Maybe the Jewish prophets were actually really great journalists. Some would say so; others would say they blew it by getting the whole story wrong. We won't know for sure for a while.

Note that a list of the top 20th century stories produced by the Freedom Forum's Newseum begins with the 1945 nuclear bombing of Japan. In "hard news" terms that was a pretty good event signaling the coming of nuclear power, so one day's stories really could be seen as evidence of a great earthly undulation.

That list names the discovery of the first antibiotic and approval of the birth control pill as major stories of the century. Not bad calls.

A panel of experts assembled at New York University's journalism department also put nuclear destruction at the top of its list, but in a different way. They concluded that John Hersey's "Hiroshima," describing that explosion, was the century's most important work of American journalism.

Perhaps in a reach for one of the next millennium's big stories, Winifred Gallagher's new book, "Working on God," notes the fading of a century dominated by secular explanations of life (think Marx, Freud, Einstein) and identifies a turn-of-the-millennium spiritual revolution whose form is still taking shape. Out: secularism underlying everything. In: some kind of metaphysical, or sacred, or spiritual explanation and thrust.

Hell of a story if true. Let's check it out.

This book came to AJR for review, as many do every month. It won't be reviewed, since our tight space for books usually limits us to those about journalism. Note that I said "about" journalism, though sometimes they are books "of" journalism.

Some of the best journalism today is in book form. Too bad we cannot consistently review them. Just in are these "journabooks": Roger Cohen's "Hearts Grown Brutal," a fine reporter's story about war in the Balkans, and Edward Humes' "Mean Justice," a top reporter's look at the criminal justice system.

One day we may overlook a book that has the top story of the next millennium.