Thursday, February 28, 2008

HARD NEWS by Seth Mnookin

Hard News is former Newsweek writer Seth Mnookin’s book about Howell Raines’ twenty-one month tenure as executive editor at the New York Times. Mnookin begins Hard News with a brief history of the New York Times, describing the previous publishers and the paper’s evolution, explaining the circumstances in which Howell Raines became a candidate for executive editor and how he was chosen. Mnookin then discusses the effects of Raines’ leadership on the newsroom, giving particular attention to Jayson Blair’s reporting scandal, which was the beginning of the end for Raines.

Mnookin’s narrative is almost always fast-paced and engaging, dragging only occasionally (notably when he gets into the minute details of the team of reporters responsible for investigating Jayson Blair’s reporting). Even so, Hard News is more often downright entertaining. On the back cover, The Washington Post Book World blurb says, “Hard News reads like a thriller”. While this may sound improbable, it is to some degree true.

One of the reasons Hard News is so interesting is that Mnookin’s main characters are larger than life. Howell Raines is interested in using the New York Times to build himself a grand legacy, and so he institutes his own changes, to an extent, for their own sakes. Raines more or less goes mad with power – he isn’t interested in dissenting opinions of any kind. For Mnookin, Raines is a tyrannical dictator of the highest order. Meanwhile, Mnookin paints Gerald Boyd, Raines’ managing editor, as a sycophantic crony who will not stand up for his own convictions. Together, they alienate and lose the trust of nearly everyone on the New York Times’ staff (except, of course, for those who have received favored status), practically without realizing it.

Jayson Blair comes across as a pathological liar, who may very well have some kind of mental illness. He very clearly has no scruples, ethics, morals or principles. He showed no remorse for his catastrophic fraud; he tried to cash in on it with a memoir filled with more fabrications. And when adversity strikes, Blair is the boy who cried “racism!”

Given his long history of journalistic problems and fabrications, Blair’s rapid rise at the New York Times seems unbelievable. Certainly it fits well into the “truth is stranger than fiction” category. Nevertheless, much of the scandal he caused could have been prevented by the New York Times, as the policies Raines had in place allowed Blair the leeway and opportunities he received. If Blair had not been placed on major national stories without merit, his shenanigans would have caused scandal on a much smaller scale.

In Hard News, Mnookin really gives Raines the business. From beginning to end, Raines is the villain of this piece, misguided, arrogant, and oblivious, and the blame for more or less everything bad that happened at the Times during this period is laid at Raines’ feet. Certainly, Raines was the one primarily responsible, and the situation that resulted in his ouster was to a large degree of his own making, but the reader may get the feeling here and there that Mnookin has at least a small axe to grind against Raines. This culminates on page 260 where Raines refuses to shake Mnookin’s hand and then Mnookin immediately draws an unfavorable contrast between Raines and “beloved” (p. 259) journalist Michael Kelly. Overall, the reader may well wonder if Mnookin has portrayed Raines and Boyd as fairly and multi-dimensionally as he ought.

In focusing on the culture at the New York Times during Raines’ tenure, Mnookin presents a large number of on-the-record quotes from Times employees. This certainly adds credibility to Mnookin’s account. In contrast, the paper’s leadership was more or less unwilling to go on the record with him. But Raines can hardly be faulted for refusing to speak with Mnookin for this book. Hard News was not the first account of Raines’ fiascos at the New York Times, and the reader should not reasonably expect Raines to be willing to be put through the wringer every time someone writes something. After all, by this time, Raines’ public image and professional reputation had been virtually destroyed.

Mnookin points out how Raines and Blair were sore losers after this affair (with Raines, he seems to go out of his way to do this). Raines never really took responsibility for the scandal or the culture that enabled it, and Mnookin mentions several instances where Raines wrote incorrect or contradictory recollections of things. Blair, of course, tried to cash in on the situation in any way possible.

Hard News is a terrible title. It’s uninteresting and unmemorable, and doesn’t really describe the book in any substantial way. I myself was unable to remember the title of this book for several weeks after I got it. It very well could have been called How Howell Raines Alienated Everyone and Did His Utmost to Run the New York Times into the Ground. The full title of the book is Hard News: Twenty-one Brutal Months at The New York Times and How They Changed the American Media. Yet beyond commenting on how some media do more in-depth fact-checking (although he also notes that many media still do not fact-check), Mnookin really doesn’t get into how the media changed. Rather, he hints at how these events have changed how the media are perceived by the American people, how they have lost credibility and trust across the board.

On the whole, Hard News is about as gripping as an account as one might reasonably expect to have about this sort of thing. But the reader may well wonder if Mnookin has been fair in his representations of Raines and others and if, in the end, Mnookin has reported all sides of the story.


Friday, February 22, 2008


The Problem of Pain is C. S. Lewis’s 1940 theodicy – his attempt to explain why, if God is omnipotent and good, bad things happen in the world and people suffer. His target audience is Christians; non-Christians are likely to dismiss this work out of hand.

In this book, Lewis addresses the goodness and omnipotence of God, the fall of man and human wickedness, human and animal pain, and heaven and hell. In doing so, he gives a strong case for the free will of humanity (stronger even, perhaps, than might be biblically defensible).
As per usual, most of Lewis’s arguments are logically rather than theologically based. The problem is, in this book, his logic is noticeably faulty. It does often tend to be “either/or” – Lewis will say, “this must be X or Y”, almost arbitrarily, and will not leave room for other options. Much of Lewis’s logic here is based on the rampant speculation he makes without theological or biblical support, particularly in his chapters on hell and animal suffering. The illustrations Lewis uses in this book tend to be general and academic, and he qualifies many of the things he says.

At one point, Lewis breaks from his own argument to embrace a personal position in direct opposition to the case he has been making. Lewis says that he presupposes that “the good man ordinarily continues to seek simple good. I say ‘ordinarily’ because a man is sometimes entitled to hurt (or even, in my opinion, to kill) his fellow, but only where the necessity is urgent and the good to be attained obvious…” The reader familiar with Lewis knows that his position here is strongly rooted in the time he spent in the military and fighting in World War I. But here he has contradicted things he’s said earlier in the book, and in other books, about love and good. Obviously the urgency of necessity and the obviousness of good are often completely subjective. Lewis really dropped the ball here.

It is interesting to note (although it really has little to do with the quality of the work) that Lewis here both embraces evolution and says quite clearly that he believes that the creation accounts in Genesis are myths. Neither of these cause any problem for his faith.

The Problem of Pain is hardly Lewis’s finest work. The logic is often faulty and the illustrations he uses are too hypothetical and vague. There is some good here also, particularly the message that God can use pain to reach and change people. But this is far from being the definitive work on pain.


Monday, February 18, 2008

THINGS FALL APART by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart is Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s first novel. It deals with Nigerian tribal life before and during white colonialism, with particular attention to how tribal culture and white colonial culture come into conflict when white people move in and attempt to convert the natives to Christianity.

Things Fall Apart is slow-paced. There is no plot to speak of here beyond antihero Okonkwo’s ambitions, and the cultural conflict does not begin until the last quarter of the book. In the meantime, Achebe explores tribal culture in depth, with attention to tradition, religion, ritual, and family structure.

Achebe’s writing is rather simple (often praised as “deceptively simple”), and sometimes repetitive. Achebe is a better storyteller than he is a writer, as his protagonist is well-rounded and his supporting characters are sufficiently well-rounded, even though the novel drags at times.

On the whole, Things Fall Apart is now overrated, but it is still a solid rebuttal to those who glorify white colonialism, as well as an exploration of Nigerian tribal culture.


Sunday, February 17, 2008


This volume, published in 1993 as The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunits and in 1997 as Historical Whodunits, contains 23 historical (that is, set before the author was born) mysteries. The foreword is by Ellis Peters, who discusses how she created the Cadfael character.

Many of these stories were written specifically for this volume. Unfortunately, quite a few of these stories aren't very good. Often, the historical setting has nothing to do with the mystery, and is just used to set up the MacGuffin. Furthermore, the majority of these stories are not ones where the reader can follow along and guess at the culprit. Rather, it seems that many authors were more interested in thinking of ridiculous scenarios, which their protagonists would then explain.

There is a great proliferation here of authors using both other authors' characters and real historical figures. Poe's Dupin and Doyle's Holmes appear here in stories from other authors, and other detectives include Leonardo da Vinci, Poe himself, and William Shakespeare.

There are a couple of good stories here, and some good authors, but a great many of the stories in this volume aren't particularly interesting. I suppose they can't all be Cadfael.


Sunday, February 10, 2008


The Adventures of Ulysses, written by Bernard Evslin and illustrated by William Hunter, is an account of Ulysses' voyages home after the Trojan War.

Evslin begins with a summary of the Trojan War, then goes right to Ulysses' voyages. This account makes it clear that a large number of Ulysses' problems can be blamed on the inability of his crews to control themselves, particularly their appetites.

This book is for a young adult audience, but Evslin doesn't shy away from the blood and gore, nor from the hints at sex within. Evslin's account only begins to delve into some of the more complex themes of mythology – destiny, the will of the gods, and so forth. Evslin uses very colloquial language in some places, which often has a jarring effect on the reader. It isn't used consistently.

This may not be the greatest account of Ulysses, but it is fast-paced, and it is entertaining.


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

I AM LEGEND by Richard Matheson

I Am Legend is Richard Matheson's short novel about the only survivor of a plague that has made everyone else on earth into something like zombie vampires. It is a foundational novel in the post-apocalyptic genre of science fiction and horror, and has been made into a movie three times: The Last Man on Earth (1964), with Vincent Price, The Omega Man (1971), with Charlton Heston, and I Am Legend (2007), with Will Smith. Of these, The Last Man on Earth follows the novel most closely.

Matheson's style often seizes on the mundane details of the situation, at times without apparent value to the story, but the overall effect is suspenseful, in large part because Matheson takes the reader inside the main character Neville's mental imbalance. Throughout the book, Neville is not only in danger from the vampires, but also from himself.

The edition I read also contained ten Matheson short stories, ranging in genre from horror to suspense. None of them are as good as I Am Legend, but a few of them are genuinely creepy and others show Matheson's knack for exploring the disturbed minds of his characters. The reader will also notice a few of Matheson's writing preferences (he loves to use the word "funereal", and he frequently describes characters' mouths as "gashes").

Like or not, books like I Am Legend are responsible for the now over-played zombie genre. Here, at least, it's done originally, and done well.