Questions About 'Battle for America 2008'
In recent days, The Post has given prominent display and ample space to a series of stories offering an inside account of last year’s presidential campaign. They are adapted from a new book, “The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election,” written by The Post’s lead political reporter, Dan Balz, and former Post reporter and editor Haynes Johnson.
Soon after the first installment appeared as the lead story in Sunday’s paper, readers started asking questions.
“I think your promotion of the new book by Balz and Johnson is completely unethical and trying to pass it off as worthy of top billing on the front page is unseemly,” e-mailed Raymond Meyer of Falls Church. “It’s also beyond the pale to devote so much space as in today’s paper to their ‘story.’ Where is the new News?”
Several readers e-mailed or called to ask whether The Post, currently losing money, was giving such prominent play as part of a revenue-sharing agreement with the book’s publisher, Viking Press.
A few others wondered whether information had been withheld from readers during the campaign and saved for the book.
The Post has a long history of featuring excerpts from books written by its reporters. And these same reader questions have been raised in the past. In the future, The Post might consider running an editor's note to briefly address them at the outset.
First, does The Post have a revenue-sharing arrangement with "Battle for America 2008"? Executive editor Marcus Brauchli offers a definitive “no.”
Next, was newsworthy information withheld during the campaign and saved for the book? It was addressed in this exchange with Balz and Johnson during a Post online chat Tuesday:
Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Balz -- "How did you distinguish between your day to day reporting of the campaign and the reporting you did for this book? Were you ever tempted to ask a source to make the information available immediately or was that never an option?"
Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: "Good question. We did some book-only interviews along the way, which my editors were aware of. The way I tried to work was to do book interviews on events long settled, and after the Post had fully reported them. For example, we had two splendid pieces by Anne Kornblut and Peter Baker (now at the New York Times) about turmoil inside the Clinton campaign in January and March 2008. I interviewed people about those episodes much later. Beyond that, much information was obtained long after the campaign ended, which is when people are more willing to discuss past history. We always operated with the idea that if something needed to go in the paper, it would, and that the Post would also have the opportunity to publish the fruits of the book reporting before anyone else."
Post media writer Howard Kurtz got a more pointed reader question in his “online chat Monday. He offered an answer that speaks more broadly to the issue of Post reporters writing books about subjects they cover. Here’s the exchange:
Arlington, Va.: "How much is Dan Balz's publisher paying The Post for what is essentially a series of page 1 advertisements for his new book? Why did Mr. Balz not report most of what's in his book during the campaign? Isn't that what The Post and its readers pay him to do? Besides making money, what purpose is served by saving many of these issues until after the election? The next time I read a report authored by Mr. Balz, I'll wonder what he's not saying because he wants to save it for his next book. As the content of the Post continues to shrink, you're doing a good job of infuriating your remaining readers by saving your best reporting for a book."
Howard Kurtz: "This is a question that always comes up when The Post runs book excerpts; I've faced it myself. Obviously it's great exposure for the authors, but also great value for Washington Post readers. I'm frankly impressed that Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson were able to mine so much new material from a campaign that was so intensively covered and has been the subject of earlier books. As for the why-didn't-they-tell-us-sooner question, here's what you're not getting. When you tell sources in the middle of a campaign that the material won't be published until afterward, you get a far greater level of candor. Obama, Axelrod, McCain aides and others simply wouldn't have told Balz and Johnson what they did if it was for the next day's paper. Also, they obviously did more reporting after the campaign and needed time to synthesize their material. Anecdotes that might have been merely okay at the time (say, how Palin was picked in a hurry) become much richer when you can put them in a broader narrative that reflects how things turned out."
On Tuesday, I asked Brauchli how The Post handles the question of whether, or under what circumstances, a reporter covering a story should withhold information and save if for a subsequent book.
“We’re mindful of the dangers,” he said, adding that the key is discussions between the reporter and editors over the newsworthiness of information. If it’s deemed relevant, he said, “we would make every effort to get it in the paper.”
Brauchli acknowledged that “the measure of newsworthiness is a matter of interpretation.” That would also apply to whether The Post should have given so much space to the series. In the newspaper, Sunday and Monday’s installments began on the front page and each day ran on two pages inside the A section. The Post's Web site also gave the pieces prominent homepage play and created a special projects page for the series. There were no blockbuster disclosures. But the rich detail certainly provides a better understanding of what went on behind the scenes in the Obama and McCain campaigns.
Politico columnist Roger Simon, in a preface to a Q&A on Tuesday with Balz (whom he noted is a friend from college days), described the book as “a riveting account, combining big-picture analysis, important revelations and intriguing anecdotes.”
Brauchli, who said he was midway through the book, described it as “fascinating” and “very newsworthy.”
Tuesday’s final installment was available only on washingtonpost.com, and that didn’t sit well with a few readers. A caller from Potomac, who would not allow her name to be used here, told me this morning that the decision to hold it out of the print product was “not only unsatisfying, but also unbelievable. This isn’t the way to keep loyal subscribers.”
Posted by: kindfrazier | August 5, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: kindfrazier | August 5, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: austininc4 | August 6, 2009 4:21 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Gray62 | August 6, 2009 7:22 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Lazarus40 | August 6, 2009 8:42 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: waterfrontproperty | August 6, 2009 9:15 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Dermitt | August 6, 2009 9:35 AM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.