BOOKS IN BRIEF
Among recently published books about the media, two autobiographies, a collection of essays, a history, and a polemic on political punditry stand out.
SOUND AND FURY: THE WASHINGTON PUNDITOCRACY AND THE COLLAPSE OF AMERICAN POLITICS
By Eric Alterman, HarperCollins, 352 pp., $23
The rise of television and the drop in public interest in political discourse are an unhealthy mix for American democracy, argues Eric Alterman. Television has provided a bigger, better platform for often ill-informed professional soothsayers. These pundits seem to be everywhere, from ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley" to NBC's "The McLaughlin Group" to CNN's "The Capitol Gang" and "Crossfire."
Alterman traces the rise of punditry earlier in this century as a counterpoint to the blandness of the "objective" reporting style emerging in the better newspapers. Walter Lippmann set a standard for trenchant analysis that few pundits today even approach, Alterman says. Instead, today's pundits seek fame and fortune more than truth.
Readers may disagree with Alterman's prescription for the ill - a return to publications with overt, but zesty, points of view, a la London's Economist. But his charge that journalism should be more than simply jotting down "he said" after pronouncements by prominent persons should hit home in any newsroom.
A BUS OF MY OWN
By Jim Lehrer, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 270 pp., $22.95
TV viewers know Jim Lehrer as the newsreader with the slight drawl who cohosts PBS's highly acclaimed MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour week-nights. Or perhaps as the moderator of the recently televised presidential debates. Others may know him as a novelist, author of the "One-Eyed Mack" detective series. But few until now knew of his affection for buses and bus-line memorabilia that's led to him owning his own 1946 Flxible Clipper.
Lehrer knows how to tell a story, and he doesn't botch his own. His is the story of a small-town boy becoming a big-time newspaperman in Dallas. Eventually, he moves on, with trepidation, to television, where the early-'70s Watergate scandal arrives and pumps up ratings just in time to save a fledgling news show hosted by an erudite Canadian (MacNeil) and the camera-shy Texan.
IN MY PLACE
By Charlayne Hunter-Gault; Farrar, Straus, Giroux; 257 pp., $19
This autobiography by Jim Lehrer's NewsHour colleague Charlayne Hunter-Gault has little to do with her career in journalism. But it has everything to do with how a journalist's life is shaped. Growing up in a small South Carolina town in the segregated South of the 1940s and '50s, Ms. Hunter-Gault experienced all the evils of racism firsthand.
A strong family life, grounded in religious beliefs and a love of education, prepared her for her biggest challenge: In 1961, she entered the University of Georgia as one of the first two African-Americans ever allowed to attend it. Her return, 25 years later to give the university's commencement address, is a touching coda to the story. As a personal insight into the dawning civil rights movement, the book is an engaging read.
SWEET AND SOUR
By Andrew A. Rooney, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 254 pp., $18.95
If you're one of the millions of Americans who listens to Andy Rooney's lighthearted comments on CBS's "60 Minutes" each Sunday - but don't read his syndicated newspaper column - the answer is "yes." Yes, Rooney's columns sound just like his TV work. Which means if you're a Rooney fan, you'll like this latest collection of his essays. You may even find yourself reading them aloud, trying to get just the right Rooney whine into your voice.
Rooney knows one of the great secrets of writing: less is often more. Just when you think he's the master of the obvious and banal, he'll grab you with a beautiful piece of prose, like his moving tribute to fellow CBS newsman Harry Reasoner.
Skeptics of Rooney essays should be warned: I bet you can't read just one.
THE POWER OF NEWS: THE HISTORY OF REUTERS
By Donald Read, Oxford University Press, 431 pp., $30
The British news service Reuters has become a large and powerful international corporation, earning much more from whisking financial information around the globe for business clients than reporting on world affairs.
This "authorized" history tells how it all happened, beginning with entrepreneur Julius Reuter's first two-man telegraph shop in London in 1851. By 1989, the worldwide conglomerate had more than 10,000 employees, including 1,600 journalists.
From its outset, Reuters has prided itself on accuracy and speed in delivering news, using the cutting-edge technology of the day - from carrier pigeons to telegraphs to satellite-linked computers - to best its competitors. Though laden with more details than may interest most readers, this history offers browsers fascinating anecdotes on the rewards and dangers of international news gathering.