This is a transcription of Episode 27 — Newsroom.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Episode 27 of Strong Sense of Place. Today, we are getting curious about the newsroom.
[ recording of old-timey news annoucement]
David: Mel, you’ve had many encounters with the media –
Melissa: I have.
David: As a result —
Melissa: My life as a criminal has led to many encounters with the media.
David: As a result of being a founding member of the Texas Rollergirls. You have been quoted in The New York Times, twice, I think. You and I were both on The Today Show, which is its own unreal story. But what I wanted to talk about was you went to New York and you were in the studio of Good Morning America.
Melissa: That is true. That was an amazing experience.
David: How was that?
Melissa: So the Texas Rollergirls were about a year old, and we just got a phone call on, I think Monday afternoon from Good Morning America saying, How would four of you like to come and be on the show? That feels very strange to get that invitation. And we were extremely excited.
Melissa: And we got on a plane the next day. Four of us. And flew to New York. I was very disappointed to find we had to do our own hair and makeup, and we had to do that and be at the studio at 4:30 in the morning.
David: As I recall, they put you up in a really nice New York hotel directly across the street from the studio. And you guys were in there for maybe two and a half hours?
Melissa: Yes, we didn’t get very much sleep. And then we had to get all dolled up and cross the street to the studio. The way our appearance was going to work is that our announcer, Whiskey L’Amour, was going to be chitchatting with the weatherman and the bumpers that go into the commercials. And then the rest of us would be skating around in the studio, and at the end we would have some face-time with Diane Sawyer.
David: So you’re sort of demonstrating how rough and tumble you guys can be as they go into the commercial. And then at the very end of the show, they’re like, and now the rollergirls.
Melissa: And they can speak in full sentences as well. Yes. So that’s the plan. Yeah. It’s very early in the morning and we’re in the green room and there are people in and out. There are people they’re actual grown-ups coming in who are talking about news things. And we’re wearing push-up bras and fishnet stockings and drinking coffee and trying to both keep our energy up, but not to be too nervous. But it’s very nerve-wracking
David: Because it’s all adrenaline-fueled and caffeine-fueled.
Melissa: Yes. We would go into the studio to skate around for a couple of seconds, really, before going into the commercial. And then we would go back to the green room to hang out until the next time. So you could never really relax either. And now it’s getting on. A producer comes over to us, it’s about 8:45, and he says, In two minutes we’re going to go live with Diane, which one of you is talking? Three other heads swivel towards me. Point their fingers, and say, Mel is.
Melissa: And that is how I ended up speaking to Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts on live TV on Good Morning America.
David: And she wore one of your roller skates.
Melissa: She did. So there’s beautiful, statuesque Diane Sawyer with a Louboutin shoe on one foot and my skanky roller derby skate on her other foot, kind of shuffle skating her way across the studio and off camera, no one but us can see that there are producers and directors and the staff just looking terrified because she’s got one foot on wheels and one foot on a four-inch heel. They, of course, were incredibly charming and could not have been nicer to us. When it was over, they posed for pictures and they were so gracious and thanked us. And, yeah, they were just lovely. It was a really fun experience.
David: We have footage of your appearance on Good Morning America and Diane hobbling with your skate, but we will put online. Are you ready to talk about the 101?
Melissa: I am ready.
David: Let’s do it.
Melissa: When we decided to do the newsroom, I got very excited about the fictional possibilities of the buzzy, stressful newsroom. And fictional journalists. This is a rich environment for storytelling. The newsroom is kind of this messy but also exhilarating combination of camaraderie and competition. The deadlines are constant. The work is super-high pressure, and environments like that form powerful bonds between people. But in a newsroom, there’s also competition among colleagues because they have stories they want to track down. They have to pitch their editor, and their story has to be more compelling than one desk over for them to get airtime or inches on the page of the newspaper. That means that a newsroom, whether it’s a print newspaper or a website or a TV newsroom is very dramatic setting. Fictional journalists, reporters, newscasters, videographers, photographers — these are all the people we’re talking about when we say journalists, they are very compelling protagonists. Do you have a favorite fictional journalist?
David: The one that came to mind immediately was Lou Grant.
Melissa: Aw, Ed Asner.
David: Lovable, gruff, tough, such a great character that they set him up — he was introduced in the comedy Mary Tyler Moore — and then he had his spin off, which was a drama with his own name.
Melissa: Now, I kind of want to watch that.
David: It’s pretty great. As I recall it being. It may be washed with nostalgia. Why did you bring that up? Who are your favorite fictional journalists?
Melissa: You know I asked you because I wanted to talk about mine. [laughter]
Melissa: I put a lot of thought into this. Michael Blomkvist from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
David: Oh, yeah.
Melissa: I really like him because he’s like a dog with a bone. He will not let go. The story, even when it means he has to go to jail. I also really like Tuva Moodyson from the Will Dean mysteries set in Sweden, because that character is really interesting because she’s deaf, so she has to use her other senses to basically function in the world. That’s really fascinating. I was also surprised to find that I have a favorite real-life journalist that just kind of popped into my mind when I was thinking about this question.
David: Oh, all right.
Melissa: It’s Ron Charles who is a book critic for The Washington Post. His writing feels so effortless that, you know, he has to work really hard on it. He’s such a great writer, and he’s really good at reviewing books and putting books into the context of the world. He’s one of my favorite writers right now. Which leads me to… real-life journalists are even more impressive than the fictional ones.
Melissa: So let’s talk about the history of journalism. This is going to blow your mind.
Melissa: The earliest known piece of journalism was a news sheet circulated in ancient Rome around 59 BCE.
Melissa: It was called the Acta Diurna. It recorded important daily events like speeches and was hung in prominent places around town.
David: Oh, so sort of a bulletin board?
Melissa: Yeah. The first regularly published newspapers appeared in Germany and Antwerp, Belgium, around 1609. And the first English paper shows up in 1622 and was called The Weekly Newes — N E W E S.
David: 1622. So we’re almost 400 years.
Melissa: About 80 years later, the first English daily appeared. As we discussed in our episode, about libraries during the 18th and 19th centuries, printing presses got faster and paper got cheaper. That meant just about anybody could print their own newspaper. And the invention of automatic typesetting made it possible to print a morning paper overnight. And that kind of opened up the world of competition to grab eyeballs in the morning with your headlines.
Melissa: So now I’m going to talk a little bit about Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, because they were The Guys in news at the end of the 19th century. Joseph Pulitzer owned The New York World, and under his leadership, he increased the circulation from 15000 to 600000.
David: Wow. Good job.
Melissa: Yes. And I love how he did it. He did it by mostly being a champion for the causes of the poor and focusing his sales on the immigrant communities. He really wanted to reach out to people who were downtrodden and make sure they had news and bring to the surface issues that affected them
David: That’s great.
Melissa: He was really, really into what America should stand for. So much so that when the Statue of Liberty needed a pedestal, he encouraged his readers to donate money. And in six months, he’d raised more than $100,000, mostly in donations of $1 or less.
David: 19th century Go Fund Me.
Melissa: And Lady Liberty got her pedestal. Then on the other side of the equation, we have William Randolph Hearst. He bought the New York Journal, and he took a much more cavalier approach to integrity and reporting. He wanted murders and scandals on the front page.
[audio clip from Citizen Kane: Is that really your idea, how to run a newspaper? I don’t know how to run a newspaper. I just try everything I can think of.]
David: Hearst was sort of the forerunner of tabloid journalism.
Melissa: Exactly. So a circulation war began between their two newspapers. They poached staff from each other. They both dropped their prices to a penny, and then they really tried to out-news each other. The most egregious example of this was during the Spanish American War. Hearst sent an artists to Cuba to capture images of what everyone thought was going to be an upcoming war. And when the artist got there, there was nothing going on. And he telegraphed to Hearst and said, I don’t see anything. And he said, You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.
David: That same moment is in Citizen Kane.
Melissa: Yes, it is.
[audio clip from Citizen Kane: Yes, dear Wheeler, you provide the prose poems, I’ll provide the war. That’s fine. Yes. I rather like my daughter right away. I came to see you about this.]
Melissa: So on February 15th, 1898, the USS Maine exploded in Cuba and both papers were all over it. They were publishing speculation and untrue details. They just were like hyping it all up in their headlines and their stories. Hearst’s Journal even offered a fifty thousand dollar reward for information on what he called the attack. It wasn’t an attack.
David: So all of this that you’re describing was called yellow journalism.
Melissa: Yes, because the scandal sheets were printed on yellow paper. Pulitzer eventually regretted what he called his yellow sins. And he’s out to make amends. So he was part of a movement to make journalism more professional. There was a big question about whether journalists should get formal training and have degrees in journalism.
David: So the idea was anybody could be a journalist. Why would you need to study for that?
Melissa: In 1912, Columbia University established the first graduate program in journalism, thanks to a $2 million dollar grant from Pulitzer’s estate. And in 1917, the first Pulitzer Prize for Excellence in Journalism was awarded. Hearst, again, in contrast, created the country’s largest media company. By 1922, he owned 20 daily newspapers, 11 Sunday papers, two wire services, six magazines, and a newsreel company.
[audio clip from Citizen Kane: Its humble beginnings in this ramshackle building, a dying daily hanns empire in its glory, held dominion over 37 newspapers, co-syndicates, all radio networks, end empire upon an empire.]
Melissa: Now we’re going to speed through the evolution of modern media. From the 1920s through the 40s, radio became a primary source of news.
[audio of old-timey radio]
Melissa: Then television took over with local and national news programs.
[audio of TV announcer: This is NBC Nightly News Tuesday, June 24th.]
Melissa: In 1980, Ted Turner founded CNN, which was the first 24-hour cable news network.
[audio clip: This is CNN.]
Melissa: And that’s when the world completely changed forever. With the rise of the Internet in the ’90s, news moved online.
[audio of podcast: Welcome to Pod Save America. I’m Jon Favreau. I’m Jon Lovett. I’m Tommy Vietor. On today’s show…]
Melissa: Now, of course, is almost we have citizen journalism on the good side. And anybody with a mobile can break a news story with a video.
David: Yeah. One of the books I read is very much about that crisis in reporting.
Melissa: It feels a little bit like it’s coming full circle almost. In the 1700s, anybody with a press could put out a newspaper and have their opinion on the street. And now you have YouTubers and TikTokers who are essentially doing the same thing.
David: And we have yellow journalism where people are reporting things that are overblown or just trying to grab eyeballs. It feels like we have all of the problems that journalism has ever had just concentrated now.
Melissa: Agree, the lines between entertainment and news continue to blur.
David: And commerce and news, too.
Melissa: Yes. What Hearst was doing is still an issue. There’s still revenue tied to having a headline that everybody wants to know about. Having said all of that, there are still very well-trained, diligent reporters working to keep us informed about important news. So I’m going to stand up on my soapbox for a second and encourage all of you, dear audience members, please, pick a local newspaper, pick a national newspaper, subscribe to it, whether it’s online or in print, take a little bit of your money and support actual trained journalists because we need them, and they are a dying breed.
David: Do you want to talk about Two Truths and a Lie now?
David: I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is a lie. Mel does not know which one is the lie. So the first statement starts with The New York Post. The New York Post is a tabloid paper in New York City. It’s perhaps best known for its outrageous headlines. One example, probably the most famous, is the one they ran after a man’s torso minus his head was found in a strip club. The headline they ran was Headless Body in Topless Bar.
Melissa: [laughter] Oh, no.
David: Yeah. So the statement is that paper, The New York Post, was founded by Alexander Hamilton. Second statement, the fall of the Berlin Wall was precipitated by an investigative report by a local newspaper. Statement number three, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, King George the Fifth, was euthanized, so his death would make the deadline of the morning papers.
Melissa: Oh, that’s terrible.
Melissa: But that sounds just terrible enough to be true.
David: So one at a time?
David: So The New York Post was founded by Alexander Hamilton.
Melissa: I’m going to say that one is the lie.
David: That one of all three of those is the lie?
Melissa: I’m sticking to my answer.
David: That is true.
Melissa: Darn it.
David: Yeah. Hamilton was angry about the election of Thomas Jefferson. And so he got together with a couple of friends at what was then a country house. And together, they founded The New York Evening Post. And for a long time, it was a well-regarded paper. And that was a long time ago.
Melissa: So they weren’t talking about headless corpses and strip clubs?
David: No, no. Hamilton’s creation of The New York Post and the U.S. Coast Guard are both mentioned in Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical.
Melissa: I’ve listened to that musical hundreds of times, but they talk so quickly, how would I have gotten those two points?
David: I know that’s true. [laughter] So the Berlin Wall. The statement is it was precipitated by an investigative report by a local newspaper. So that is a lie.
Melissa: Darn it.
David: The truth is better. The fall of the Berlin Wall was precipitated by a reporter’s follow up question.
Melissa: Oh, that’s so good.
David: Here’s that story. So the Berlin Wall completely surrounded half of Berlin, which sounds like a fairy tale. There was a city literally divided in half of it is encircled by this enormous wall. On the outside of that wall, there’s East Germany, which is run by the German Democratic Republic, the GDR. They’re part of the Soviet bloc. And on the inside West Germany, which is supported by allied forces. And for 28 years from 1961, there’s this tense, complicated balance between these two halves of the same city.
Melissa: Which, yes, does sound like something in a fairy tale. It doesn’t sound like a thing that would happen in the real, modern world.
David: Yeah, it was always an outrageous idea, but it happened. So tanks were involved in this. Spies are involved in this. David Bowie was involved in this. It was a lot, a lot was happening. So it’s 1989. And the Soviet Union is struggling. There have already been uprisings in Poland and Hungary. They don’t have the money to oppress all of their people. There are huge demonstrations, sometimes half a million people.
David: Yeah, people from the East are getting into the West at what for the Soviets is an increasingly alarming rate. So just a ton of people are getting through. Refugees from the East are having success going through Hungary and Prague and places like that to get onto the West side and then coming back to Berlin on the West side if they want. So on November 9th, 1989, to ease some of the tensions, the leaders of East Germany decide that they’re going to let refugees exit directly through the crossing points in Berlin.
Melissa: Whoa, that’s huge.
David: It was huge, but from their perspective, they’re like, people are going to Prague and Hungary. We’re just going to let them go through here. And then they appoint a guy, a spokesman, to make that announcement. His name is Günter Schabowski.
Melissa: That’s such a cool name.
David: Yeah. So they’re like, Günter, here’s the announcement. We typed it out. You go read it.
Melissa: What could possibly go wrong?
David: Yeah. And Günter gets up on a lectern during a press conference and he tells people that travel restrictions are going to be looser and people will be able to go through the checkpoints in Berlin. And a reporter, Riccardo Ehrman, he’s an Italian working for a wire service — he raises his hand and he says, When? And Günter sits there for a moment and he looks at the note and maybe looks at the other side of the note. And the answer is not on the note. And so he says, As far as I know, effective immediately.
David: Without delay.
Melissa: That’s amazing.
David: And the evening news in West Germany picks that up and they broadcast it and it goes out at 7:00 and it goes out again at 8:00 because it’s broadcast from West Germany. Almost everybody in East Germany hears about that. And thousands gather. This was broadcast live, too, right? So people are at home watching the buildups at the gates and they join. Soon there are tens of thousands of people at the different checkpoints and at the Bornholmer Straße, one of the passport checkpoints, the guards aren’t sure what to do. And so they sort of kick it up the chain and they ask the lieutenant colonel who’s there what to do. And he doesn’t know what to do. So he calls a major and the major says you should capture or destroy the trespassers as usual.
David: Yeah. But Lieutenant does want to do that because there are so many of them and because the lieutenant sees his own people out there and he also knows that if he does nothing, there’s going to be a riot and it will hurt the people and his own men. And so finally, at 11:30, the lieutenant gives the order and the guards raise the gates. And in the hour that followed, about 20,000 people crossed that gate and they were welcomed by the French on the other side.
Melissa: So awesome. Yeah. I mean, I remember watching the wall getting hit with hammers and people sitting on top of it.
David: Yeah. It felt like it was going to come down for a while. And it was I don’t know. I just thought it was interesting that there was this one moment where there’s basically two men, two East German guys who are well-placed, who are like, I’m not sure what time it’s going to be. And the other guy was like, I don’t want to shoot everybody. And that was it. One of the reports that I read said something like, It is rare that you can tell the collapse of a government down to the moment, but that that was the moment.
Melissa: Thank you, wire service reporter. Yeah. Yeah.
David: So the third statement — King George was euthanized in part to catch the morning news —
Melissa: Is true.
Melissa: Wow. That is pretty cold hearted.
David: Yeah, so it’s the 20th of January 1936. King George the fifth is 70, and he’s been bedridden for the last five days. And an estate called Srandingham House. He had once described it as, Dear old Sandringham, the place I love better than anywhere else in the world. It’s an enormous estate on like 20,000 acres of land or 80 square kilometers. If you’re thinking of Downton Abbey, it’s maybe a house three or four times that size.
Melissa: Whoa, it’s big.
David: It’s big. And he’s being attended by a team of physicians, as you might imagine. They are led by Lord Dawson of Penn. And later, Lord Dawson would describe it this way: ‘At about 11 o’clock, it was evident that the last stage might endure for many hours, unknown to the patient, but little comporting with the dignity and serenity which he so richly merited and which demanded a brief final scene. Hours of waiting just for the mechanical end when all that is really life has departed only exhausts the onlookers and keeps them so strained that they cannot avail themselves of the solace, thought, communion, or prayer. I therefore decided to determine the end and injected three quarters of a grain of morphine. And shortly afterwards, one grain of cocaine, to the distended jugular vein.’ Dawson said that he’d acted to preserve the king’s dignity, to prevent further strain on the family, and so that the king’s death at 11:55 p.m. could be announced in the morning edition of The Times rather than, quote, the less appropriate evening journals.
Melissa: Oh, it is so déclassé to have your death announced in the evening.
David: Many years later, when the story appeared in The Daily Telegraph, a reader wrote in with a poem that made the rounds during the good doctor’s life. The poem was ‘Lord Dawson of Pen killed many men. That’s why we sing God Save the King.’
Melissa: Wow. What a story!
David: That’s Two Truths and a lie. Let’s talk about books.
Melissa: My first book is The Ventriloquists by E.R. Ramzipoor. This is a historical novel that tells the story of a group of dissident journalists who publish underground newspapers in Brussels during World War Two. And it’s based on a true story.
David: That’s exciting.
Melissa: So it kind of has the vibe of a heist story and elements of a workplace drama, a war story, and a spy novel, all kind of mushed together. Here’s the setup. It’s 1943. Brussels is occupied by the Nazis, and they’ve co-opted the country’s most popular newspaper as a mouthpiece for propaganda. It’s called Le Soir. A Nazi bigwig whose name is perfect — it’s August Wolff — has been tasked with swaying public opinion against the allies. So he gets the bright idea to use Le Soir to make the Allies look bad. What he does is he hunts down and captures a group of underground journalists. And then he gives them an ultimatum. They will write anti Allies propaganda for Le Soir, and in exchange, he won’t kill them immediately.
Melissa: So they agree.
David: It’s the kind of evenhanded bargaining that the Nazis are known for.
Melissa: Yes, it is. So they agree. And then pretty much instantly start working on a secret plan of their own.
David: Oh, good.
Melissa: Yes. They are going to secretly produce one issue of their own newspaper called Le Faux Soir, the false evening. It will be filled with articles and images that make fun of Hitler. And their literary shenanigans will give power back to the Belgians by giving everyone a good laugh. And they have 18 days to pull it off. So now we have a bunch of cynical wily journalists who are basically acting as double agents. They’re trying to appease Wolf the Nazi and produce their own newspaper in time. And we follow them as time ticks down to the publication day and the tension ramps up.
Melissa: That story is true. The Faux Soir was a real spoof newspaper published in occupied Belgium on November 9th, 1943. It was produced by a faction of the Belgian resistance and written in a satirical style that totally ridiculed German propaganda. As you might expect, it did result in significant Nazi retribution.
David: I would think. I was a little worried about this story when we started.
Melissa: But it succeeded, too. There’s a particular type of mocking Belgian humor that’s known as zwanze. And this one time newspaper so captured the spirit of zwanze that it became a lasting symbol of the resistance. And it did, in fact, bolster the spirits of the Belgians. All of the articles and images described in the novel for Le Faux Soir were the real ones.
David: Wow. Really?
Melissa: Yes. And you can see them online.
David: That’s cool.
Melissa: It’s very cool. There’s also a Belgian film from 1955 if you want to nerd out with French subtitles. But back to the novel. There’s a pretty large cast of characters. But the author E.R. Ramzipoorhas created such distinct personalities for them, it’s really easy to keep track of who and what they’re up to. And usually they are up to mischief. Which is where the kind of heist movie vibe comes in, even thought what they’re doing is pretty serious. There’s a young orphan who is very adept at setting fires, creating confusion, picking pockets, and generally flying under the radar to create chaos. She’s like their little imp.
David: Oh, and she’s a girl.
Melissa: There’s an experienced journalist who desperately misses his craft, and he’s kind of the heart of the team, and he’s one of those iconic kinds of characters that has a dark side, but you’re still really rooting for him.
David: Yeah, very romantic.
Melissa: Yeah. My favorite was a woman who is both a madame at a bordello and a smuggler. She’s super smart. She doesn’t take anybody’s guff, but she has kind of a soft, squishy center underneath all of that.
David: I’m already ready for the movie of this.
Melissa: The book is so good, and many of these characters are based on real people. I really love this for Strong Sense of Place because the whole story turns on how much newspapers mean to people. Both the people who produce them — the writers, the printers, the editors — but also the audience who reads them. In this story, people wait in line each day to get their hands on the newspaper to learn what’s happening in the rest of the world and to learn what’s happening in the war. And the papers themselves get passed around and discussed and shared and saved. So it’s more permanent than the world we live in, where you just fire off a tweet. And the institution of the newspaper means something to people. And it forms a connection between the journalists and the audience.
Melissa: The other reason I’m recommending this book is that it’s a peek into a perspective on World War II I hadn’t seen before. I’ve read a lot of World War II novels, and I love books about resistance fighters. And this is a really unique one. I didn’t know anything about Le Faux Soir or really what was happening in Belgium under the occupation. This book is very exhilarating and incredibly nerve-wracking.
David: Yeah, it sounds it.
Melissa: Because we’re following these characters almost on an hourly basis as they put into play each part of their newspaper heist to basically to make this thing come to fruition. And the other thing that I really love about it is that these characters are using mostly introvert skills. They’re thinking, they’re writing, they’re planning, and they’re introversion is one of the things that’s helping them fight against Nazism. Yeah, they’re like giant nerd spies. That’s The Ventriloquists by E.R. Ramzipoor.
David: That sounds great. My first book is Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow.
Melissa: I’ve heard about this book.
David: Yeah. This is the book that describes how Ronan Farrow, the son of Mia Farrow, and Woody Allen, wrote an exposé of Harvey Weinstein, the enormously successful Hollywood producer and sexual predator.
Melissa: Who is now in jail, and I’m so happy about that.
David: Yeah. So would it surprise you to hear that this book is a dark ride?
Melissa: Hmm. It would not. I remember when you were reading it, you were a little grumpy.
David: Yeah, I, I think in my heart I was kind of hoping for, ‘Let’s go get this bastard.’ You know, kind of a revenge story, something directed by Quentin Tarantino. And what I wound up with, it was a little bit more of a modern film noir.
David: The problem is chronic. You can stop this guy, but what about everybody else? I should say if you’re sensitive to sexual abuse, you probably want to skip the next six minutes or so. This story is at least as bad as you think it is. Harvey Weinstein was and is a monster. He used his power to convince up-and-coming starlets to come to his hotel room, and then he’d confront them frequently in or out of his bathrobe. He’d harass them, he’d cajole them, he’d scream at them, he’d possibly rape them. And then sometimes he’d ruin their careers. And as horrible as that is, that is what I expected walking into this book.
David: What I wasn’t thinking about, what I didn’t know about is the large number of people who he employed in one way or another to support this behavior. So there are women who are working for him who are used as honey traps. ‘You don’t have anything to worry about because she’s going to be here with us.’ Sure, there are cleanup men. There are lawyers writing nondisclosure agreements and defending Weinstein legally, men and women. There are National Enquirer editors who buy a victim’s story to bury it.
Melissa: Oh, gross.
David: So that’s where we get the title. Catch and Kill is the name of that practice.
Melissa: Oh, I didn’t know that. Yeah, that’s so great that it has its own vocabulary.
David: Yeah, there’s an Israeli intelligence organization called Black Cube. And their job was to track down people and dissuade them from pursuing any action at all against Weinstein. Using whatever means they can. At one point, Farrow sees a list of people he hangs out with regularly, prepared by Black Cube, along with notes about how his friends could be compromised. So how can we lean on these people to get them to lean on him? Farrow alleges that this group, the Israeli intelligence agents, got him fired from NBC by applying pressure to his chain of white male bosses who had a trail of nondisclosure agreements behind them. There are individuals who are paid to pretend to be friends with the victims so that they can help shade their stories and keep Weinstein in the know. There are cops who destroy evidence, allegedly. And there are dozens and dozens of people — famous, rich, empowered people — who knew this was happening and did nothing. That Farrow somehow navigates all of this is miraculous.
David: The thing that was really scary for me was how Ronan Farrow is almost uniquely suited to this task. He has a sister who accused her father, Woody Allen, of molesting her, and he lived through that. So he’s motivated. He also has her advice through this. How can I talk to people who are in your situation? What are they going to do to these people? Ronan is wealthy enough that when NBC fired him, he didn’t stop pursuing the story. I suspect that for most of us, if we lose a job or immediately thinking about what the next job is going to be. He was in place to keep going without support. He’s famous enough that people recognized him and would talk to him. He has a legal degree, so he knows enough about the law to argue with people who are trying to stop him. He’s well-connected enough that when spies are converging on his house and he realizes his apartment is bugged, a friend offers him a secure place to stay.
Melissa: His apartment was bugged. Wow. Yeah.
David: It got really dark, really quick.
Melissa: Did he get any death threats? It seems like that would be the next step in the chain of intimidation, right?
David: I mean, He got threats for sure. All kinds of threats. I don’t recall any direct death threats. Throughout this book, we meet other people who tried to break the story, and it is no wonder that they could not. As a newsroom pick, this is a hell of a book. You get to see how the work is happening now. In the age of instant communications, you see the inside of NBC, which doesn’t look great in this light, and The New Yorker. And you get a pretty good look at the National Enquirer. Farrow’s reporting went on to win a Pulitzer in 2018 and helped to start the #MeToo movement, which itself outed a number of horrible men.
David: Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in jail, which he’s now serving. But the behavior documented in the book is so distressing. Not just the abuse, but as a list of techniques that the powerful have to keep stories quiet. And their ways to rationalize that behavior. It was a ride. But if you’re interested in how power works today and how that gets reported or not, this book is a learning experience.
David: It is Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow. I should also mention, first, there’s a podcast around this book hosted by Ronan Farrow. He talks to what feels like everybody involved, including the spies who followed him. It feels like he talks to almost everybody except Harvey Weinstein for this. And you hear recordings from his investigation, which is all interesting. And second, there’s another book about the same subject written by two reporters for The New York Times. They broke the Weinstein story five days earlier than he did. And together, they all share the Pulitzer. Their book is called She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. I have not read it, but the reviews I read suggested that reading these two books together will give you a good comparative analysis about how different newsrooms operate.
Melissa: Cool, and also sad. But also thank goodness for reporters who get their teeth into a story and won’t let it go until they finish it.
David: It’s one of those books that I think is really well worth reading, but I would be very careful about whose hands I push that into.
Melissa: Ok, well, I’m going to try to lighten the mood now with a really twisty thriller.
David: Ok, let’s do that.
Melissa: My next pick is Necessary People by Anna Pitoniak. This is kind of a dark, twisty workplace thriller set in a New York City cable news network called KCN.
David: So dark, twisty thriller, kind of like like Gone Girl or something like that.
Melissa: Definitely more noirish. The story swirls around two young girls, Stella and Violet. They meet in college, and they become fast friends, even though they are complete opposites. Stella is rich and blond and beautiful, and she does exactly as she pleases all the time. She has always been spoiled and had money. So things like consequences and other people’s feelings don’t even cross her radar.
David: Ok, so fortunate child.
Melissa: Yes. But she’s also very charismatic and people are drawn to her.
David: Still fortunate child.
Melissa: But you might hear that and think, Why would anybody be friends with her? Right. And the answer is there’s a reflected glow coming off of Stella. Violet is very hardworking and comes from a background of poverty and abuse. And she has her eye on the prize. She’s going to work really hard and get good grades. She’s going to land a good job, and she’s going to leave her crappy past behind her. Over the course of their friendship, Stella and Violet kind of fall into a pattern where Stella makes messes and Violet cleans them up. And by the time graduation rolls around, Violet is getting a little weary of this pattern. She is ready to kind of take control of her life. Get out from the shadow of Stella. Sure. And move on.
David: She’s done saving people. She’s going to work on herself.
Melissa: So she heads to Manhattan and she starts her career at the cable news network. Meanwhile, Stella is flitting around the world like the party girl that she is.
David: And as you might expect.
Melissa: Yes. And Violet does great. She makes new friends. She works really hard. And even though she starts as an intern, she soon gets promoted to assistant producer and then to full producer. It looks like she’s on the path for her dreams to come true. And then Stella comes back. And Stella takes one look at the KCN newsroom and thinks that looks like a whole lot of fun. So she wangles her way into a job. And that is when the beef’s turned frenemies and things get even more gloriously messy.
Melissa: If you like to read about people making kind of bad decisions, this is a really fun book. And even though it’s pretty over-the-top melodrama, it does have some really smart points to make about classim and ambition and female competition. Stella’s family connections and money opened doors for her. Things are very easy for her, even though she doesn’t work hard. And in contrast, everything Violet has achieved is because of her effort. But in the well-to-do circle of Stella’s family and friends, Violet’s ambition is considered really distasteful. Like they can smell it on her, right? It’s like being overdressed at a dinner party when everybody else is wearing casual clothes. She cares too much. And people see this hunger in her and just know she’s not of our kind.
Melissa: So all of that kind of classism stuff is simmering under the surface while they compete with each other to get ahead in what’s already a really cutthroat business. The scenes in the newsroom are really great. I’ve loved the behind-the-scenes look at how stories are assigned and put together and end up on the air, and the underlings basically have to pitch stories to their bosses and are vying with each other to get on the air. So sometimes it makes sense to forge an alliance with a co-worker, but then maybe the next day you just throw them under the bus because it works in your favor.
Melissa: It would be pretty easy to demonize Stella and root for Violet.
David: That’s what I want to do.
Melissa: That’s what you want to do. Yeah. But it’s a little bit more complicated than that. And the way they treat each other isn’t always black and white. And then there’s a twist in the plot that just surprised me.
Melissa: Yes. I won’t ruin it, of course. But I will say that in my notes, in all caps I wrote, THAT WAS BANANA PANTS, and I LOVE IT.
David: [laughin] OK.
Melissa: The author, Anna Pitoniak, is an editor at Random House, and she says that she got the idea for this novel at a party for a TV personality. She was looking around the room and seeing all these TV people and kind of got to thinking about how people feel like they know their newscasters. Like, if you watch someone every night, you feel like that’s my friend. They’re telling me things I need to know. And she had this realization that, of course, we’re only seeing their persona and the people that they work with every day know them as a whole person. So she started to imagine a pair of characters who were friends, colleagues, and rivals. And she wrote this book. This is pretty much what I think of when I think beach read.
Melissa: So if you’re looking for an escapist read that captures the spirit of modern TV news and features people making some bad decisions that are very entertaining, this is a treat. That’s Necessary People by Anna Pitoniak.
David: My second book is Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts by Jill Abramson. This is a look at four different news outlets and how they’ve been doing for the last 20 years or so. The four news outlets are The New York Times, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and Vice. But it’s mostly about how the news world has changed and is changing. I found this book distressing. I can’t decide if it’s because I’m old and I have certain expectations about how the world works, which in and of itself is also distressing.
David: The fundamental premise seems to be that there are at least two different kinds of reporting. There’s the intimate eyewitness kind. Usually there’s a tragedy of some kind, and we want to know what’s going on. And as a society, we’ve gotten so good at that with the Internet and everyone walking around with their video camera 24/7. We have never been better at seeing the crisis unfold. That’s the kind of reporting that we see when there’s a school shooting or an earthquake or the George Floyd tragedy or any of that stuff. We’re good at that. We’ve got it. And then there’s the reporting that requires time and relationships and research and analysis and fact checking and frequently a legal team and maybe a war chest. Possibly a foreign bureau. This is the kind of reporting that brought down Harvey Weinstein and keeps us up to date on the climate crisis that we’re facing. That kind of reporting is in danger. Newspapers are collapsing everywhere. Newsroom jobs have fallen 23 percent in 10 years. Websites and 24-hour news aren’t that interested in picking up that kind of reporting. When I was doing the research for this, I found a video of a reporter saying it has never been a better time to be a corrupt state or local official because nobody’s keeping an eye on them. Traditionally that work was done by a newspaper and the way that other outlets would pick up that story is they’d see the article on the paper and elevate it. The news outlets that are attracting huge audiences right now don’t do that kind of reporting. Although it may surprise you to find out that BuzzFeed News was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 and then again in 2018. So is this a huge problem as a society, or are we just replacing newspapers with other, more efficient forms of media? Are there any big chronic problems that we’re missing because we’re just not paying enough attention? Unfortunately, it’s the second kind of reporting that would tell us that. And there’s a related issue, which is the collapse of journalistic integrity. As newspapers fold, how far are they going to go to make a dollar? How click baited as The New York Times need to be? How bad is it when BuzzFeed deletes old articles about a company that has now a sponsor?
David: How bad is it when their advertisements look exactly like their content? And I don’t mean kind of. I mean exactly. And what are the problems with telling people the news they want to hear? So this book is about how four of the biggest news outlets in the world are adapting to that sea change. The author is the former executive editor of The New York Times and now a Harvard journalism lecturer. She knows where the bodies are buried. She’s good at telling a story. If you’re a certain kind of person, this is a page turner. This book is not all just about that stuff. Here are some of the things that I learned that aren’t part of that controversy. Here’s three of them. One. The newsroom with The New York Times costs $200 million dollars a year to run.
Melissa: Holy cow.
David: Yeah. Yeah. Two, the guy who founded BuzzFeed. Jonah Peretti is the brother of Chelsea Peretti, who plays Gina Linetti on Brooklyn 99.
Melissa: Hmm. I love her.
David: Also, he fits my model of a sociopath.
Melissa: Oh, that’s too bad.
David: Yeah. There’s a quote from him in the book. The quote is, ‘I enjoy working in morally ambiguous spaces. I find that’s where the most interesting stuff happens.’
Melissa: Nope. Hard pass.
David: And three, the amount of digital data produced worldwide in 2006 alone was three million times the material of all books ever written.
Melissa: That was 14 years ago. Yikes.
David: Yeah. Yeah. There is also some scandal attached to this book. There are sections of this book which are either plagiarized or used with inadequate attribution, depending on how sympathetic you are to the author. The Columbia Journalism Review thought it could have used to fact check. The authors said things that sound to me like, yeah, probably we should have been better about that.
Melissa: And the irony of not fact checking your book, that’s fact checking the media is pretty amazing.
David: Yes. Yes. That controversy seems to have tanked the sales of this book. And yeah, for a book called Merchants of Truth. [laughter] Yikes.
Melissa: But they fact check my roller derby book and took a bunch of the really meaty parts out. And every time I hear about some big book not being fact-checked, I just want to cross my arms and pout.
David: Legit. But I also say I love this book. It’s a hell of a read. If you’re curious —.
Melissa: This book also made you really grumpy.
David: It did. Yeah.
Melissa: It’s been a grumpy reading time around, Strong Sense of Place headquarters with Dave reading these dark books.
David: Going for the newsroom was a little rough for me, I got to say, because I wanted to read nonfiction about how the news is working and how the news is working right now. It’s not fun. It’s not super fun.
Melissa: My last pick is fun. Hang in there, everybody.
David: But I’m going to say I also, on some level, love this book, right? I enjoyed reading this book, it’s a hell of a read if you’re curious about the news and how it gets made, this book will take you down that road. It’s Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth. Get us out of the mire.
Melissa: We’re going to end with a little adventure story, see if we can pick up the mood here. It’s like when the rock band follows a ballad with an uptempo number. My final book is Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman. This is a rip-roaring adventure story about two young women journalists who traveled solo around the world in 1889 when neither being a journalist nor traveling alone was a respectable or safe thing to be done.
Melissa: So imagine you’re a lady reporter in the late eighteen hundreds.
Melissa: You’re probably wearing a bustle.
David: What would that be like?
Melissa: And you’re generally relegated to articles about recipes, fashion, and parties, Ladies topics. But reporter Nellie Bly is equal parts pluck, gumption and moxie. She is fresh off her undercover exposé of Blackwell’s Island Asylum for Pulitzer’s World newspaper. And she has another big idea.
Melissa: Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days is a sensation. And Nellie wants to trace the route of Phileas Fogg, but she is willing to bet she can do it in just 75 days.
Melissa: She takes this idea to her editor, and for a year he says no. You can’t go unchaperoned, he says. It’s not safe, he says. You’re a woman, he says. You’ll have too much luggage, he says. And finally, out of frustration, Nellie threatens him: ‘Very well. Start the man and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.’ So her editor relents. And just a day and a half later, on November 14th, 1889, Nellie starts her 28,000-mile journey on a steamship from Hoboken, New Jersey, bound for London.
David: Good for her.
Melissa: As if that wasn’t enough. Meanwhile, across town, the editor of the Cosmopolitan magazine is in a tizzy. He can’t let the World have all the glory.
Melissa: So he has a brainstorm. He will send his own lady reporter around the globe, but she’ll go in the opposite direction of Nellie. It’s going to be a race of girl reporters. So he makes an offer to Elizabeth Bisdale. Unlike Nellie, Elizabeth is gentility and respectability personified,
David: Not moxie.
Melissa: She is from an aristocratic Louisiana family, she loves poetry and reading. In fact, as the literary editor of the Cosmopolitan, she writes book reviews in a column called In the Library.
David: Aw. So aggressive introvert. Editor walks into the room and says, Elizabeth, you’re going around the world.
Melissa: And she says, no, she couldn’t possibly. She has guests coming for tea the next day. And besides, she has nothing to wear for such a long journey.
David: Yeah, legit.
Melissa: But he insists. And by 6:00 p.m. that evening.
Melissa: Unbeknownst to Nellie. Elizabeth is on a train headed to Chicago, and she is just eight and a half hours behind Nellie.
David: It’s like the worst business trip ever.
Melissa: It really is. She abhorred the idea of becoming famous. The number one reason she didn’t want to do it is because she knew it was going to attract so much attention. And she just wants to read her books and write the reviews. So this tremendously entertaining book is the story of how journalism worked in the late 19th century and this race around the globe and what happened to Nellie and Elizabeth after. The author, Matthew Goodman, makes this 130-year-old story heart-pounding.
David: Good for him. Yeah.
Melissa: The chapters alternate between Nellie and Elizabeth’s experiences, and there are cliffhangers and perilous connections on transportation and exhaustion. The travel itself is a mixed bag of just unbelievable luxury and really brutal discomfort.
David: Yeah, I would think.
Melissa: There’s sea sickness and oppressive heat and always they were in a hurry, even when all they could do was sit on a ship for a couple of days and wait for it to pull into port.
Melissa: I really love this book for Strong Sense of Place because it’s an immersion into the world of journalism and a travelogue. Neither of these girls had ever been out of the country or aboard an ocean liner. They went alone without chaperones to England and Italy and Egypt and then sailed across the Indian Ocean to see tea plantations in Sri Lanka and the markets of Hong Kong. They ate spicy curry.
David: Yeah. Yeah, I would imagine they’ve eaten things they’d never seen or heard described.
Melissa: Yes, exactly. In France, Nellie Bly met with Jules Verne himself. So one final tidbit from this book. One of the things I love about Nellie is that she had that kind of bravado that I think we tend to associate with men of that time period. She was very proud of the fact that she packed only one bag for her journey. It measured 16 by 7 inches. It’s pretty small. It’s 41 by 18 centimeters. And it contained only the essentials. But she did buy a monkey for $3 in Singapore, which she carried in a cage all the way back to New York.
Melissa: Of the monkey. She said, It is a savage little fellow, but takes to most everybody but me. And later in her life, this is the part I love, she got in the habit of telling people the monkey had been a gift to her from a rajah.
David: That’s great.
Melissa: This book is filled with wonderful details about both of these women and the ins and outs of their journey. I absolutely loved it. It’s Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman.
Melissa: And now I’m going to cheat. If you’re interested in knowing more about girl reporters of the time, I also read a book called Sensational:The Hidden History of America’s Girls Stunt Reporters by Kim Todd. This is an in-depth look at 19th-century journalism in general, and then specifically the unique role that women played, especially in investigating social injustices. So there’s the kind of stuff that you would expect, like going undercover to work in a factory.
Melissa: Or traveling with a circus. Those kind of more lighthearted stories. But there’s also deep dives into opium problems and abortion and the investigations into those things actually changed how things worked. It also shares more details about Nellie and Elizabeth. Reading both of these books back to back was a really fantastic reading experience.
David: Wasn’t your mom a girl stunt reporter?
Melissa: She was! Before I was born. She worked for the Pottsville Republican and she actually went behind the scenes at a circus and dressed as a clown and performed. She has the wonderful letters from other people in the circus that she performed with. It was a really great experience for her.
David: Those are six books we love set in the newsroom. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for our fantastic show notes pages.
Melissa: I want to talk about the show notes page a little bit.
David: All right.
Melissa: I’ve heard from a handful of people who listen to our podcast and said that they haven’t visited our website. So I want to encourage everyone to take a minute and go to the website. The show notes are pretty robust.
David: They are! I find them very entertaining and I’ve done all the research.
Melissa: We basically include at least one link attached to each data point in our podcast. So you can see what information we use for research. There are also photos and videos. And we know of at least one person who listens to the show while looking at the show notes. So it’s a full multimedia experience.
David: It is! It is that. While we’re on the topic, do you want to talk about the blog posts that you wrote for this episode?
Melissa: I do. OK, so we have a journalist amongst our audience. Hi, Jenna.
David: We’ve got a few, I think.
Melissa: And she sent us an email about how much she loves working in a newsroom. And it said in part, ‘Whenever I’ve reached a breaking point, I’ve been surrounded by colleagues who completely understand what I’m going through and are more than ready to crack a bad joke or get stale donuts or a 12th cup of coffee with me.’ So to honor her and all journalists everywhere, we’re sharing a recipe for easy doughnuts you can bake in the oven. We’ve also got the story of how Joseph Pulitzer helped save the Statue of Liberty and a really interesting collection of Instagram accounts that highlight different aspects of journalism. I found some really cool stuff that I will be sharing.
David: Fantastic. Mel, where are we headed for our next show?
Melissa: We are going on an epic and very chilly adventure to the Arctic.
David: We will talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Everett Collection/Shutterstock.
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