Anyone following the fall-out over Charles Pellegrino’s Last Train From Hiroshima—here’s the definitive New York Times story—would do well to read Philip Meyer’s “Accountability When Books Make News,” first published in the Media Studies Journal in 1997. (You can read it right here.)
A terse tour de force, Meyer’s essay starts by outlining what keeps the mainstream media in line: its responsibility to advertisers and to the legal system. “Nothing works as inexorably as the twin forces of the desire to make money and the fear of litigation—the carrot and the stick,” Meyer observes in a nice phrase (and, it must be said, a better potential title for his essay). These factors don’t apply to books, of course—or, Meyer asks, do they? He goes on to discuss, carefully and thoughtfully, the audience, marketplace, and medium of books. He also shows how and why the media piggyback on questionable books—sometimes for the common good (demythologizing J. Edgar Hoover), sometimes not (the craven rumors about George H. W. Bush and a female aide).
None of this correlates to the Pellegrino situation in an A-A, B-B fashion. At the very least, though, it’s a useful antidote to the Kurt Anderson quote zinging around the blogosphere: “If book publishers are supposed to be the gatekeepers, tell me exactly what they’re closing the gate to.” Anderson makes you nod; Meyer makes you think.