Erik Wemple is a news media critic for The Washington Post and hosts the Erik Wemple blog.
Did you know that black churches opposed to gay rights are hypocritical because of the gay men in many church choirs? That cruise missiles stored in Louisiana had fungus on their wings? Or that Bill O’Reilly didn’t have sex till he was 20 years old?
If not, you have some books to crack.
Anchors at the major cable news channels are spreading their sundry insights in bound form this fall. And their 24-7 news operations can barely accommodate plugs for all the new releases, which come courtesy of CNN’s Piers Morgan; Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly and Brian Kilmeade; and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Joe Scarborough and Al Sharpton.
There was a time when TV personalities who took to long-form writing tended to receive warm critical receptions. When Walter Cronkite published his memoir, “A Reporter’s Life,” in 1997, a New York Times reviewer declared that “Walter Cronkite is a serious man and this is a serious message.” Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation” (1998) also received critical acclaim — though The Washington Post dinged it as “a bit lightweight intellectually.”
Yet when O’Reilly published his historical thriller “Killing Jesus” in September, USA Today pooh-poohed that the book’s “one-sentence paragraphs read like a movie poster,” and neither The Post nor the Times deigned to run a review. “I have not read Mr. O’Reilly’s books myself, so I can’t really comment on them,” Times book review editor Pamela Paul e-mailed me.
How about a collective review, then? O’Reilly’s trilogy — “Killing Lincoln” and “Killing Kennedy” preceded the current iteration — has commandeered the bestseller lists for three years running. Other cable books also make appearances on those lists. Together, they have to matter.
This diverse set of titles defies easy encapsulation. After plowing through 19 of them by 13 cable personalities, I grabbed a crowbar to force them into four categories.
Cable hosts get a daily rush from knowing that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, tune in just to hear what they have to say about stuff. So when it comes time to do a book, why not repeat the exercise?
Such appears to be the thinking behind Morgan’s book. Titled “Shooting Straight,” it could be nicknamed “Transcripting Straight,” in that a significant portion of the book consists of highlights from his eponymous nightly program on CNN. At one point, he recounts the early parts of an interview with Tony Blair, with whom Morgan had feuded:
“ ‘Mr. Blair,’ I started, ‘how are you.’ ‘Very well, Piers, how are you doing.’ ‘It’s been a while.’ He laughed. ‘It has indeed.’ The interview itself was informative and valuable.’ ”
(Morgan says the diary format borrows from books he’s written in Britain — and that unlike other cable hosts, he doesn’t get any writing assistance. “It’s all me.”)
Fox News’s Sean Hannity similarly doesn’t mind repeating himself in “Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty Over Liberalism” (2002), writing, “I said it on radio and TV at the time and I’ll say it again here . . .”
Doesn’t matter what he said next, because his audience had already heard it. Twice.
Also in this category is “The Joy of Hate” (2012), in which Greg Gutfeld, a co-host of the outstanding Fox News program “The Five,” manages to soft-pedal climate change, dismiss the threat of bullying and hammer Sandra Fluke, among other persuasive feats attempted each hour on Fox News.
Cable hosts produce better books when they do research. Even quick research.
The three “Killing” books by O’Reilly and partner Martin Dugard have come out over three years, way too fast to contribute to the scholarship of the respective assassinations. “Killing Lincoln,” for example, withered under fact-checks from historians and was banned from one of the bookstores in Ford’s Theatre.
As for “Killing Jesus,” no one has yet taken issue with O’Reilly’s take on Cleopatra’s “small breasts.”
Fine points notwithstanding, it’s tough to scoff at millions of Americans brushing up on their history with O’Reilly’s books. Though intellectuals bemoan the absence of rigor, the real comparison here isn’t O’Reilly vs. Robert Caro. It’s O’Reilly vs. O’Reilly. “Killing Jesus,” that is, marks a big improvement over the author’s previous works, including “Pinheads and Patriots: Where You Stand in the Age of Obama,” the 2010 volume that alternates between bashing President Obama and proclaiming that Lassie is a patriot.
Speaking of patriots, pragmatic Republican ones preoccupy Scarborough in “The Right Path: From Ike to Reagan, How Republicans Once Mastered Politics — and Can Again.” Politico’s Mike Allen reported that “the buzz among GOP insiders is that ‘The Right Path’ has the potential to galvanize conservatives in the way Barry Goldwater’s ‘Conscience of a Conservative’ did half a century ago.” First, though, conservatives have to get through the book, which reads like a best-of compilation of campaign horse-race coverage written by a politician turned cable host. “Before the 1992 primaries began, smart money was betting that the GOP’s twelve-year reign in the White House would be extended through 1996,” reads a typical line.
In “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy,” Scarborough’s colleague Chris Hayes takes a stab at explaining the crisis of leadership across government and industry. The book has some great moments, including the part where he discusses the pitfalls of the meritocratic entry test for Manhattan’s Hunter College High School, which Hayes himself attended. Its main drawback is a case of what I’ll call MSNBCitis — a tendency to describe smart concepts in such grandiloquent terms that a reader can’t explain them later to a spouse. For example: “The areas in which the left has made the most significant progress — gay rights, inclusion of women in higher education, the end of de jure racial discrimination — are the battles it has fought or is fighting in favor of making the meritocracy more meritocratic. The areas in which it has suffered its worst defeats — collective action to provide universal public goods, mitigating rising income inequality — are those that lie outside the meritocracy’s purview.”
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow is the clear winner of the cable-news-host literary prize. In “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power” (2012), she explains why we’re always at war. Turns out we’ve lowered all the barriers that once gave the country pause about entering into armed conflict.
Though grafting cable formats onto books is generally a bad idea, it works for Maddow, who’s famous for churning out towering monologues on her MSNBC show. That training benefits “Drift,” which pairs storytelling with research and insight. For instance, in a chapter retracing the U.S. military’s occasional mishandling of its nuclear arsenal, Maddow writes, “While our nuclear armed cruise missiles were growing leading-edge wing fungus in the subtropical moisture of Louisiana, other US military flying hardware was having rather the opposite problem: in the words of Defense Industry Daily, they ‘were about to fly their wings off — and not just as a figure of speech.’ ”
The first line of Maddow’s acknowledgments hints at one secret to her success, a pointer that Bill “Ten Books in a Decade” O’Reilly might consider: “I’m the slowest writer on earth.”
When he signed on with MSNBC in 2011 at the age of 56, Sharpton had already spent a career crusading for civil rights, or spreading racial hatred, depending on your perspective.
Whatever the case, his cable career gets little attention in his new book, “The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path to American Leadership.” In its place comes a screed on behalf of gay choir members, a full accounting of his relationship with President Obama and an unfulfilling admission that he made a “mistake” in connection with Tawana Brawley — the 15-year-old African American whose 1987 claim to have been gang-raped by a group of white men was promoted by Sharpton. It turned out to be a hoax.
There’s also top-shelf bombast in “The Rejected Stone.” Writing about hip-hop, Sharpton proclaims, “I still have the need, the desire, to try to drive this generation toward a greater understanding, to understand the roots of what it is they call their art form.”
Book bonus: Sharpton has dropped more than 160 pounds, a process that started with a question from his 5-year-old: “Daddy, why are you so fat?”
Fox News host Greta Van Susteren’s pre-cable life lacks the contours of Sharpton’s, but her work as a litigator propels parts of 2003’s “My Turn at the Bully Pulpit: Straight Talk About the Things That Drive Me Nuts” (with Elaine Lafferty). She unfurls a brutal takedown of tort reform, the movement toward restricting lawsuits — and destroys conventional wisdom about the woman who long ago sued McDonald’s over coffee burns. Also, she narrates her attendance at an execution in Virginia, during which the prisoner’s arm was swabbed before the lethal injection: “I asked someone why the disinfectant, and I couldn’t believe the answer: so there would be no infection. No infection? You are about to kill the guy and you’re worried about infection?”
This is a category of one, for reasons clear to anyone who has read “The O’Reilly Factor for Kids: A Survival Guide for America’s Families” (written with Charles Flowers in 2004). It’s not just that this book reveals O’Reilly’s virginity expiration; it also contains a chapter in which the hectoring, finger-jabbing cable host attacks bullies.
Why do we have so many cable-news-host books?
Is the industry channeling academe’s publish-or-perish imperative? “I don’t think it’s that,” Hayes says. “There are stories that we want to do that don’t make for good television.”
Clearly, though, they don’t always make for good books.
A year ago, Fox News host Megyn Kelly sat down with Douglas Brunt, the author of “Ghosts of Manhattan,” a novel about Wall Street excesses before the financial meltdown. “The novel is earning rave reviews, being compared to the works of Charles Dickens and Tom Wolfe,” Kelly noted.
Brunt is Kelly’s husband, which says something about book-promotion ethics at Fox News.
Almost every night on his show, Fox’s O’Reilly manages to promote a “Killing” title or two in the viewer-mail segment. “I really enjoyed ‘Killing Jesus.’ You portrayed a brutal world, O’Reilly, by writing about Romans, the Jewish people and what they endured. Could we ever go in that direction again?” wrote Kitty Knoedler of Fairhope, Ala., in a missive recently read aloud by the host.
And if a news segment veers into the territory of a “Killing” book, expect a plug on “The O’Reilly Factor.” On Aug. 26, for example, O’Reilly played a clip from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. Next line: “Now, if you want to know the inside story of that historic speech, we provide vivid detail in my book ‘Killing Kennedy.’ You might find that very interesting.”
Other cablers resist that level of shamelessness, which is not to say that CNN and MSNBC are shy about talking up books by their people. As the government shutdown preoccupied television news in October, for instance, it was hard to catch MSNBC “Hardball” host Matthews without hearing about his new book, “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.”
Matthews being Matthews, the pitches were forthright or obnoxious, depending on your politics. “I’m asking everybody who watches ‘Hardball,’ all the loyalists to me and this program, to go out and get this book now,” he said on his Oct. 9 show.
Morgan says he spoke with CNN President Jeff Zucker about promotional guidelines. “He’s happy for me to do shows” on CNN to promote “Shooting Straight” and to plug it “within reason on my own show,” Morgan relates.
“It’s a huge deal,” literary agent Howard Yoon notes via e-mail when asked about the promotional head start of the cable news hosts. “They’re all big bestselling authors . . . because readers see their faces on TV every night.”
What we have here, then, is a group of millionaires advancing their fortunes, not to mention the brand recognition of their employers, with often mediocre literature. You might just call these people “a cohort of socially distant, blinkered, and self-dealing elites.” That’s among the more memorable lines from Hayes’s book.