Tina Brown's Must-Reads
12:02 am
Wed April 18, 2012

Tina Brown's Must-Reads: The Reporter's Role

Originally published on Wed April 18, 2012 4:23 pm

Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast and Newsweek, tells us what she's been reading in a feature that Morning Edition likes to call "Word of Mouth." This month, Brown has been thinking about the contributions of journalists to global culture.

The Rise Of Hitler, As Seen By Americans Abroad

Brown's first pick is Andrew Nagorski's Hitlerland, a book about the rise of the Nazi regime told from the perspective of Americans, including foreign correspondents and diplomats, who lived in Berlin during the 1930s and early 1940s.

"What you get through their eyes is this kind of fascinating, gradual journey of what they're seeing — first of all, skepticism about Hitler, a sense that [they're] underestimating him, followed by a certain sense of ridicule about him, then a kind of grudging admiration for what he's doing for Germany, then of course a mounting fear of what's going to happen, followed by a sense of the most terrifying pervasive evil then [taking] over."

Brown highlights CBS reporter William L. Shirer, later the author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, as one of the heroes of the book.

"He saw from the very beginning the real evil of Hitler," Brown says, "and attempted to warn people of the impending calamity that he saw."

Brown says Shirer was fascinated and puzzled to the end of his life by Hitler personally and wondered whether Nazism would have had the reach and the power it did without him.

"Eventually [Shirer] comes to the conclusion that it would not," Brown says, "that in fact it would have been a radical right-wing movement, but it wouldn't have been the calamity that it was."

At one point Shirer describes going to a Nuremberg rally and watching the frenzy of the crowds. He was struck by Hitler's lack of expression, something glassy in the man's eyes, and he writes that he expected something more powerful.

"For the life of me," Shirer writes, "I could not quite comprehend what hidden springs he undoubtedly unloosed in the hysterical mob which was greeting him so wildly."

Later, Brown says, Shirer "figured out ... the almost martial mysticism with which Hitler was able to organize, choreograph, theatrically create an atmosphere of music and bands and marching and flags, and it was really that sense of theater and organization that Hitler had, perhaps, to augment his own real basic unimpressive personality that ... helped to make him such a spellbinder."

The Legacy Of A Provocateur

Brown's second recommendation is a more recent piece of journalism for The New York Times by media writer David Carr. Carr profiles the recently deceased conservative author and editor Andrew Breitbart.

Brown says Breitbart represented the opposite of the journalistic ideals of someone like Shirer.

"Breitbart didn't report anything, really," Brown says. "What Breitbart did was, he was a provocateur, he was a 'death by a thousand tweets'; he was quite happy to take the flying soundbite, any soundbite, and misapply it ... and create an absolute mayhem for the person concerned."

Brown cites the example of Shirley Sherrod, Georgia state director of rural development for the USDA, who was publicly condemned and pressured to resign after Breitbart released a video of Sherrod making remarks to an NAACP event in 2010.

"He gave the impression by the cutting of her words in a tape that he released that she was giving racially motivated financing decisions — when actually she was doing the very opposite," Brown says. "So this was really using a kind of bastardization of journalism through the ... Web and tweeting and just simply using the Internet as a tool for activism."

[Editor's note: Breitbart was closely associated with James O'Keefe, the conservative activist whose secret recordings led to the resignations of senior NPR officials in the spring of 2011.]

Considering Watergate In The Digital Age

Finally, Brown recommends "Before 'Watergate' Could be Googled" by L. Gordon Crovitz. Crovitz writes about a talk Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein gave at the annual meeting of ASNE, the American Society of News Editors. They referred to how Yale students in an advanced journalism class considered the question of how the Watergate scandal would unfold in the digital age.

"Woodward said that he was shocked," Brown says, "by how otherwise savvy students thought that technology would have changed everything about the Watergate reporting."

"I came as close as I ever have to having an aneurysm," he said, "because the students wrote that, 'Oh, you would just use the Internet,' and the details of the scandal would be there. The students imagined," as Mr. Woodward put it, "that somehow the Internet was a magic lantern that lit up all events."

Woodward, Brown says, makes the point that there really is no alternative to shoe-leather reporting — that Watergate would not have been broken by simply going online and Googling "Watergate break-in."

"These students were so trained and so used to going online and finding already discovered facts," Brown says, "they weren't thinking about how those facts could be created from the ground up."

Brown says Woodward contrasts the reporting goal of advancing the story and providing new information with using the Web to find or distribute already known facts.

"It's almost as if young journalists today really do think everything can be found online," Brown says. While acknowledging the wealth of information the Internet provides, Brown values the way the information that is shared on the Internet is gathered.

"There is no actual replacement for that human contact," Brown says. "The unexpected dropped remark, the piece of character witness, in a sense, that you have by listening and seeing and feeling the presence of a person that can inform the best journalism."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tina Brown is with us, once again. She's the editor of Newsweek and the Daily Beast and a regular guest here on MORNING EDITION. Hi, Tina.

TINA BROWN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: We call the feature Word of Mouth. Tina tells us what she's been reading, and we get some recommendations for ourselves. And the first on your list this time, Tina, is a book about World War II, but from a different perspective.

BROWN: Yes, indeed. It's "Hitlerland" by Andrew Nagorski, who actually was once a bureau chief, I discovered, at Newsweek some years ago. But it's a fascinating book about the American foreign correspondents in Berlin in the years in the rise of Hitler. And so you get this fantastically interesting contemporaneous view of Hitler through the correspondence and some of the diplomats and the embassy staff, too, through the eyes of these Americans.

INSKEEP: We're talking about the 1930s, early 1940s, up until when the U.S. actually joined the war in 1941.

BROWN: Exactly right. And, of course, what you get through their eyes is this kind of fascinating, gradual journey of what they're seeing: first of all, skepticism about Hitler, underestimating him, followed by a certain sense of ridicule about him, then a kind of grudging admiration of what he's doing for Germany, and then, of course, a mounting fear of what's going to happen, followed by a sense of the most terrifying, pervasive evil then takes over. Some of the correspondents, of course, like William Shirer, who really is one of the heroes of the book, he saw from the very beginning the evil of Hitler, and attempted to sort of warn people of the impending calamity that he saw.

INSKEEP: And this is a CBS correspondent, William Shirer, I believe.

BROWN: Yes. He was at CBS and he later, of course, wrote the celebrated "Berlin Diary" and "The Fall of the Third Reich." And Shirer was always puzzled, right to the end of his life, and fascinated by the actual role of Hitler personally. You know, he was always trying to figure out whether Nazism would have really been as calamitous as it was without the role of Hitler. Eventually, he comes to the conclusion that it would not, that, in fact, it would have been, really, a kind of a radical right-wing, you know, movement. But it wouldn't have been the calamity that it was.

And he describes, actually, going to a rally, a Nuremberg rally, and says he watched the frenzy of the crowds and wrote that he was struck by Hitler's lack of expression, something glossy in his eyes. And he said he expected something much more powerful than that. And he says for the life of me, I couldn't understand what hidden springs he undoubtedly unloosed in the hysterical mob which is greeting him so wildly.

But later, he really came to feel that what he figured out, in a sense, was the almost marshal mysticism with which Hitler was able to organize, choreograph, theatrically create an atmosphere of music and bands and marching and flags. And it was really that sense of theater and organization that Hitler had - perhaps to augment his own real basic, sort of unimpressive personality - that he created, which helped to make him such a spellbinder.

INSKEEP: So, you've sent us these readings. They're all, in one way or another, about journalism, this first one about journalists who told one of the most important stories ever told in a dramatic way, at an important time. The next article is about journalism more recently. It's from the New York Times, by the media writer David Carr. It's called "The Provocateur."

BROWN: That's right. Well, of course, you know, during Hitler's Germany, there were 50 foreign correspondents for America in Berlin, which is an incredible index of the golden era of journalism. What we have, of course, in the era today with Andrew Breitbart, the blogger, the right-wing radical blogger, who just recently dropped dead in the early 40s, was, of course, the absolute opposite.

It's really the degradation, in a sense, of the journalistic ideals of a William Shirer. It was the absolute opposite. Breitbart didn't report anything, really. What Breitbart did was he was a provocateur. He was a death by a thousand tweets. He, you know, was quite happy to take the flying soundbite, any soundbite, and misapply it in his context and create an absolute mayhem for the person concerned, like he did for poor Shirley Sherrod, who was the obscure official in the Agriculture Department. He gave the impression, by the cutting of her words in a tape that he released, that she was giving racially motivated financing decisions, when actually, she was doing the very opposite. So this was really using a kind of bastardization of journalism through the format of Web and tweeting and, you know, just simply using the Internet as a tool for activism.

INSKEEP: Well, now, Tina Brown, you sent us one more article, here. The headline is: "Before Watergate Could Be Googled," and it's from the Wall Street Journal.

BROWN: Yes. It's an opinion piece by Gordon Crovitz - very interesting. And he says here's a great topic for news junkies: Watergate 4.0: How would the story have unfolded in the digital age? And he writes about a talk that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein gave at the annual American Society of News Editors conference recently, when they address that very fact and refer to how Yale students that they had talked to answered a similar question that they assigned in an advanced journalism class.

INSKEEP: I feel obliged to remind people that Woodward and Bernstein were, of course, the Washington Post reporters who, in 1972, did the groundbreaking reporting on the Watergate scandal that exposed it eventually over time.

BROWN: But Woodward said that he was shocked by how otherwise-savvy students thought that technology would have changed everything about the Watergate reporting. And he says: I came as close as I ever had to having an aneurysm, because the students wrote, oh, you would just use the Internet, and the details of the scandals would be there. The students imagined, as Mr. Woodward put it, that somehow the Internet was a magic lantern that lit up all events. And Woodward's making the point that there really is no alternative to the shoe-leather reporting, that Watergate would not have been broken by simply going online, as so many of these students felt, and Googling Watergate break-in or, you know, he says, you know, these facts did not exist until they were actually reported by he and Bernstein.

INSKEEP: Until they found people who knew the secrets and talked to people, effectively.

BROWN: Until - exactly right, until he found people that would tell them the facts. He said these students were so trained and so sort of, you know, used to going online and finding already discovered facts, that they really weren't thinking about how those facts could be created from the ground-up.

INSKEEP: You know, my favorite part of this article is that you have Woodward making this statement that college students seem to be totally out of it, and, in fact, they come to seem totally out of it that a journalism professor argues that Woodward must have made that up. He must be exaggerating here.

BROWN: I know. It's so interesting. He said, well, you know, Woodward said that he contrasts the reporting goal of advancing the story and providing new information with using the Web to find or distribute already known facts. It's almost as if young journalists today really do think that everything could be found online. And indeed, much more can be found online. There's no doubt about it.

But for a reporter researching a story, there's a trove now of documents and so on that they would normally, in the past, have had to go and sleuth around libraries and, you know, go house-to-house finding. But there is no actual replacement for that human contact, the unexpected drop remark that leads to a clue, the, you know, the piece of character witness, in a sense, that you have by listening and seeing and feeling the presence of a person that can inform the best journalism.

INSKEEP: In other words, the Internet is an amazing tool for sharing and distributing information, but somebody has to find it first.

BROWN: Indeed. Exactly right.

INSKEEP: And somebody has to think about what it means and...

BROWN: Someone has to think about what it means, exactly right. And, I mean, you know, you see it again and again in the "Hitlerland," this book. I mean, these foreign correspondents, I mean, they had to go to those beer halls and really see the effect that Hitler was having on those crowds. I mean, until you had seen the kind of mesmerized stare of the people looking at Hitler, those faces that had a kind of, you know, gleamed people who were under a spell, you couldn't have read about that online. I mean, you had to go and see it.

INSKEEP: Word of Mouth from Tina Brown. Tina, always a pleasure.

BROWN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.