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Cover of the book

In which I review a timely critique of western policy in the third world.

The White Man’s Burden, by economist William Easterly, is a 2006 book that argues that western interventions in the third world (which he refers to as “the rest”), from self interested colonialism in the past, to today’s supposedly benevolent foreign aid and “humanitarian” military interventions, have done far more harm than good.

The first thing that will stick out to a potential reader is the title of this book. The use of the phrase “White Man’s Burden” itself may rub some the wrong way, partly because it implies that the author actually accepts the pretextual justifications for colonization that the phrase has come to symbolize. However, the author uses the term more for its symbolic and evocative value, and does make clear that many of the interventions he talks about were more beneficial to the west than to those who were supposedly being helped (this is a major argument he makes in the later portion of the book).

Easterly begins by contrasting the lofty speeches of world leaders and aid agency heads over the years, and introducing the division that really drives his thesis; the difference between Planners and Searchers. Into the former category he puts most members of aid bureaucracies, as well as typical western leaders. In the latter, more virtuous category the author puts those who find out what people actually need or want, and then try in an accountable and direct way to provide it.

The major problem with aid, the author contends, is that those in charge of the organizations that distribute it—from arms of the UN to the World Bank (where the author used to work) and various other Nongovernmental Organizations—like to craft overarching schemes to end poverty/AIDS/war in various countries that inevitably fail due to a lack of specific goals and inputs.

The next few chapters are a tightly argued series of statistics, case studies and loose anecdotes about the problems with interventions based off of large plans; scrums of aid agencies with overlapping efforts in a region that can’t be held accountable for results, and biases towards visible interventions that sound good in speeches instead of less visible interventions that would be more effectual (e.g. AIDS treatment vs. prevention), to name some. This section is the main portion of the book.

The last part of the book deals with less passive interventions; the incidences of colonialism and clumsy decolonization, and military interventions during the Cold War. This here is where the author makes his strongest case, partially because in both sets of circumstances the interventions were first and foremost self interested, with humanitarian concerns playing, at best, the role of rhetorical rationalization. Easterly deconstructs the ways in which broadly applied policies (US policy of supporting whoever’s fighting the Communist sympathizers) and a lack of on-the ground information led to western dollars supporting major human rights violators, or even worse, actually staying impartial in the rare cases in which one side was clearly behaving in a more reprehensible manner (the west in Rwanda).

Conclusions

However, the book is not perfect. In his conclusion section, Easterly admits that with all of his complaints about coming up with overarching plans in the aid community, he has none. Rather, he gives several reasonable suggestions on how aid agencies should function. However, one of the things that stuck out at me was when he addressed his earlier idea about focusing on the observable versus unobservable outcomes. He admits that basically no aid agency would give money to a program with less observable effects—essentially throwing money into an ether. But then he says that agencies should compromise and give money to tasks with observable effects and sufficient accountability. While all of this is fair, the entire section where he makes suggestions feels a bit like a cop-out.

That shortcoming aside, the book is a sharp read that will challenge your assumptions about how to better the world, an essential counterpoint to Kony 2012 type idealists and Cheney-style neoconservatives alike.

Cover of the biography, but is it worth buying? Keep reading this to find out.

In which I review the first draft of Chris Christie’s political career.

Chris Christie, Republican governor of New Jersey, has found a way into the national spotlight after a mere 2 and a half years at the head of the state. Similar to how Texas journalists capitalized on  the national interest sparked by abortive presidential candidate Rick Perry, it seems the high profile of Chris Christie has prompted two Garden State journalists, Bob Ingle and Michael Symons of Gannett’s New Jersey operation, to write a biography of the Republican governor.

Indeed, one should always be dubious of books that are written “too soon” after anything has happened, even more so when those books are written while something is happening. Books like this one and chronicle of the ’08 campaign Game Change occupy that interesting middle ground between history and journalism, with the latter often being written to soon to bring any clearer a perspective than the daily grind of the news cycle. That said, the book has been making the media rounds, and Chris Christie is a fascinating personality, so I picked it up.

The first thing you notice about the book, probably owing to the incomplete career of its subject, is the length, or lack thereof. At 274 pages of narrative content, the book is a quick read; I zipped through it in only a week. While one can’t expect something like The Power Broker when discussing someone barely halfway through their term as governor of a state, there are definitely issues that get a shorter treatment in this book than they should. But again, we come back to the idea of historical perspective; when time comes for the definitive biography, we’ll probably care less about his time on the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and more about something he did as governor or even in a higher office that hasn’t happened yet.

But taken as what it is, basically a super-extended newspaper or magazine profile of the governor, we do learn some interesting tidbits about Christie’s blue collar upbringing and how it shaped him—largely, I should point out, from himself or his immediate family. Indeed, it becomes clear as one reads the book that most of the “original” research for the book comes from interviewing those in Christie’s immediate circuit (the authors more or less admit this in their acknowledgements).The rest of the sourced quotes, notes and information is a hodgepodge of snips from the Star Ledger and other New Jersey newspapers, as well as a few TV appearances and radio pieces.

This is arguably adequate research, mind you, but it does lead to a bit of a narrative problem, namely that all of the really super awesome-cool things that Christie did in his various roles tend to be told from the perspective of either quotes from Christie himself, the governor’s confidants, or in the coauthors’ “Voice of God” type prose, while the thoughts of those who disagreed with him are rendered through secondhand phrasing and quotes usually sourced back to the sort of newspaper clips I noted earlier. If only for a more textured portrait, talking to some of the people who worked on, say the Corzine campaign in 2009, would largely correct for this problem. Instead, we see direct quotes from various players sourced to older newspaper articles, rather than the result of new interviews for the book.

While I’m on the subject of the narrative, another thing I noticed with the book are the coauthors’ selective conclusion drawing, by which I mean that there are some disputes they’ll discuss without even making much of any evaluative judgment, such as the section where they discuss claims that Christie was too close to News Corporation[1]. The main story there was that of subsidiary News America purportedly hacking into the computers of a competitor and stealing clients, a supposed crime that occurred while Christie was NJ’s US Attorney.

The idea was that calls for investigation by the victimized company, Floorgraphics, went essentially unheeded by Christie’s office. Again, in the book, the story gets the “through the archives” treatment, but what also stuck out at me was that the authors don’t really try to draw any conclusions from the incident, in the way that a historian (or a journalist looking from a 20 year later lens) would probably have.

But then we see the writers adjudicating present day political disputes. Take their treatment of the issue of the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel, which was to add train capacity into Manhattan—currently NJ Transit and Amtrak trains going from New Jersey into the city have to use a single tunnel in each direction. Christie cancelled the project in 2010, citing cost overruns. The writers characterize the plan as being a “dumb idea”[2] and seem to buy Christie’s claim of cost overruns as rationale for cancelling the tunnel, despite reports challenging that assertion.

The writing in the book is middling at best. Some paragraphs have awkward parenthetical addendums tacked on, including one entire paragraph that is a parenthetical note[3]. The sections where the coauthors quote their own previous articles or reference their own involvement in the political landscape (“Coauthor Michael Symons, writing in USA Today…”[4]) also rubbed me the wrong way. Not that writers shouldn’t feel free to namecheck themselves in their own books, but the self quotations here seem like part of an attempt to inflate their influence in the NJ press corps in front of the national audience reading the book.

Conclusion

So, should you buy this book? Depends on how interested you are in the topic. Despite all of the problems I point out above, the reader does come away with some insight into Chris Christie’s upbringing and how that shaped him. Unfortunately, basically all of these insights come from him and his family. The information on Christie’s political career is there, but nothing that you wouldn’t get from reading a New Yorker type profile piece on him, except somewhat more detail. Buy the book if you must, but at a list  price of $25.99 US, by the time the price is equal to the quality of the content, it’ll be out of date[5].


[1] Pages 119-121

[2] Page 233

[3] Page 85

[4] Page 253. That section went on for an entire paragraph.

[5] To be fair, that list price is easy to avoid. I’d suggest a trip to an online bookseller, or get it at a warehouse club.


Newspapers pictured on cover: “LA Times”, “The Baltimore Sun”, “Chicago Tribune”, “Newsday”, “Hartford Courant”,

In which I consider an insider’s account of the fall of a once-venerable media company.

If journalism is the first draft of history, James O’Shea’s The Deal From Hell (Public Affairs, 2011) is the first draft of one of the biggest events to occur in this decade-long time of tumult for the newspaper industry. O’Shea, former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and editor in chief of the Los Angeles Times, gives his account of the Tribune Company’s blockbuster takeover of the Times Mirror company, and the later purchase of the company by the brash Chicago businessman Sam Zell.

As someone who takes an interest in journalism and its future, these sorts of “inside the newsroom” chronicles are hard to resist. This time last year I was powering through a book recounting the Murdoch takeover of the Wall Street Journal. I also should disclose here that last summer I interned at a law firm that was doing work on the bankruptcy of the Tribune Company.

O’Shea begins the book with a somewhat misty eyed look back at his own career in journalism, how he worked his way up from a plucky Iowa paper to the newsroom of the Chicago Tribune. While there are some great anecdotes about the eccentricities of the paper and Iowa contained here, the section is mercifully short, just long enough for us to get a sense of the author and his formative years.

We shift a sort of 3 pronged narrative from here—the book drifts from more tales of his Tribune career to explaining the long and gradual shift of both the Tribune and L.A. Times from hyper-partisan Republican papers to respected national players. The third prong is the gradual shifts in the newspaper business. Beginning in the 1970s, evening newspapers disappeared to changing social habits, and most newspaper companies, including the then-separate Tribune and Times Mirror companies, went public on stock markets. As O’Shea would have it, this was the Trojan horse that led to profits becoming paramount over the public interest at many newspapers.

As we get into the sections on the Tribune/Times Mirror merger in the late 90s, we see the author shift from describing the backroom dealings to the reactions in both major newsrooms.  A section follows detailing his time as managing editor of the Tribune. What I find remarkable here is that despite the strong incentive to deflect or soften blame for mistakes under his watch (a section headlined with an article on the word cunt, for example, that hurriedly was pulled, or several photos that were mis-captioned as belonging to Chicagoland criminals), he does not come off as self serving.

In this section we are also introduced to the effects of new management’s affinity with the concept of market journalism, the practice of tailoring story selection to what brings in the biggest audience. While long in effect at Tribune’s television stations, post merger management tried to port the concept to the company’s newspapers, in the process breaking down the “wall” between the business and journalism wings of the paper (the consequences of this are a theme that O’Shea leans hard on in the latter portion of the book). Here we also see some of the skepticism with which newspaper reporters view television reporters on display.

The “Grave Dancer”, Sam Zell, conveniently pictured in front of a representation of Tribune’s newspaper assets.

Management at Tribune in 2006 shifted O’Shea to the Los Angeles Times after a very public controversy with the previous editor over cuts to the paper. Soon, one of the few unequivocal villains in the story (as the author tells it), Sam Zell, enters the picture. The Chicago businessman begins to express interest in buying the Tribune Company. The resulting mid-2007 deal led to the company buying out all of its shareholders and going private (off the stock market), at a per-share amount of $34 a stock, much higher than the open market would have given. As a result, the company took on several billion in debt.

James O’Shea speaking to staff at the “Los Angeles Times” about his departure as editor-in-chief.

The end of 2007 saw new management beginning to assert their control over the company, and O’Shea is removed from the LA Times over budget disagreements. He goes into expected detail about the nature of his removal, but this development means that we see the most catastrophic sequence of events—Zell cronies taking over Tribune and turning the work environment into one resembling a fraternity house—as outsiders. The infamous New York Times expose of management outrages gets substantial play here, with slight contextualization from O’Shea, as well as some obligatory personal reflection.

The Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy in 2008, and has been going through proceedings for several years. Rumors surfaced just this week of new candidates to lead the company, with former NBC executive Jeff Zucker in the mix. James O’Shea went on first to a fellowship at Harvard’s journalism school, and then birthed the Chicago News Cooperative, a nonprofit that later partnered with the New York Times on Chicago centered content. Even so, the venture ran into financial trouble and closed earlier this year.

The Deal From Hell weaves a great narrative, and tells the story of the deal in a rather evenhanded and comprehensive fashion. Considering the book is written by one of the arguable victims of the company’s recent troubles, the narrative is fair to most of the main players.  I generally agree with the author’s broader ideas on journalism, and they are not advocated in a way that detracts from the story. I give the book 4/5 stars, and at 348 pages of narrative content, it is a relatively quick read. A paperback edition is set for release in late August.

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