Reporters of the Associated Press. Breaking News: How the Associated Press Has Covered War, Peace, and Everything Else. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007. 432 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-56898-689-0.
Reviewed by Chris Daly (Journalism Department, Boston University)
Published on Jhistory (November, 2007)
More than thirty years ago, the media scholar James Carey declared a need for a history of reporting, calling it the central story in the realm of journalism history. Reporting is, after all, the core activity of journalism. It is not founding newspapers or arguing over control of the radio spectrum or defending libel suits or inventing new devices--important as those are. First and foremost, journalism is about finding things out--either by witnessing them or talking to people who did or reading documents. Then, it is about writing rivers of simple declarative sentences and taking in-focus photos and video.
Despite the explosion of research in the field since Carey's rallying cry, the grand project of a history of reporting remains incomplete. With the publication of Breaking News, though, we are a step closer.
As far as it goes, this is a terrific book. It is packed with thrilling tales of the kind of journalistic enterprise, bravery, and occasional dumb luck that have marked Associated Press (AP) news-gathering since the news cooperative was founded in 1846. It is also lavishly illustrated with gems from AP's vast storehouse of photos. To accommodate the photos, the book is slightly oversized, and the stock is heavy, giving it the heft of a coffee-table book.
In a decision that is reflective of the AP ethos, Breaking News is a collective effort, with authorship by "the reporters of the Associated Press," and so lacks a distinctive voice or a strong point of view. A wonderful touch is the foreword by David Halberstam, which only highlights the contrast in prose styles. In his foreword, one of the last projects completed before his death in a car accident, Halberstam offers a fond tribute to the AP bureau he knew best--the one in Saigon in the 1960s. That alone makes the book worthwhile.
[Full disclosure: I worked for the AP for more than ten years between late 1976 and early 1989, in New York and Boston. I mostly enjoyed it, and I left on good terms.]
Much of Breaking News pursues a familiar genre--the "story behind the story." A reader can dip in just about anywhere and plunge into some clever or heroic episode of triumph over obstacles or of victory over "the opposition." We learn about some of the great lengths AP men (and a few women) have gone to in order to "get it first and get it right." And there are oddities, like the AP staffer who witnessed more than three hundred executions. Many of the stories are indeed thrilling, some are inspiring, and a few are endearing.
There was, for example, the amazing brawl for the bare-knuckle heavyweight boxing crown in July 1889, between Jake Kilrain and the magnificent John L. Sullivan. (It went seventy-five rounds--yes, seventy-five rounds!--but that's another story.) The fight was hidden away in the woods near Hattiesburg, Mississippi, more than 100 miles from the nearest telegraph station, in New Orleans. To make matters worse, some 3,000 fans were packed in around the ring, and no one could move in or out. How was the AP going to get the news out?
Step one was to charter a private train and have it stand by. Step two was to equip the ringside fight reporter with "hollow wooden balls that could be screwed open and shut" (p. 137). The reporter wrote his account of each round, stuffed it inside a ball, then heaved it to a waiting courier. At the fight's end, the courier rushed all the copy to the waiting train. As the train dashed toward New Orleans, the AP found some stowaways on board from other news outlets. So, the nameless AP man rushed forward to the engine and cut the other cars loose, allowing him to get to the telegraph first--and alone.
An episode that was perhaps more emblematic of the hard-news tradition of journalism involved the Lindbergh flight of 1927. Because the AP had bureaus, correspondents, and member newspapers all along the route, it was uniquely well positioned to cover the flight. Everyone along the route was mobilized. One of the Paris correspondents went out to Bourget Field in advance and realized that there was only a single pay phone, so he "arranged" to get a phone line in a private building nearby. Once again, the AP flashed the news to a waiting world. The moral of the story is not that it takes a dashing superhero to cover the news but that a little planning ahead goes a long way.
Another strength of Breaking News is the collection of amazing photos. They are integrated with the text, so that they appear in context, and the best of them get their own full page. The Pulitzer Prize-rich photo staff has taken dozens of iconic photos since the Civil War, and plenty of them are here: the Iwo Jima flag-raising, the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk in Saigon, the "napalm girl" in Vietnam, the "tank man" in Tiananmen Square, the "falling man" at the World Trade Center. There are also some photos of AP reporters at work.
Especially valuable are the accounts of how such photos were made, which is usually lacking from pure photo books that reproduce pictures without contextualizing them. We learn, for example, that in the Saigon bureau in the 1960s, chief photographer Horst Faas insisted that all the print reporters take cameras with them whenever they went out in the field. That's why reporter Malcolm Browne had a camera with him when the monk set himself ablaze. This approach, which would probably have run afoul of union rules back home, is now becoming a more common practice in today's convergent newsrooms, more than forty years later.
Breaking News is also useful as a source for getting the AP's version of some historic news moments that are still subject to dispute. Who really reported the first news about Pearl Harbor? What was going on in the JFK motorcade? Here, the AP tells its side. In addition, the book helps fill a gap in most histories by pointing out the role the AP played over the twentieth century in defending freedom of the press and freedom of information, often by filing lawsuits.
Overall, the book is arranged by topics-- war (two chapters), trials, Freedom of Information, aviation, sports, elections, civil rights, foreign reporting, photos, disasters, and the White House. (Oddly, there is no chapter on business news, which is a pretty significant part of the AP). This arrangement evokes the reality that these topics are all separate "beats" in the view of the AP, but at a cost. Even though the chapters are generally chronological, the topical approach makes it hard to follow the overall story of the AP from start to finish. Helpfully, there is a "brief history" (eleven pages) of the AP at the back, written by veteran Walter Mears.
Breaking News, which includes endnotes, reflects a concern about sources. Many of the older anecdotes are based on Oliver Gramling's mother lode of AP stories, AP: The Story of News (1940). The authors also make good use of two essential scholarly studies, Menachem Blondheim's News over the Wires (1994) and Richard Schwarzlose's The Nation's Newsbrokers (1989-1990). As each chapter approaches the present, more and more use is made of the AP's corporate archives, which lay almost forgotten in the basement of AP's landmark headquarters in Rockefeller Center until the company moved in 2004, as well as oral histories conducted for this project.
In all, Breaking News is a valuable addition to the literature. But (ah, the "but graf") this book will leave many historians of journalism wishing for more. It doesn't really meet the standard that Carey was calling for. His often-quoted call for a history of reporting was part of a larger point: that a history of reporting should be part of a cultural history of journalism. Such a history would go beyond the question of "What happened?" and take up larger questions: Why did people in the past act as they did? What did their experience feel like to them? What did it all mean?
The authors of Breaking News are very adept at handling 80 percent of the five W's, especially "what." But in true AP fashion, they shy away from the "why" question. As a work of history, this is a remarkably unreflective book.
One episode is indicative: Breaking News proudly tells the story behind the story of the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1973. An AP messenger recognized Agnew as he was entering the federal courthouse in Baltimore to address the charges of corruption. The (nameless) messenger called the Washington bureau. Reporter Richard Pyle then called Agnew's office, and a sobbing secretary confirmed the vice president's resignation. Pyle flashed the news.
The result was the AP got a full half-hour "beat" on everyone else. Which raises a question, one that is never raised inside AP to the best of my knowledge, and not raised in this book: So what? The news of Agnew's announcement was going to be announced in a little while anyway, so what difference did half an hour make? In a book devoted to an institution organized around the belief that such "beats" are of transcendent importance, this question should be at least addressed.
Breaking News is also disappointing in another way. It is fundamentally misleading about the historical reality of the AP because it focuses so strictly on news flashes, bulletins, and other earth-shattering events. The fact is, most days in most bureaus are routine, and this book sidesteps that reality, which is made up of an endless round of shifts in which stories from the members are rewritten, correspondents cover meetings with entirely predictable outcomes, desk supervisors see to the routing of ski conditions or produce prices to members who can't publish without them, and staffers take dictation from stringers at Division III college football games. It's not all V-J Day, prize fights, and trips on Air Force One. History happens even when all hell is not breaking loose.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Breaking News does not approach its subject critically. The authors celebrate their subject and avoid asking whether AP could be better. The AP is the only news organization in America that covers every state legislature, every governor, every state supreme court. What do they have to show for it? The AP is not only the biggest employer of journalists in the country, it also has a high "churn rate," because people are always leaving and the AP is constantly hiring new people. How does it impart skills to them? How does it acculturate them into the values and traditions of journalism? What is the philosophy or ethos of the place? We cannot find out from Breaking News.
To the AP's credit, this book does make some (brief) admissions. It acknowledges that the AP was an enabler of racism during the modern civil rights struggle. It admits that the AP dropped the ball on Watergate. Reading between the lines, it allows that the AP has had a horrible track record in hiring women and minorities. (The first black reporter, Austin Long-Scott, was hired in 1961, and he did not have much company for a long time.)
But as might be expected of an in-house production, Breaking News pulls some punches. There is no discussion of the nonprofit cooperative's governance or finances. There is no criticism of the print and broadcast "members" who are the AP's ultimate masters. And it's hard to find any evidence that any AP staffer ever screwed up, arrived late, or spelled a name wrong.
Finally, this big new book on the AP falls short by not engaging any of the scholarly, political, or economic debates surrounding the practice of news gathering. There are only passing references to "objectivity," which would seem like a fairly central issue for an organization like the AP. Nor is there any discussion of the AP's role as the ultimate agenda-setter in U.S. daily news reporting.
In the literature on the history of American journalism, there is no shortage of books about the New York Times, the New Yorker, CBS, or a handful of other hardy perennials. There are shelves full of studies, memoirs, and anthologies. Yet, the AP remains the elephant in the library. Although it is, in many ways, the center of gravity in American journalism, it is still lacking the full-blown cultural history that it deserves.
Breaking News helps, but the definitive study still awaits.
. James Carey, "The Problem of Journalism History," Journalism History 1 (Spring 1974): 3-5, 27.
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Chris Daly. Review of Press, Reporters of the Associated, Breaking News: How the Associated Press Has Covered War, Peace, and Everything Else.
Jhistory, H-Net Reviews.
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