Jim Glassman, John Farrell, and Jim Risser: The Books That Seduced Me

By Mike Feinsilber

James K. Glassman’s career in journalism started at Harvard where he was managing editing of the Crimson. Since then he served as a Sunday writer for the Boston Herald Traveler; edited and published the Advocate of Provincetown, Massachusetts.; founded Figaro, a weekly newspaper in New Orleans; was executive editor of  The Washingtonian; publisher of the New Republic; president of the Atlantic Monthly while also vice-president of U.S. News; part-owner and editor of Roll Call; founder of Tech Central Station (now TCS Daily), an online magazine. Along the way he wrote a column for the Washington Post business section and the International Herald Tribune, was moderator of CNN’s “Capital Gang Sunday,” hosted PBS’s weekly “TechnoPolitics,”and hosted “Ideas in Action” on PBS. He also wrote three books on financial matters. And held a number of posts in government.

He says the two books that most influenced him to become a journalist were “a reporting masterpiece of political drama and precision,” Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1960, which he read at age 14, and Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of essays “which showed me that journalism could be fun, fun, fun. I read it as a freshman in college.”

As for books for learning how to write: The Elements of Style by William R. Strunk and his student E.B. White, and The Careful Writer by Theodore M. Bernstein, “keeper of the clarity and grammar flame for the New York Times.” “For learning how to keep your feet on the ground as a journalist and knowing the difference between what’s real and what’s not,” he suggests Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.

“I got my first newspaper job right out of the University of Virginia, selling ads during the day and covering high school sports in Montgomery County, Maryland, at night, then graduated to daily papers in Annapolis, Baltimore, Denver and Boston,” says John A. Farrell, who teaches at the Missouri School of Journalism. Along the way he wrote biographies of Tip O’Neill and Clarence Darrow and he’s working on a biography of Richard M. Nixon, “which will make me a certified expert on 20th century political history and an exalted ‘presidential historian.’” No matter how well he does at this second career, he says, he intends to have “newspaperman” on his tombstone.

As for the book that shaped this double career: “I was 16 or so when one of my sisters brought home a copy of Irrational Ravings. “It is a collection of Pete Hamill’s early writings—columns and such. Very romantic stuff, in Breslinesque style, with lots of Irish-American blarney and swagger. It made newspapering sound like a great adventure, and a lot of fun—and I was an early convert to the Sixties notion that work should be exciting, meaningful and full of passion.” Adds Farrell:  “I believe Hamill got the title from a speech by Spiro Agnew, blasting him for his ‘irrational ravings’ as part of that crooked cheap chiseler’s war upon the press.”

“The book that I would say had the most influence on my career was Depth Reporting: An Approach to Journalism, by Neale Copple, dean of the University of Nebraska School of Journalism,” says Jim Risser. And quite a career it was: 20 years with the Des Moines Register in Iowa and then as bureau chief in Washington. Two Pulitzers in a three-year span. Nine years on the Pulitzer board. Fifteen years as director of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships program at Stanford University during which 283 journalists won time off to study and reflect.

Copple’s book and his course in depth reporting “showed me what complex and important work journalists really could do in educating citizens and improving society,” Risser says.

His book choice for inspiring young journalists:  The Elements of Journalism, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, which, he says, “elucidates the purposes of journalism and its vital role in making citizens of a democracy knowledgeable and involved.”

About those Pulitzers: the first arose from a routine Agriculture Department handout about the suspension of five grain inspectors in Houston, Texas, in 1975. Risser dug in. The result was a yearlong series of stories about conflicts of interest and corruption in agencies that were supposed to be inspecting U.S. grain shipments abroad. The second was on how farming practices were damaging the environment through severe soil erosion, depletion of water supplies, and contamination by chemicals.

This is the third in a series about the books that journalists say helped lure them into reporting and writing and the books they’d recommend to aspiring journalists. If you’d like to be included in future posts about good books, send a note to mikefeinsilber@gmail.com.

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