Explain Yourself

The Argument

1. When a nonfiction author fails to list source material clearly, readers are left wondering what -- and who -- to believe.

February 06, 2005|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,Special to the Sun

In her recent best-selling expose about the Bushes, Kitty Kelley delves into the alleged alcoholism of Prescott Sheldon Bush, father of former President George Herbert Walker Bush and grandfather of the current president. She writes that Prescott's wife, Dorothy, took to "denying reality" about the drunkenness.

"She told her children that their father was simply 'not feeling well,' and that was that," Kelley writes in The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty (Doubleday. 736 pages. $29.95). "No further discussion, ever. When Prescott was drunk or hung over, she shooed them off, saying, 'Your father has been working hard and needs a little peace and quiet.' "

To explain how Kelley knows what she says she knows in the chapter concerning Prescott Bush's alleged drunkenness, she lists 10 books, 18 articles, six sets of documents and 11 interviews. But Kelley never indicates what she used from those books and articles, or how she verified that the information gathered by her predecessors is accurate. She does not link allegations of drunkenness and denial to any specific document. A couple of the people listed as interviewees are mentioned in the text, but none is quoted about Dorothy's alleged reactions to Prescott's alleged drinking.

So how does Kelley know what Dorothy said to her children while supposedly denying reality? Readers deserve to know a book's sourcing. Authors, editors and publishers who refuse to provide that sourcing ought to be scolded. If they fail to reverse their practice, they ought to be boycotted.

Of all investigative journalists alive, Bob Woodward has sold the most books and has almost certainly influenced public policy more than any other. Every one of those timely books about important topics, starting in 1973, has been acquired by Simon & Schuster, one of the largest publishers of serious nonfiction in the world. Every one of those books has been edited by Alice Mayhew at Simon & Schuster, almost certainly the most successful living editor of investigative, explanatory and historical nonfiction.

Woodward, Mayhew and Simon & Schuster have a right to feel proud about their accomplishments. But Woodward, an assistant managing editor at the The Washington Post, Mayhew and Simon & Schuster share a large dollop of shame, too, one they do not acknowledge. The shame is that nine of Woodward's 12 books lack meaningful sourcing -- no footnotes, no endnotes, no bibliography.

As a result, readers who care about the origin and quality of Woodward's information are left mostly in the dark.

This is not a campaign to halt the reading of Woodward's books. They are too important to be ignored. The boycott could take the form of a refusal to buy those books without sourcing. Go ahead and read a library copy, but make sure to give the publisher an earful.

Authors such as Woodward, and, by extension, editors such as Mayhew and publishers like Simon & Schuster, offer all sorts of reasons for failing to provide source notes: They clutter a book. Readers never look at them anyway. Readers trust us. The sources are too sensitive to be identified. Adding extra pages drives up book prices.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it conveys the tenor of the discussion. The point is that every reason stated to me over 35 years of discussion is garbage.

If readers dislike such "clutter," they can skip looking at the sources section. It seems like a common-sense conclusion that curious readers are inclined to trust journalists whose reporting is transparent more than they trust those whose reporting is veiled.

Talented investigative journalists other than Woodward, writing books on topics just as sensitive, regularly provide source notes and bibliographies. Two exemplars are Seymour Hersh and James Bamford, who deserve praise as do their editors and publishers. Two of Hersh's heavily sourced books are The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, published by Summit Books / Simon & Schuster (proving it can do right on this issue) and The Dark Side of Camelot, published by Little, Brown. Bamford's well-sourced books include The Puzzle Palace: A Report on NSA, America's Most Secret Agency, published by Houghton Mifflin.

The gradations of providing information about sourcing to readers are numerous. Here is a taxonomy, from most egregiously irresponsible to most admirable:

Books that lack source notes, bibliographies and indexes. At least Woodward's books are all indexed. Without an index, readers are unable to easily locate multiple references to the same individual or same event, thus comparing or contrasting what an author wrote on page 27 with what appears on page 200. I would never buy a book that purports to fall into the category of serious nonfiction if it lacks an index.

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