Online Edition: Winter 2001/2002

Canaries in the Mineshaft by Renata Adler

Canaries in the Mineshaft

Essays on Politics and Media

Renata Adler

St. Martin's Press ($26.95)

by Rumaan Alam

It's never a particularly illuminating strategy to open a review of a book by quoting another review. Still, it's worth noting that in his New York Times Book Review essay on Renata Adler's most recent book, Canaries in the Mineshaft: Essays on Politics and Media, Bill Kovach calls Adler--or the substance of her message--"shrill." It's easy to paint Adler as a Cassandra, as Kovach does. In fact, given the relationship between Adler and the Times--her onetime employer, of which she is very critical--it's no surprise to see her book summarily dismissed as hysterical.

With a handful of erudite nonfiction and fiction works to her credit, Renata Adler is a cultural voice of some distinction, influential enough to have been name-checked in David Leavitt's lamentable roman a clef, Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing (interesting to note, as Leavitt plays coy about naming, say, George Plimpton). She's a gifted writer and fierce intellect, but her contentiousness and unwillingness to accept the state of contemporary media--to which equally brilliant contemporaries like Joan Didion seem more resigned--have consigned her to a niche in the ongoing cultural debate, the place where you'd find Buckley and Limbaugh and the rest of the cranks. But the thing to remember about Cassandra is, of course, that she was right.

Kovach is dismissive of Adler's assertion that the use of a byline--standard operating procedure at every newspaper of record in this country--has given rise to the celebrity journalist. She disdains the chief practitioner of celebrity journalism, Bob Woodward, dissecting the man's body of work, to some surprising results. In "The Justices and the Journalists," originally published in, ironically, the New York Times Book Review, Adler tackles Woodward's The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court. Her close reading uncovers factual inconsistencies and errors, as well as a lot of murkiness about hearsay and anonymous sources. This reading helps illuminate one way in which contemporary journalism has, indeed, gone wrong: Woodward's reputation as a reporter lends credence to the claims of his unspecified sources. Rather than entering into the record verifiable statements from a specific source, Woodward simply asserts that a thing has been deemed true enough by his standard. Clearly, that is a lapse of integrity.

Unfortunately for Adler, her suggestion that the media is not to be trusted is the sort of idea espoused by the fringe. A collection of essays such as these, published in outlets such as the New Yorker (which Adler famously excoriated in her previous book Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker), Harper's, the Los Angeles Times and Vanity Fair, has a specific value. This value is not derived from the subjects explored, such as Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court, as they are no longer newsworthy. The value is, rather, in reading one consistent viewpoint on various aspects of the culture. And Adler is nothing if not consistent. Her willingness to offer a close reading of the news, rather than a thumbnail sketch of it, is impressive in an era of short attention spans. Adler's reading of the Starr Report is a perfect example of her strengths as a news analyst and reporter: well-versed in matters of law, she is able to point to several specific transgressions committed by the Office of the Independent Counsel. It's refreshing to read, rather than partisan snipes at Starr or Clinton, a fact-based argument that one of the two parties was actually, demonstrably, wrong. Of course, objectivity is an ideal to which one might aspire, but which one can never rightfully claim; it's an ideal, almost impossible to achieve, for reporters or judges, police or parents.

Adler's ideas about contemporary journalism and culture are far too elegant and complex to be explored in one book review, which might explain why Adler has not managed to cultivate her own cult of personality the way so many commentators have: one must actually have read her work, and the work is demanding enough to test the mettle even of willing devotees. Canaries in the Mineshaft is not the sort of book to be read at night, in bed: it agitates and it demands far too much. Rather, it's a book to be read the next morning, before tackling that day's newspaper. It will make the truth seem, suddenly, sadly, a very complicated thing indeed.

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Winter 2001/2002 Table of Contents