There’s a signature passage, for me, early in Greg Mitchell’s So Wrong for So Long. He describes how he learned a friend–someone he knew through coaching Little League–had died in the Twin Towers. It’s the same way many people learned a loved one had died, when, over the passage of time, that person never came home.
My first thought was: "What floor does Jon Albert work on?"
I headed for home in the evening. When I got there, I found out that Jon Albert had not yet returned, and everyone feared the worst.
Then two days later,
Our first cover was all black with "September 11, 2001" in white type. My friend Jon Albert still hadn’t come home.
Two weeks later, I took my son, along with one of Jon’s two boys, to a Mets game. Stephen still thought Dad was coming home. He never did, and the paperback edition of Joy in Mudville is now dedicated to him.
The passage highlighted to me how well Greg captures lived experience and turns it into powerful narrative. The rest of his book just reinforced that observation.
I admit, I was initially skeptical of a book of Greg’s collected columns. I had read many of them, I imagined, and would find them too familiar. And indeed I had read many of them when they appeared at Editor & Publisher. But Greg’s ability to capture a true narrative–even while we’re living the events described in that narrative–really brings these pieces together into a coherent story of the media coverage of this Administration’s disastrous war, and the individuals largely ignored by that media coverage.
There are many threads to that narrative: the intertwined fates of Cindy Sheehan and Bill Mitchell, the father of another soldier killed in the same incident as Cindy’s son Casey. Greg’s early and sustained criticism of Judy Miller. His consistent concern about military suicides. His tracking of polls showing persistent and widespread misconceptions about ties between Iraq and 9/11. And finally, Greg’s chronicling of one after another knowledgeable expert–from Dan Ellsberg to Sydney Schanberg to Joseph Galloway to John Murtha–coming out against the war. Greg describes the selection of columns this way:
They follow most of the twists and turns in White House strategy and media response (or lack of it), from the 2003 "run up" to the 2007 "surge" and beyond. It’s all here: Mission Accomplished, Abu Ghraib, the "Friedman Unit," Judith Miller as martyr and goat, suicidal soldiers and dead civilians, Rumsfeld and the armor we "went to war with," Pat Tillman, Valerie Plame, Jill Carroll, Jon Stewart, the cult of Petraeus. Serious stuff, but Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen also appear, as do Oprah and the Ghost of Baghdad Bob.
If you’ve been reading blogs since the Iraq war began there will be few, but notable, surprises. I, for example, had missed the story of Alyssa Peterson, an Arabic-speaking military interrogator who killed herself after refusing to participate in interrogation techniques used on detainees in Iraq; the military destroyed all records of the techniques that contributed to her suicide. Like many of the columns Greg includes in the book, the several on Peterson focus attention on the human scale of the war–the tragedy of one principled woman–drowned out by the larger media narrative.
Even if the book retells a familiar story, it does so by picking out the threads that, even still, have fallen by the wayside of mainstream coverage. This is one the best chronicles I’ve seen of a country and a press getting snookered and then, slowly and incompletely, waking up. Let’s hope it contributes to more people waking up.