Books for a Budding Journalist

My sense is that the main purpose of giving books to journalists is to improve their perceptual skills–to allow them to see patterns that might be hard to detect in the rush of daily reporting. Some of Mark’s suggestions fit into that description, like Schelling and Olson. Let me suggest ten other books or articles that I’ve found have the same “pattern-recognition” qualities.

1) Douglas Arnold–The Logic of Congressional Action. Maybe the best thing ever written on how members of Congress actually make decisions, and how citizen preferences connect to member actions. It’s especially good because Arnold emphasizes the importance of “potential public opinion”–members are motivated not just by what the public thinks as reflected in public opinion polls, but by what they might think if rallied by an “instigator.” This is especially important for journalists, who tend to ignore important phenomenon that don’t have easily observable actions associated with them.

2) Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones–Agendas and Instability in American Politics. Political scientists used to think about American politics as characterized by exceptional stability, for reasons that Olson identified–concentrated groups tend to form, diffuse groups don’t, and so politicians pay attention to the former and ignore the latter. Concentrated groups are able to get programs to support them, and build tight links with political institutions that help to preserve their power. The result is that policy gets locked in and eventually becomes extremely rigid (this is the argument of Olson’s Rise and Decline of Nations). Baumgartner and Jones found that, quite to the contrary, these “policy monopolies” are in fact quite vulnerable, that when their “policy image” and “venue control” are challenged, they can rapidly be defeated. The real problem is that the supply of policy entrepreneurs to challenge these policy monopolies is limited, as is space on the political agenda. So the strategy of policy monopolies is to keep from being noticed. Again, this suggests that while any particular policy area may seem extremely stable, that stability is largely illusory–knowing this can sensitize journalists to look for shifts in policy image and venue control that are the signs of a policy monopoly in trouble.

3) Elijah Anderson–The Code of the Street (or Streetwise). This is urban ethnography at its very best. Again, this is about seeing beyond appearances. Anderson shows that in very poor urban, black neighborhoods, even those who want to avoid the world of crime have to develop a tough, potentially violent exterior as a protective device–not projecting one is an invitation to victimhood. While most individuals in such neighborhoods would prefer to move to a non-violent state of affairs, at an individual level they are forced to adopt the norms set by their most violent neighbors. Unfortunately, this means that it is hard for outsiders (or even insiders) to determine who the genuine criminals are, and who are those who are just going along (this includes, of course, police).

4) George Akerlof–“The Market for Lemons.” (QJE, 1970). The key (and short!) document of “asymmetric information,” a concept of enormous value in lots of different circumstances.

5) Joseph Conrad–Nostromo. A good guide to the mindset of Western modernizers, and what can go wrong in trying to bring progress to far-away places. (it’s a hell of a lot more complex than that, of course…)

6) James Scott–Seeing Like A State. My students who have read it say that they never look at things the same again. Great for understanding how planning can go wrong, and how societies generally work because of processes of micro-cooperation, rather than order hierachically imposed from above.

7) James Q. Wilson–Bureaucracy. By far the best single book that explains how government actually works, and what explains variation in government quality. Good for preventing shallow judgments that “bureaucracy” is always, and inherently, inefficient: Wilson shows that variations in effectiveness can often be traced back to the nature of their tasks and their relationship with their multiple principals.

8) Roger Waldinger and Michael Lichter–How the Other Half Works. Explains how low-income labor markets work, and how immigrant groups form niches that allow them to largely dominate specific sectors (and exclude other groups, African-Americans in particular). Studies of immigration and race are often rely on either “culture” or a discrimination paradigm, but Waldiner and Lichter’s work doesn’t–it is structural analysis at its very best.

9) Gerald Gamm–Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Irish Stayed. A book that takes religion seriously, but that emphasizes its rules, and how they can help coordinate decision-making, thereby leading to large scale patterns of behavior. Many have tried to explain the outcome described in the book title by claiming that Jews were naturally sympathetic to blacks, or more tolerant or less violent, and that is why so little of the violence of the 1960s and 1970s in racially changing neighborhoods was between blacks and Jews. Gamm shows just how wrong this is–Jews left because their religious rules placed no obstacles on movement (and therefore communicated that their co-religionists had no such obstacles either), while Catholics had significant such contraints, and thus knew that their co-religionists did too (mainly having to do with access to the sacraments).

10) David Mayhew–Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre. American political journalists continue to talk as if “realignment” was still a meaningful phenomenon. Mayhew shows in this cool and clinical book that it’s not, and what is more, probably never was. He also makes some very suggestive comments on what might substitute for realignment as a large-scale explanation for political change.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.

One thought on “Books for a Budding Journalist”

  1. In this genre (books that show you patterns), I'd recommend "Albion's Seed," by David Hackett Fischer. It describes several of the different British Isles cultures that settled in the US, and how their differences still show up in American life and politics.

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