Readings for budding journalists

Name ten books and ten shorter documents you’d like students of American political journalism to read.

Tom Edsall, preparing to start teaching at Columbia Journalism School, asks what his students need to read. Concretely, if you knew someone whose career choice involved covering American politics as a journalist, what ten books, and what ten shorter documents, would you recommend that he or she read? I invite your suggestions; I start off below with some of mine.

I’ve excluded documents requiring close reading or a specialist teacher; I’ve been told that Aristotle’s Rhetoric is the best book ever written on the practice of political argument, but my attempt to read it on my own only left me puzzled. The Confucian Doctrine of the Mean, the Platonic dialogues, the Tao-te Ching, and the Pirke Avot, to the value of which I can testify personally, all have something of the same character. (Arguably, the same is true of The Prince, but even though I think there’s a deeper meaning that a naive reader is almost certain to miss, there’s plenty of intellectual nourishment on its surface, and it’s mercifully short.)

I have omitted very long documents, on the grounds that they mostly won’t be read even if assigned. That left out Democracy in America and Macaulay’s History of England, among others. I’ve also given preference to documents that are especially well-written.

So here’s my partial list. Note that I have fewer books and more shorter documents than requested.


Machiavelli, The Prince

Neustadt, Presidential Power

Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action

Shakespeare, Henry V (Students might require some guidance to see the hero/anti-hero’s psychopathy, but it fairly jumps out at you once you start looking for it. They’ll meet many Henries among our political class and among the captains of industry. [The Laurence Olivier film is faithful to the poet; Kenneth Branagh’s is not.])

And, speaking of film, I’d also have my students see Wag the Dog and read first a collection of articles about Jessica Lynch written around the time of her capture and then some follow-up pieces written a year or two later.

There’s a book’s worth of Orwell that belongs on the “must-read” list, but it’s not all in one book. I’d pick “Politics and the English Language,” “Notes on Nationalism,” “Wells, Hitler, and the World State,” and the “Principles of Newspeak” from Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The same is true of Tom Schelling. My nominees would be the “Essay on Bargaining,” “On the Ecology of Micromotives,” and “Economic Reasoning and the Ethics of Policy.”

Shorter documents

Iliad, Book I. (If I were teaching a course on political journalism, I’d be tempted to assign it as the first reading, and require each student to write a news story based on it, for either an Achaean daily newspaper on an Achaean newsmagazine: “Hellenic hopes of bringing the Trojan adventure to a quick and successful conclusion took a heavy blow yesterday, as …”)

Federalist #10 and #51, and Frankfurter’s opinion in the first flag-salute case.

Lincoln’s Lyceum Address

Baumol’s “Macroeconomics of Unbalanced Growth”

Keynes’s “Economic Prospects for our Grandchildren”


“On the Value of Skepticism”

Popper’s “Toward a Rational Theory of Tradition” from Conjectures and Refutations

(And, since it pays to advertise, I can’t resist adding Kleiman and Teles on “Market and Non-Market Failures,” from the new Oxford Handbook of Public Policy. I’m told I shouldn’t post the essay, but send me an email if you’d like a copy.)

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

15 thoughts on “Readings for budding journalists”

  1. How budding is this budding journalist?
    For either the very young or the old enough not to worry about feeling immature, I recommend the Get Real series ( by Linda Ellerbee. Highly useful for recharging the ideals that got me into this biz.

  2. Did Brad DeLong post the syllabus for the seminar on reporting about economics he did jointly with Berkeley's J-school? That'd be full of good examples.

  3. How about some basic science and engineering, eh? Including something that explains that in the Newtonian world Output = (Input – Losses) for both matter and energy?

  4. The link that purports to be to Bertrand Russell is actually to a Supreme Court case — the first flag-salute case (later overturned), which upheld the government's right to force school children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance (this was before "under God" was added).

  5. A long, but very good read:
    The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens.
    I love this book. Lincoln Steffens was the prototype "muck-raker," so every event in the book is talked about in terms of what it was like to a news reporter, reporting on the event. He covers, in this book, the wildly corrupt pre-Roosevelt NY police, Roosevelt's election as Police Commissioner and the sky-rocketing crime his clean-up caused, up through the World War. His fondness for Communism ("I have seen the future, and it works!") makes him much less read than he should be.
    I'd add:
    something on basic economics (my choice would be a few chapters from Adam Smith, emphasizing that uncoerced exchanges always make both parties better off, and thus "it is not on the benevolence of the baker, but on his self-interest, that we depend for our bread"; also the ways business organizations benefit themselves at public expense.)
    something on large-organization economics (my choice would be J K Galbraith's "The New Industrial State", although it is somewhat outdated)
    something on basic community/family structures (Doug Muder's "Red Family, Blue Family" is short and available online free)
    something on religion and politics (my choice would be Stephen Carter's "The Culture of Disbelief", but his "Dissent of the Governed" would be almost as good.)

  6. Anything which forces the students to understand that the subjects of their stories didn't begin that news cycle. So much corruption and criminality flourishes because the media doesn't bother to read even what they themselves wrote a couple of years ago.

  7. I agree with Cranky about more material on science, and also generally with SamChevre on the need for a bit more on economics, as well as accounting and finance.
    I would also add "Introduction to Probability and Statistics" by any of the many authors who have produced a book with that or a similar title. There should be a two-semester requirement in this area.
    I'm revealing my prejudices to some degree here, but the understanding of these matters evidenced in the papers is woeful.
    I would recommend to Edsall my "sportswriter rule:" A journalist assigned to cover X should know as much about X as a sportswriter is expected to know about the games he is assigned to cover.

  8. a) On the probability and stats front, Gould's Full House is fantastic.
    b) Olivier's version may be truer to the book, but having seen each for the 2nd or 3rd time in the last year, Branagh's is a better movie.

  9. Journalists should be omnivores and read anything that comes to hand, so I'm not sure what the reading list is for. My predilection would be material that could develop imaginative insight into the political game.
    Try Phillip Knightley's history of war correspondents, "The First Casualty"; and Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop". From British politics, Alan Clark's "Diaries" for an unvarnished and compulsively readable inside account of the political life.
    And take some works that treat the same events from different perspectives. From literature, "Hamlet" with "Rosecrantz and Guildenstern are dead", or Alan Ayckbourn's bravura comic trilogy "The Norman Conquests". But you could use instead a set of memoirs of any major event, such as the Cuban missile crisis.
    Soms sound psychological text on memory and deception.

  10. Why Nations Go to War by John G. Stoessinger. A great read for background on what actually causes a war to start, particularly pertinent in today's world.

  11. I completely enjoyed reading your paper "The Prince as a Seduction into Virtue," as your central thesis seems much more likely then the conventional wisdom that Machiavelli was a self-confessed evil manipulative cynic.

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