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Should Reporters Save Scoops for Books?

Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns have stoked controversy with their revelation-packed book on Trump’s final days in office.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy
Win McNamee/Getty Images
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy

Last week’s revelation that Representative Kevin McCarthy was of the mind that President Donald Trump should have resigned in the immediate aftermath of the riot at the United States Capitol was big news, for several interrelated reasons. Much of it had to do with the fact that McCarthy was the House minority leader at the time and, by extension, one of the country’s most influential Republicans. It also matters in light of the probability that McCarthy will claim the speaker’s gavel in eight months’ time—unless of course, a feud with Trump convinces his fellow House Republicans to take him out.

Naturally, it was also news because McCarthy lied about it. He first publicly denied that he’d ever suggested Trump should resign; not long afterward, The New York Times reporters who broke the story, Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns, went on television and played a tape of him telling members of House Republican leadership that he planned to tell the president, “I think this will pass, and it would be my recommendation you should resign.” It was a news item that bolstered one existing narrative—that Republican leaders know how dangerous Trump is but choose to do nothing—while seeding another: McCarthy’s time in leadership might not last.

But Martin and Burns’s scoop opened up an entirely separate discourse in the media over its timing. Ordinarily, sussing out the who-knows-what-and-when of damaging revelations is a Beltway parlor game. Sometimes destructive news items emerge before elections or hearings; on other occasions—as happened after January 6, 2021—breaking news acquires its own momentum, with waves of scoops following each other in quick succession. But in this instance, it wasn’t a challenge to guess why the scoop had surfaced: Martin and Burns had a book coming out—This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America’s Future, whose on-sale date is May 3.

Having newsy tidbits trickle out in the days and weeks leading up to publication is an increasingly common move, especially given that books full of scoops are becoming increasingly common themselves. Authors and publishers plying this trade can time the release of information, parceling out the revelations in order to dominate the news cycle for a few days; this is how Macmillan pushed Michael Wolff’s early–Trump administration blockbuster, Fire and Fury. Done the right way, it allows authors to harness the news cycle’s momentum to propel their tome up the bestseller list. This is exactly what happened in the case of This Will Not Pass, which shot up Amazon’s bestsellers list, where it has remained ever since.

Should authors sit on news to sell books? It’s an age-old “ethics in journalism” question. Whether it’s excusable to hold back information that’s vital to the public interest has long been the type of concern debated in journalism schools and other forums: Most news items take some time to be released, and there’s an argument that holding them back (provided they’re not of existential importance) for more context or information is defensible. But it’s one more matter that’s become a larger public concern in the Trump era. When Bob Woodward published Rage, his account of Donald Trump’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many were furious that the veteran journalist had held onto information revealing that Trump knew that the virus was deadly but decided to minimize the risks in the hope of political gain. In the case of This Will Not Pass, we have a less urgent but still important issue: Kevin McCarthy was caught on tape saying he thought the president should resign. Shouldn’t that have been a matter of record sooner?

These questions are made thornier still by the current television news environment. Reporters, particularly scoop-driven ones, are given lucrative book deals essentially to write longer versions of what they already do: tie together a series of news stories, some big, most small, into a cohesive story that says something larger about the historical moment. Because these books are so heavily dependent on the news cycle—and because so few of them have much lasting power (when was the last time you thought of a bestseller from the Trump era like Fire and Fury, let alone saw anyone reading one?)—for these books to succeed, they almost always need to have some new, nontrivial, and exclusive information that can drive attention and sales. Publishers then dangle these baubles to get the books and their authors featured on cable news, which, reliably, drives book sales.

Few recent political bestsellers have attained their significance without a solid helping of scooplets, and publishers have in turn recruited dozens of reporters to write the same kind of books about the very recent present. This, in turn, incentivizes reporters to hold onto information that might otherwise have appeared in a newspaper or online sooner. At the same time, many of these same reporters are also paid by cable news networks as talking heads—meaning that they might be put in a position where they would be on our screens lying by omission, talking about a relevant political situation but holding back information that might be vital to it—information that they will then deploy at a later date, in order to drive book sales. When it was time for Martin and Burns to reveal they had audio of McCarthy, they went on Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC—where they teased that they had even more damaging information.

But while the controversy around this practice has reached a fever pitch in recent years, it’s not at all cut and dry to label these authors and their works a product of some ethical lapse. Much of the criticism of these arrangements relies on a series of assumptions about timing. For instance, we don’t know when Martin and Burns acquired audio of McCarthy saying Trump should resign. That is information that would have been highly relevant if they’d had it before the House voted to impeach Trump on January 13, 2021, for his actions leading up to the assault on the Capitol or perhaps even before the Senate voted to acquit him a month later. If they came by this knowledge after those dates, however, it’s not at all clear that publicly disseminating it would have made a substantial difference to anyone’s favored political outcome, in spite of the fact that it would have been newsworthy at any point.

Similarly, sometimes sources provide information that is contingent on it appearing in a book and not in the next day’s newspaper—these arrangements are not ironclad, but they do also mean that it’s not always safe to assume that information being published in a book automatically would have appeared in a newspaper or website had it not.

/  In honor of Earth Day, TNR’s climate coverage is free to registered users until April 29. Start reading now.

Finally, McCarthy’s comments, though newsworthy, are not exactly earth-shattering. For six years, we’ve known that many Republican leaders privately think that Trump is insane, unfit for office, and a danger to the country—and that publicly they kiss his ass at every opportunity. McCarthy getting caught saying one thing when he thought no one was listening and doing another in public is certainly hypocritical. But it’s also just the latest example of the dynamic that has dominated American politics since 2015.

It’s understandable why people have such unease with this practice. These books are packed with information that’s in the public interest, but the disclosure of that information is subservient to the profit motive. Publishers want their books to sell, and they encourage their writers to hang onto information so that new scoops might grease the wheels of commerce. Critics are probably overstating the impact of this information. But they may be right that it’s not necessarily the ideal environment for reporters—even if it’s rare that the information they held from public view would have been more consequential had it come to light sooner.