Scott McLemee
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Newsday, 17 October 2004

Almost exactly 200 years ago, the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (a solemn man, not known for his jokes) made a wry comment about the mass media of his day. For a modern person, Hegel said, reading the newspaper was the equivalent of prayer. It was not, in other words, just a way to get information, Human reason was spreading throughout the world; the journalists reported its steady progress. Reading the paper provided "the same security" as prayer, Hegel wrote, "in that one knows where one stands."

I've been thinking about that comment since Wednesday, when the list of nominees for the National Book Awards was announced. One of the five finalists in nonfiction is The 9/11 Commission Report.

A feeling of cosmic security is just about the last thing most of us experience, now, upon reading the morning headlines. And yet we still crave that basic feeling that events do make sense. That we can understand them, as well as endure them.

Such an assurance is one thing that many readers have wanted -- and, it seems, taken -- from the 9/11 report, with its swift but heavily documented narrative of the events leading up to the attacks.

Now, the very idea that prose written by a government committee might win an award is a bit troubling. At his often bitterly funny literary blog, Edward Champion wrote: "What can one say about a document with a structure clearly pilfered from U.S. Department of Justice Interdepartment Memo 2004-85721-97 (an undisputed classic also referred to as 'Potential Applications of Telemetric Devices in Post-Operative Middle American Scenarios')?"

But to be fair to the commission, they did make every effort to write a book, not a briefing. Readers inside the Beltway are inured to writing that leaves the mind numb. By contrast, the 9/11 report combines the tones of urgency and of authority in a way that more than makes up for the fact that it contains no sex -- unlike a certain trashy paperback from the 1990s called The Starr Report: The Official Report of the Independent Counsel's Investigation of the President.

People are constantly bombarded with messages addressed to some particular aspect of their identity. We are "hailed," so to speak, as members of a particular gender, race, income group, political affiliation or whatever. The 9/11 report treats the reader as something else -- a citizen of what, to use a rather old-fashioned word, must be called a commonwealth.

In this month's Harper's, the essayist Benjamin DeMott raises serious objections to the 9/11 report. He finds evidence that members of the Bush administration, including the president, knowingly lied to the commission -- which then, he says, pulled its punches in writing the report. The result is a "whitewash" failing "to educate the audience about the habits of mind and temperament essential in those chosen to discharge command responsibility during crises."

DeMott makes numerous telling criticisms. But the force of his complaint is undercut by the fact that he reached these conclusions from reading between the lines of the report itself. Whatever the commission's failings (and we may be discussing that for another generation, at least), it did try to appeal to whatever may be left of a sense of civic spirit. The nomination of the report is perhaps the National Book Foundation's way of acknowledging that effort.

That is not to say that the nomination raises no grounds for concern.

People have turned to The 9/11 Commission Report for a sense "that one knows where one stands," as Hegel put it. They don't rely on journalism for that now. And that's not just because the news is so frightening. (Actually, things were pretty worrisome in 1804, too, what with Napoleon marching through Europe.)

Three decades ago, in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, investigative reporters became heroic figures in the culture. He or she would revitalize public life by exposing the secrets and the failures of those in authority. Today, journalists take pride in being "embedded," or otherwise cultivate their "access" to those in power.

It is unfortunate that Seymour Hersh's Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib was not nominated for the National Book Award. But it is much more troubling, over the long run, to realize that no other book of investigative journalism comes to mind as a candidate.

And so, by default, we honor an expose of government failure -- prepared by a government commission.

If journalists are happy to serve as stenographers to power, then the only people seriously questioning authority will be folks who already have it.