What is really going on here? For decades Renata Adler has been asking and answering this question with unmatched urgency. In her essays and long-form journalism, she has captured the cultural zeitgeist, distrusted the accepted wisdom, and written stories that would otherwise go untold. As a staff writer at The New Yorker from 1963 to 2001, Adler reported on civil rights from Selma, Alabama; on the war in Biafra, the Six-Day War, and the Vietnam War; on the Nixon impeachment inquiry and Congress; on cultural life in Cuba. She has also written about cultural matters in the United States, films (as chief film critic for The New York Times), books, politics, television, and pop music. Like many journalists, she has put herself in harm’s way in order to give us the news, not the “news” we have become accustomed to—celebrity journalism, conventional wisdom, received ideas—but the actual story, an account unfettered by ideology or consensus. She has been unafraid to speak up when too many other writers have joined the pack. In this sense, Adler is one of the few independent journalists writing in America today.
This collection of Adler’s nonfiction draws on Toward a Radical Middle (a selection of her earliest New Yorker pieces), A Year in the Dark (her film reviews), and Canaries in the Mineshaft (a selection of essays on politics and media), and also includes uncollected work from the past two decades. The more recent pieces are concerned with, in her words, “misrepresentation, coercion, and abuse of public process, and, to a degree, the journalist’s role in it.” With a brilliant literary and legal mind, Adler parses power by analyzing language: the language of courts, of journalists, of political figures, of the man on the street. In doing so, she unravels the tangled narratives that pass for the resolution of scandal and finds the threads that others miss, the ones that explain what really is going on here—from the Watergate scandal, to the “preposterous” Kenneth Starr report submitted to the House during the Clinton impeachment inquiry, to the plagiarism and fabrication scandal of the former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair. And she writes extensively about the Supreme Court and the power of its rulings, including its fateful decision in Bush v. Gore.
Journalist and novelist Adler (Speedboat) offers what she considers the best of her essays in this large, bracing volume. She doesn't shy away from colorful details, such as "Dickensian characters" on the Sunset Strip or "picnics at the front" on the Gaza Strip during the Six-Day War, but she is at her best covering "turning points," from a Black Power march in Mississippi in 1966 to the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore. One of her favored methods of criticizing powerful, influential figures is making lists, such as film critic Pauline Kael's "favorite" (and overused) words, or Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong's references, throughout their book The Brethren, to the Supreme Court Justices' "moods and feelings." Adler's opinions are as reasoned as they are relentless. She assails with absolute conviction, as she proves in her rebukes of Kael and Robert Bork, among others. Perhaps the most fascinating piece is a lengthy, sympathetic profile of G. Gordon Liddy during a 1980 book tour. Elsewhere, she produces interesting juxtapositions with essays about the abuse of presidential power in the Watergate and Monica Lewinsky scandals. These selections, united by a persistent theme of the "misrepresentation, coercion, and abuse of public process, and... the journalist's role in it," demonstrate that Adler's uncompromising insistence on accuracy and accountability is what ultimately makes her writing so incisive.