News that Matters
Family of Secrets author, award-winning investigative journalist Russ Baker, founded and runs The Real News Project ("News That Matters"), a non-partisan, non-profit news organization that can be found online at WhoWhatWhy.com. A number of investigative articles have already been published on the site, and Baker plans many more, including one digging into the truth behind the complex domestic and global financial crisis. Visit WhoWhatWhy com.
Russ Baker's Journey Publishing and Promoting the Controversial FAMILY OF SECRETSSo, you think it’s hard to find an agent and a publisher, and then to get press coverage for your published book?
Try all that when you’re an award-winning investigative reporter and your book is about the Bush family and focuses on a decades-long, and generations-long, web of intrigue with oil and intelligence operations at the core of everything from domestic and foreign policy to party politics, assassinations, Watergate, banking, and the ever-popular military-industrial complex.
Russ Baker, who has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Village Voice, and Esquire, and who has been a contributing editor to Columbia Journalism Review, faced just that challenge.
The result is his book, Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, The Powerful Forces That Put it in the White House, and What Their Influence Means for America, which was published in January by Bloomsbury Press, an imprint of Bloomsbury USA, part of the London-based independent publishing house.
Baker, who received a 2005 Deadline Club award for his exclusive reporting on George W. Bush’s military record, now runs the Real News Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization that can be found online at WhoWhatWhy.com.
We spoke on the phone just as his book was hitting the bookstores, and we focused on the difficulties inherent in getting such a controversial book published and promoted in an era when publishers and the mainstream press are skittish about delving too deeply into the powers-that-be.
When did you start working on the book and why?
I was living abroad training journalists in the former Yugoslavia to do investigative reporting on abuses of power in their own countries. The Iraq War started, then the evidence emerged of the deception involved in selling the war, and of all the abuses by the Bush administration, and I became determined to figure out what was going on with my own government and how all of this could happen in a country that supposedly had checks and balances. And a country in which an independent media was supposedly on the job. I hadn’t seen a plausible explanation.
I came back to the U.S. in early 2004 and started traveling around the country, asking knowledgeable people what they felt was behind Bush’s rise to power—what was the deeper meaning and what were the lessons. In 2004, I wrote some magazine articles about George W. Bush. I became particularly intrigued by the notion that this warrior-president himself had a dubious military record, and that perhaps there was a connection between that and his apparent need to think of himself as a tough military leader.
This led to further mysteries and further questions. And after the election, I decided that there was a book to be done. My reporting led me in directions I could never have imagined, down the rabbit’s hole to a kind of whole new understanding of recent American history and linkages between events and power structures I had never seen. The Bush family and their allies turned out to be far more central to the events of the postwar decades than I had thought, and in many more deeply troubling ways. That led me to the book’s revelations on everything from Watergate to the Kennedy assassination.
Was it difficult to find an agent?
I found one early on, someone I knew and liked. But we were trying to sell a book on Bush and the reaction we were getting was that everyone was sick of Bush. The sentiment was, ‘Let’s move on.’ That’s not a useful sentiment. People don’t want to look at the mess because if you look at it then you have to do something about it. We live in extremely apathetic times. We’ve all been looking for ways to cocoon.
People look at other countries and see the domination of the political process by oligarchies and elites, the coups and the manipulation of the public through propaganda and deception, but think those kinds of things could never happen here. That’s the prevailing view, but it is a form of self-deception.
What did you do after all those rejections?
When despite his valiant efforts, my original agent hit a wall, I took some time to regroup, started fresh, and wrote a new proposal. My current agent, Andrew Stuart, was recommended to me by a friend who was a client of his. He believed in the project right away. He got it.
Did you think it would be hard to get an American publisher?
I had that notion from the first round. Quite a few editors expressed interest but they weren’t sure about the topic being commercially viable at that time.
Did the proposal have bombshells?
It did. I did them as bullet points. I’ve read so many horror stories about the publishing industry that I wasn’t naïve about the process. At some houses, someone wanted to do the book, but then they went into a meeting with people from different departments who run all these imaginary numbers and based on that decide whether they can make money from a book or not.
And they turned it down.
Yes, but Bloomsbury was quite enthusiastic and we liked them, and they made an offer in late 2007. They’re a mid-sized independent that, as best as I can tell, gets a lot of leeway from their parent company in London to do their own thing. The editor who bought the book, Peter Ginna, liked it. He was at Oxford University Press before Bloomsbury. It reflects well on Peter and his colleagues, and George Gibson, who runs Bloomsbury USA, that they were willing to take a risk with material sure to be seen as controversial. After the sale, I continued doing research and reporting, and many of my more arresting discoveries came in the final year or two.
I rewrote and rewrote as I arrived at new levels of understanding from uncovering new facts, documents, and doing interviews. I did the vast majority of the writing in the last year, the last six months especially. I got this clarity and realized the enormity of what I was tackling. The book was a voyage of discovery for me, and, I hope, will be for readers.
What are your challenges in promoting this besides the obvious?
The more a book confronts views cherished within the media and publishing industry itself, the higher the hurdle.
What has been the reaction from the corporate media?
On an individual basis, quite positive. On another level, many people indicated that they were a bit concerned about whether they could afford, practically, to be seen even engaging the sorts of questions and evidence addressed in Family of Secrets. Also, when you dig up a lot of new information, you’re asking other people who perhaps covered the same territory, but didn’t find that information, to acknowledge it now. And in certain chapters, I’m tackling subjects that others have spent their entire careers researching. The typical thing in the media is to ignore your competitors and only embrace their insights when they become a cultural phenomenon.
What kind of press have you gotten so far?
The Vanity Fair website ran an interesting graphic related to the book, the Washington Post is doing a review, Time magazine reviewed it, Huffingtonpost.com covered it, and a lot of other online publications. I’ve gone on the radio. Also TV, here and there. Interest seems to be growing pretty quickly right now.
Time is mentioned as being involved among the book’s controversial events. How did they handle the review?
They were in a difficult position, and did not offer the book major scrutiny, but I thought it significant that they treated it seriously enough to include it in their Man of the Year issue.
How do you think the press will react?
I do think the timing is so right for this that it’s possible that many of the mainstream organizations will feel compelled to acknowledge — or in some cases attack —
what’s in this book. But you never know.
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Nina L. Diamond is a journalist, essayist, and the author of Voices of Truth: Conversations with Scientists, Thinkers & Healers. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Omni, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and The Miami Herald.
Ms. Diamond was a writer and performer on Pandemonium, the National Public Radio (NPR) satirical humor program, for its entire run in Miami and select markets nationwide from 1984-1998. As an editor, she works frequently with other authors and journalists on both fiction and non-fiction