Why Revelations in Political Books Don’t Become Public Sooner

  • Bombshell books — or their accompanying recordings — often get public backlash over their timing.
  • There are a few reasons why major revelations appear in books and not the daily news.
  • For books to sell, “if they’re good, they have new information,” a top publishing agent told Insider.

At a time when public confidence in the news media lurks near record lows, the cozy realm of political book publishing remains opaque.

There’s been an accompanying online backlash to almost every bombshell book about the Trump administration, with the criticism usually centering around why the reporters or former public officials waited until their book tours to share information of substantial public interest. The latest example: whether a former defense secretary withheld his allegation that then-President Donald Trump had asked him to shoot Americans protesting the killing of George Floyd in the legs. 

“This is a complaint that a major fraction of our authors have had to deal with in various forms — both if they’re government officials or journalists — who are putting out books, that, if they’re good, they have new information,” Keith Urbahn, the founder and president of Javelin, a literary and PR firm, told Insider.

Urbahn has recently represented the likes of former FBI Director James Comey, former National Security Advisor John Bolton and former Department of Homeland Security Chief of Staff Miles Taylor (the author of “Anonymous”), as well as star New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman for her forthcoming Trump book.

“That’s what makes a good book, and the carping you see on Twitter over revelations and why did they wait, it’s inevitable,” Urbahn continued. “And at the end of the day, it has no impact on sales.”

‘You immediately waited’

New York Times political reporters Jonathan Martin (left) and Alex Burns (right) on ABC's "The View."

New York Times political reporters Jonathan Martin (left) and Alex Burns (right) ABC’s “The View.”

ABC


Another recent example of this type of backlash is the book “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for America’s Future” by New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns, both of whom are also represented by Urbahn.

The duo generated headlines and copious cable news coverage over audio recordings they obtained showing Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California privately lambasting former President Donald Trump following the January 6 insurrection, even sharing plans to demand his resignation.

McCarthy denied his quotes in the book before Burns and Martin called his bluff and released the tapes.

At Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ dinner, “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah summarized the bulk of criticism coming from the left following the McCarthy revelations, which came well over a year after someone in the closed door meeting recorded the minority leader’s remarks.

“By the way, give it up to those New York Times reporters who managed to get those Kevin McCarthy tapes,” Noah said in his headline set. “That was amazing. Yeah. Give it up for them. Incredible. You knew how crucial those tapes were, which is why you immediately waited until your book was for sale to tell the people about them. Bravo. Bravo.”

Star power and the ‘second draft of history’

White House reporters ask questions at a press conference by US President Donald Trump and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the East Room of the White House on February 13, 2017

The White House press corps.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images


While each publication has different protocols, Urbahn explained that a project like “This Will Not Pass” generally involves the reporters going on book leave and agreeing to terms with sources that the information they provide will not become public until the publishing date arrives. This is known in the industry as an embargo agreement.

Judith Miller, an author, former New York Times reporter and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed to the tensions emerging in the 21st Century media landscape between star reporters selling books and the institutions they work for.

“I think it’s tough, when you’re writing a book and you’re not giving it to your newspaper,” Miller told Insider. “I don’t see how that’s fair to the newspaper, but that’s up to the newspaper to decide. Would I do it? No. I didn’t do it at The Times. We didn’t do it for our books. And I don’t think it’s fair to The Times, but I think that’s an individual and an institutional decision.”

In the case of Burns and Martin — who were not made available by their publisher for an interview with Insider — the McCarthy recordings and other scenes from the book appeared in The Times as standalone articles.

Miller cited the evolution in book leave policy at The Times as an example of how the industry dynamics have shifted. She left the paper in 2005 after spending 85 days in jail for refusing to divulge a source in the Valerie Plame Affair, which preceded another high-profile period in her career around the Iraq War, when several of her articles on weapons of mass destruction proved to be based on false intelligence from US officials.

“I think definitely star power matters,” she said. “An institution like my former institution thinks that it’s still greater than the sum of its parts, but I think the fact of the matter is people are allowed to do things — take long leaves to write books — that we were not permitted to do … Before, it was the institution that mattered. Today, it’s kind of star-celebrity reporter, and that’s changed things.”

Miller emphasized she wants journalists to get paid for their work and for newspapers both local and national to survive, but also that whatever gains outlets may get in publicity from the books may come at a greater cost with a skeptical American public.

“Every survey we have shows us there is a huge decline in the public’s credibility and the media’s reputation, and I think that, to a certain extent, the loosening of these rules has got to affect how people perceive newspapers,” Miller said.

“It was never true that reporters were in this exclusively for the public good,” she later added.

Aside from the embargo agreements offering sources the ability to avoid a short-term PR crisis, Urbahn also pointed to the function of books compared to newspapers in the historical record as an explanation for why some information doesn’t come out right after reporters hear about it.

“Books are the second draft of history, and it’s important that people go back re-report bad context and get new reporting to fill out what we know about our history,” Urbahn said.

“Good reporters take time to report things out,” he later went on. “Maggie Haberman, the same stuff was said with her when she announced her book and had their revelation about Trump flushing documents down the toilet — by the way, she did that months and months before her book was out, and she still got criticized for it. So you can’t win with these people.”