When A Book Tour is Selling More Than Books

Posted by Madhulika Sikka on

There is a genre in the publishing world, political books by politicians. 

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There is the book that outlines a set of beliefs or a view of the world of a politician that doubles as a stand-in for “I’m thinking about running and need to test the waters” (usually for a presidential campaign). In the last year we’ve seen The Vanishing American Adult from Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse,  The Conscience of a Conservative from now retiring Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and This Fight is Our Fight by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, that I would describe as contenders in that category.

There’s the book that comes out sometime during the campaign that is a not too veiled version of a campaign manifesto. 

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And, of course, there is the big memoir. That’s the one that purports to be the real inside story of a politician’s time in office, or the grand sweep of their humble beginnings to the corridors of power. These are the ones that purport to be tell-all, revelatory tomes that usually end up being a little bit of that but often is mostly an expanded diary without too much reflection or analysis. President Bill Clinton’s My Life fits under that category.

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s recent book, Promise Me Dad, might fit in a new category.  It is, by all accounts, a heart wrenching story of the illness and death of his son, Beau, who died of cancer two years ago. It also deals with the question of “would he or wouldn’t he” run for president in 2016.  Eventually he decided his grief was so great that it was not the right time for him to run.

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With every single one of these books comes the book tour, an opportunity for the politician to get airtime and ink (or pixels) across a variety of media, from regular news outlets to daytime TV and some things in between.

Joe Biden is currently on just such a tour and in addition to selling books (as of this writing it is No. 7 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list), Joe Biden gets to stay in the political spotlight, especially since the book rollout is something akin to a political campaign, complete with prominent moderators he converses with at each ticketed public event in addition to the free media. 

He speaks with genuine love and pride about his late son of course, but he’s also talking about other things interviewers choose to raise. And who wouldn’t ask him his opinion of the current state of politics, to opine on the current president and to speculate about another run for him in 2020?

I raise this because many of you have written to complain about Judy Woodruff’s recent interview with Biden on the PBS Newshour tied to the publication of his new book.

“Just watched News Hour Judy promote Joe Biden for over 20 minutes. Your show has digressed into a pep rally for the old Democrat power base in Washington,” writes Glenn from Cape Haze, Fla.

Jim Shelton from Edmonds, Wash., adds: “I can’t understand why a “news” program would give nearly 30 minutes to this…this was a political ad.”  (For the record it was 23 minutes and 15 seconds.)

And Rhonda Phillips has had enough: “I try to give you another chance, I am so sickened by your Biden interview, I listen to see what the working public is up against. Perhaps you could have asked when he feined  (sic) understanding the average citizen, what did you do for these citizens during the past thirty years…At least I can vote with my dollars, I will never contribute another cent to your programming.”

It is not quite clear whether these viewers object to the length of the piece alone or the content or both.

Do viewers want Judy Woodruff to be more combative?  It’s a sense I get whenever we hear from the audience who are critical of Judy Woodruff.  We live in a vibrantly aggressive media environment right now and cable television has conditioned many viewers for conflict and combat.

This is never how Judy Woodruff has conducted herself in any situation and I think this is why she has the respect of so many people.  Vice President Pence gave his first television interview as vice president to Ms. Woodruff a year ago. 

Most politicians on a book tour know that they run the risk of being asked to comment on current issues as news warrants, even though they are booked to talk about their book.  So it makes sense to me that Ms. Woodruff would use the opportunity to discuss a wide range of issues with Mr. Biden.  I am quite sure that if former Vice President Dick Cheney were on for an interview about a book he would be asked about current political issues.

As I’ve suggested, none of the critics who have written in have pointed to a list of specific things that they found fault with (apart from the length). 

As an editor I think her questions about what Democrats had to do in the next cycle were not as honed as I thought they could be. Joe Biden is a bit of a one trick pony on the question of white working class voters, I would have liked to have seen him pushed on the issues of race and gender that were key factors in the 2016 election, and his talking points suggest that the only working class voters are white ones.

When Biden talks about the illness and death of his son he does so with such feeling, I would have liked to hear him talk more about what he learned and what he would tell other families going through something similar that may be of use or help to them. After all, his book is ostensibly about that tragic experience.

Was the interview too long? That’s a subjective call. Clearly, for some of the audience the answer is yes. I think that an unhurried interview is one of the key reasons that viewers tune into the Newshour so I’m not opposed to one of this length per se.  I would have pushed a little more on some of Mr. Biden’s political talking points, something that I know Ms. Woodruff is very well equipped to do.

As long as this genre of political book is out there, every news organization including the Newshour can use it as an entry point for getting politicians to sit down and talk about a wide range of issues and if it has to include their book, so be it. 

A Follow-Up.

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Just before the holidays I wrote about the decision by PBS to suspend distribution of The Tavis Smiley Show pending an investigation being conducted by lawyers about inappropriate conduct on the part of Mr. Smiley.  I asked PBS for an update and am told that the investigation is ongoing with no other updates.  I will try and keep you informed on its progress as I find out more.

ABOUT THE PUBLIC EDITOR
As public editor, Ricardo Sandoval-Palos serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
 
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