This note is to recommend books by Carl Hiaasen, with a brief reflection on the future of journalism provoked by his latest, Basket Case.
Hiaasen first came to my attention a year or so ago when, bookless in an airport, I hastily grabbed his Sick Puppy, which is really seriously hilarious, I mean at the level of horse-laughing out loud and strangers staring at me. The two Hiaasen books I've read are set in Florida, against a backdrop of corrupt, venial politicos and and unprincipled corporate moguls. But the cast of characters is broad and gives him a chance to take amusing whacks at, among others, reporters, environmentalists, and rock musicians. Oh yes, I guess if you had to pigeonhole these you'd end up in crime fiction, with leanings toward romance and comedy.
One of the nicer things about these books is that the villains are really seriously villainous, and Hiaasen arranges that most of them come to dramatic, messy, brutal, and very satisfying ends. Of course if you're offended by graphic depictions of humans being chewed up by large machines or trampled by pachyderms, you might want to stay away, particularly if you find yourself snickering at these depictions and wondering What Kind Of A Person Am I?
What got me thinking was Hiaasen's passionate rhetoric in Basket Case on the continuing value and importance of journalism; in particular investigative journalism. The novel's protagonist is a journalist (as is Hiaasen himself, although judging by the mass-market shelf space he gets, I expect he can retire from that soon).
His arguments are good and convincing and I'm not going to reproduce them, but maybe they provide the answer to the a question that's been troubling a few people recently: “why do we need newspapers and magazines any more?” For raw information, newspapers are pretty hopelessly outclassed by the Web, particularly in these days of RSS feeds for everything.
But maybe we need them for the investigative work; the New Yorker's recent taking-down of Richard Perle is an example: that story is simply too long and too strewn with subtleties to be comfortable to read on the Web, and is entirely beyond summarization in an RSS blurb.
Investigative reporting is like that; since you don't very often actually catch the mayor and the property developer in the act of swapping cash for permits, you have to line up a lot of indirect evidence and present it in a compelling way. This, as of 2003, is still a job for words on paper.
But for real-time news, as in war-watching, the battle's over, the bloggers won.