Print newspapers, once controlled by the newspaper barons of yesteryear, are heading for extinction with the rise of a new strain of informational power spearheaded by the digital revolution. Facebook and other digital behemoths are getting into the news game with a staggering reach of over a billion current users; far beyond what the print barons influenced.
Whenever I read about the demise of the print newspaper, I am reminded of the curious circumstances surrounding my third novel, The Henderson Equation. It was inspired by the Washington Post's relentless pursuit of President Richard Nixon, which became the political scandal of the century known today as Watergate. It made the careers of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and brought lifetime laurels to the publisher of the Washington Post, Katherine Graham, then editor, Ben Bradlee, and a host of writers, who have since analyzed, parsed, recounted and fictionalized the episode ad infinitum in hundreds of books and media, including the Academy Award-winning film, All the President's Men.
The Henderson Equation had all the trappings of a roman à clef. It told the story of a female news baroness in Washington, her brilliant and resourceful editor, and two eager and cunning young reporters who made their journalistic chops by bringing down a sitting president. But its premise was different: If a newspaper had the power to bring down a president, then could it not just as well instate one?
In those days, I was running an advertising and PR agency in Washington, D.C., which specialized in real estate and politics. We were hired to create a branded community for real estate developers in the area, and one of my clients happened to be the developers of the Watergate complex.
At the time of our assignment the property was a kind of wasteland on the shores of the Potomac owned by the Washington Gas Company. It was my job to name the property, which was to be developed into a number of apartment buildings, a hotel, shopping areas and various amenities. I suggested it be named "Watergate," which was immediately adopted by the developers and so the name would be forever and anon, Watergate. Who knew?
Another aspect of my agency was involved in running political campaigns. I was a consultant for the Nixon campaign of 1968, and through the early years of his first administration. Aside from eagerly following the Watergate scandal in the press, I also had a passing acquaintance with many of the people who had been implicated in the scandal, including Judge Sirica whose decision played an important role in the affair, and Attorney General John Mitchell who served in the Nixon administration.
The idea of a novel became a compelling force in my imagination. The incident had, after all, a very personal pedigree. Having been a journalist I understood the awesome power of newspapers to profoundly affect the zeitgeist, and to move events in the direction of a commercial and ideological agenda.
A novelist's imagination is like a trick mirror that distorts reality and rearranges it into different configurations as in a dream. In a furious burst of energy I buckled down to write. One might argue it was a natural progression of bearing witness. I pitched my idea to my then publisher, Putnam, and the editor-in-chief Clyde Taylor gave it his blessing offering me a modest advance. My original title was to be Ink.
In those halcyon days when print was king, the Washington Post was the most powerful political voice in the country. Because it succeeded in forcing the resignation of a sitting president, the Post had illustrated how a newspaper could use its considerable influence to batter down the doors of the most powerful establishment in the world.
And so my book was published. Perceived as an attack on a beloved publisher, her heroic editor and brave young reporters, the book encountered a wall of silence. Almost from the date of publication, The Henderson Equation was declared stone dead. Nevertheless, the death of my novel had a curious afterlife.
Shortly after its publication, my wife and I spent a week at Rancho La Puerta, a spa in Mexico that was one of our favorite getaway destinations at the time. Among the guests was Katherine Graham, the powerful publisher of the Washington Post whom I had never met.
We were both avid tennis players and found ourselves bonded as doubles mates on a number of occasions which led, in that atmosphere of conviviality and relaxation, to the kind of friendship that blossoms at such places. She was not without an aura of international celebrity, and at that moment in our national history, was universally perceived as the most powerful woman in the world.
Graham had not heard of my book, and for obvious reasons I did not offer its identity as part of my oral resume. She was, however, in touch with her office on a daily basis and somehow discovered that this novel had been published. Someone at the paper who had heard about it had filled her mind with distortions and exaggerations that seemed to have triggered within her some kind of contempt, and she sought me out for what I thought was going to be a casual poolside chat.
Enraged, she did not hold back her very vocal antagonism. She berated me for things I had allegedly implied about her husband's suicide. She objected to the idea central to my plot that the Post had brought down the president. "He brought himself down," she insisted, pointing out that the paper merely reported the facts. I did not challenge her assertion. She had the power of "ink."
Oddly, it was not the Watergate comparison that stirred her anger. In order to give my fictional publisher heft and emotional clarity, I touched on matters in the plot with some vague similarity to Graham's life. The fictional character in The Henderson Equation had a mentally challenged husband who committed suicide. Graham too had had a similar experience, and she truly believed that I had researched her life story, and deliberately misinterpreted the events. For two poolside hours she laid before me her inner struggle to come to terms with her personal tragedy and insecurities. There is always a human behind the celebrity of power.
In later years, I read Graham's extraordinary autobiography, Personal History, which confirmed to me the true depth of this wonderful lady. I was privileged to have had a brief glimpse into her very private, emotional life.
The Henderson Equation is one of my 38 published novels. Its fate has always haunted me. Did it pass muster as a so-called roman à clef? Or did it reveal the truth of what was merely a uniquely bizarre episode in the political life of the United States?
The irony of the Watergate episode and, for that matter, my novel's premise, is that the power of the print press is today a severely diminished artifact, a victim of the technological revolution. Facebook will have the ability to influence billions of people around the globe. They may sincerely intend on ideological neutrality, absolute fairness and what they perceive to be a high moral purpose, but will they govern in the direction of their biases? Will they control what they believe we need to know?
Think of the power they will have to set agendas, to seed ideas that they believe are righteous and correct. They who control information, control our minds.
Despite the slow and torturous decline of the print media, the future will belong to the digital information barons like the Post's new owner Jeff Bezos who will become ascendant and assume power beyond our wildest imagination. Indeed, the premise of The Henderson Equation had it eerily correct.
Warren Adler has recently released Cult, a psychological thriller about the global phenomena of sects built up on tactics of manipulation, brainwashing, and violence. Best known for The War of the Roses, his masterpiece fictionalization of a macabre divorce turned into the Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated dark comedy starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito, Adler has optioned and sold film rights to more than a dozen of his novels and short stories to Hollywood and major television networks. Random Hearts (starring Harrison Ford and Kristen Scott Thomas), The Sunset Gang (starring Jerry Stiller, Uta Hagen, Harold Gould and Doris Roberts), Private Lies, Funny Boys, Madeline's Miracles, Trans-Siberian Express and his Fiona Fitzgerald mystery series are only a few titles that have forever left Adler's mark on contemporary American authorship from page to stage and screen. The Sunset Gang also premiered Off-Broadway as a musical with music composed by the noted composer L. Russell Brown and lyrics by Adler himself. The New York Times called it, "A bittersweet musical about aging and desire... a deeper examination of love and loyalty among people over 60."
For more information on Warren Adler visit www.warrenadler.com