Editor's Note: This article contains themes that may not be suitable for all readers.
Book Review: False Light, by Eric Dezenhall
As a journalist, I approached Eric Dezenhall’s new book, False Light, with a reporter’s healthy dose of skepticism. “A thrilling tale of revenge set against the vibrant backdrop of sensationalist modern media,” the book jacket blares. Yeah, right, I thought as I began to read.
While I might not have been “thrilled,” exactly, I was quickly intrigued and soon after, hooked, as protagonist Sanford “Fuse” Petty, a crusty old newsie not unlike some I’ve worked with in my time, systematically pulls out every journalistic trick in the book to turn a sleazy New Age reporter’s unethical tactics back around to bite him, in a deft bit of revenge after the jerk sexually assaulted a good friend’s daughter. It’s a sting operation worthy of Newman and Redford in the classic movie of the same name, and I found it completely engrossing, and, ultimately, entirely satisfying.
Dezenhall hits the nail on the head in his descriptions of how far journalism has fallen in recent years. Dezenhall accurately explores the way the practice of reporting the news has morphed into something we old-school journalists don’t recognize, with its focus on opinion over fact, sensationalism over substance, and reporters in the limelight instead of in the background, fly-on-the-wall style, which is where they rightly belong. Anyone who remembers, as I do, how journalism used to be practiced, and who bemoans the way it was in the news business not so very many years ago, will find themselves swiftly turning pages, rooting for Petty and his cadre of “Callous Sophisticates” (Petty’s inelegant name for his partners in crime) to succeed in giving Pacho Craig, this story’s villain, his comeuppance.
But what makes this book so compelling is Dezenhall’s attention to subplot and character. While we’re following the main thread about the intricate plan to bring Pacho down, there’s the side story about Petty’s own struggle at his newspaper, The Capitol Incursion, as he defends himself against an unwarranted disciplinary action – not something Petty can take lying down, of course. And then there’s the wonderfully unlovable character of Petty’s elderly father, Nat, a man so narcissistic and borderline crazy that Petty, in complete frustration, once threw him off a second-story landing, which sounds horrific just reading it here, but when you read it in the book, you can totally see yourself there on the landing with Petty, helping him to push the exasperating Nat over the railing. The scenes between Nat and Petty, on his obligatory visits to his foul-mouthed, control-freak father, are some of the best in the book.
I was surprised by how much I liked this book, after my lackluster first impression (the opening line is entirely forgettable, compared to the much better kickoff I found 28 sentences in – at least it was on the second page). I recommend False Light for anyone who leans toward thrillers, who yearns for better journalism, and who appreciates social commentary. You’ll enjoy this lively romp through the newsroom, the ringside seat at interviews with confidential sources, and the snarky editorial critiques about what masquerades as journalism in 2021. A fun, easy read. 4 out of 5.
My thanks to Dezenhall Resources LTD for a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. Dezenhall also was gracious in providing an interview with author Eric Dezenhall:
You’ve written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post, so clearly you know journalism – and it shows in False Light; the depiction of journalism is very true to real life. Tell us a little about your work in journalism.
I’ve been on both sides, fighting journalists and being one. My last book (with Gus Russo) was a nonfiction effort called Best of Enemies where we wrote about a CIA officer and KGB agent who were assigned with “turning” each other at the height of the Cold War. While they didn’t succeed on that front, their efforts and accidents led to the takedown of the worst spy in American history, Robert Hanssen. This journalistic effort took a good few years and lots of research and cajoling. A few years before that, an historical novel I did about the Mafia’s secret partnership with the U.S. Navy during World War II (The Devil Himself) also required a lot of reporting, including obtaining the private records of mob kingpin Meyer Lansky, which I did.
As noted, your depiction of journalism is very true to life. This is especially true of your depictions of journalism’s recent emphasis on sensationalism, celebrity reporters, one-sided reporting, lack of vetting, ambush interviewing, and the like. Tell us more about what you think about the state of journalism today.
The protagonist in False Light, Fuse, is a reporter from a certain generation whose skills are no longer being rewarded in the marketplace. There is still great reporting being done, but it’s no longer being funded as much by self-sustaining media companies. I’m also not sure it really matters because good journalism is not what moves public opinion as much as Twitter and Kim Kardashian do. You’ve got a whole new generation that believes reporting means destroying somebody by dinner time, going on TV to talk about it on prime time, getting a book deal before bed and having Bradley Cooper cast to play you in the movie by the end of the week. In my story, Fuse uses this assassination ethic against a “new generation” reporter who likes destroying people but fails to understand how the winds of venom can blow back on you.
What do you think might be required for journalism to return to its roots – that is, more old-school reporting focused on facts, unbiased reporting, and balanced coverage? Is that even possible in a digital age where clickbait is king, and if yes, what needs to happen, in your opinion?
Going forward, everything will be balkanized according to audience. Abraham Lincoln was once told about a rumor that was being spread about him and he said, “For people who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like.” People who like serious reporting should be able to find it, but it will be done on a segmented basis and funded by people who have an interest in the outcome, which is fine. There just won’t be the striving for balance anymore, which had been a tenet – the striving, not the balance – of journalism for much of the 20th century. In False Light, Fuse knows his days are numbered. For people who like their information in the form of online tantrums, they will surely be able to find it.
Your company, Dezenhall Resources Ltd., specializes in public affairs and crisis communications. What are some of the kinds of crises you’re seeing now in our age of sensational media, biased reporting, and online everything? How can people and companies protect themselves?
Most of our work is corporate and institutional. What we’re seeing is a shift away from the “command and control” days of crisis communications (they do this so you do that) and toward an environment where the sheer physics of cultural emotions and multiple media generate runaway crises that are hard to stop. I’ve been telling clients to forget everything they were taught about managing crises prior to the new millennium because none of it matters, and to dare to entertain more subversive options ranging from doing very little to launching unconventional counterattacks. Both individuals and organizations have to understand that social media, for crisis management purposes, is almost always the problem, not the solution. That may change in the future.
Your turn: What haven’t we asked that you’d like to talk about?
I was very concerned about being a straight, white man who owns a business writing about a subject that grazes the #MeToo movement. I had no illusions about audiences wanting to hear what I had to say about this even though it’s not the essence of False Light. I sought advice from a friend who is a rape survivor and documentarian, and told her that the action of the book takes place in the aftermath of a sexual assault that goes unpunished. She gave me a few pillars of advice that drove much of what I did: One, if the crime is avenged, don’t make it seem as if it erased the tragedy. Two, don’t even try to be “the cool guy who gets it.” Admit that you couldn’t possibly “get it” and go from there. Finally, she told me to think about what the young woman who suffers this crime gets out of the program that is undertaken to avenge what was done to her. I’ll leave the reader to figure that one out.
Mary Ellin Arch’s professional journalism career spanned more than three decades, including stints at The Associated Press, Gannett Co. Inc., and United Press International.