The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledgeedited by John W. Wright
St. Martin's, 1,096 pp., $35
The Record of the Paperby Howard Friel & Richard Falk
Verso, 304 pp., $23
Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Mediaby Seth Mnookin
Random House, 330 pp., $25.95
Like a superhero, The New York Times has managed to dodge a barrage of bullets and remain unscathed. Printing all the news that's fit, the Times has been the record of our times for the past century. Two recent books seek to remind our hero that "with great power comes great responsibility." Enter The Record of the Paper and Hard News, both about the missteps of the NYT and the ramifications on the American media. Recognizing the different approaches of these arch-nemeses is as easy as seeing who is quoted on the back covers. Described as manifesting in "meticulous detail" by Noam Chomsky (a rather detail-oriented character himself), the Record chronicles the NYT's lapses in reporting judgment from the Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam to the recent false reports of WMD in Iraq. Friel and Falk decry the lack of references to international law in the NYT as symptomatic of a government that thinks itself above the law. Hard News, in describing the rise and fall of what may have been the most muscular news office in the world, tells "a juicy morality tale for the information age," according to Sarah Vowell. Mnookin digs up the dirt and reveals a paper only as infallible as the egos running and writing it (Executive Editor Howell Raines and Jayson Blair, respectively). The moral? The enemy lies within. Perhaps in response to these blows to its powers, the Times published their Guide to Essential Knowledge. Living up to its auspicious title, the Guide is an encyclopedia, almanac, grammar textbook, and crossword dictionary compacted like coal into diamonds of dense information, complete with a forward from John Leonard. Well-organized and indexed, the two- or three-paragraph descriptions of everything from neo-Freudian thought to psychedelic rock are engaging and often lead to further exploration. Give it to that NYT-crossword-puzzle warrior in the family or the Clark Kent in your life who just likes to look smarter than they are by having overly academic books in the bathroom.