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journalism books

Posted by Shannon

Poison PenmanshipPoison PenmanshipIf I could have only one journalism book on my shelf it would be Jessica Mitford’s Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking.

Witty, acerbic Mitford was a British investigative reporter working in the U.S. through the 1960s and ‘70s and because she’s such fun to read it’s easy to forget how significant her work was.  Her breezy magazine articles and books took down corrupt companies and whole industries while making everyone laugh.

In Poison Penmanship --  which should be subtitled the best journalism education anyone can get -- she tells us how she did it in an essay following each piece. She spills it all:  how she did the digging, how she set up the interview questions to progress “from kind to cruel” and (the best part) what she learned from what she did wrong.

This roster of articles includes the forerunners of what became The American Way of Death, a remarkably funny investigation into the corrupt funeral trade that made her career. The 1963 book exposed how cynical undertakers exploited the grieving public and spurred changes in legislation all over North America as well as sparking a boom in memorial societies.

The book also includes my favourite investigative piece -- “Let us now consider Famous Writers” – a 1970 article in which she takes on celebrity writers who lent their names (and their mugs) to advertise one of those overpriced correspondence schools. Ads for the Famous Writers School were a staple in most magazines of that era and their travelling salesmen were bilking money out of little old ladies who might (charitably) be described as functionally illiterate.

The piece itself is a delight, detailing the publicly traded corporation’s greed in glorious, mind-boggling detail. But it’s the backstory about how wealth and power kept the article lingering in limbo for months that is the real eye-opener.

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