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The Allure and Abuse of Power

So many well-researched, well-written investigative books on important topics have been published that achieving consensus on a “best-of” list is unlikely. The following books include a small percentage of the “best-of” published since 1965, which marked the start of investigative journalism’s modern era.

A Report on NSA, America’s Most Secret Agency
By James Bamford (1982)

Bamford, a self-trained investigative journalist, exposed the inner workings of the National Security Agency. Reportedly larger than the CIA and FBI combined, NSA was so secretive it often failed to appear in official U.S. government manuals; commentators joked that the acronym stood for “No Such Agency.” Bamford later joined ABC News, while continuing to write books and articles about governmental espionage. His most recent book is A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies(2004).

Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means
By William T. Vollmann (7 volumes, McSweeney’s, 2003; abridged volume, Ecco/HarperCollins, 2004)

Vollmann has created an amazing amount of quality work as a magazine writer, novelist, and investigative reporter. In an era of constant warring among and within nations, Vollmann’s examination of the causes and consequences of government-sponsored violence, from Montezuma to the Khmer Rouge, is of the utmost significance.

A Story of Modern War
By Mark Bowden (1999)

As a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, Bowden covered the U.S. military special forces entry into Somalia to try to ameliorate tribal warfare. The historical war reporting that sufficed during World War II, Korea, and even Vietnam bears little resemblance to Bowden’s literary nonfiction narrative about the U.S.’s disastrous 1993 operation in Mogadishu. Bowden also wrote the superbKilling Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw (2001).

The Mafia in the Marketplace
By Jonathan Kwitny (1979)

A former Wall Street Journal reporter, Kwitny brought to light the unprecedented reach of organized crime into American life. He explored the Mafia’s influence in diverse sectors of American business and labor organization, from banking and meatpacking to garment factories. He later wrote, among other books, a searing expose of U.S. foreign policy, Endless Enemies: The Making of an Unfriendly World (1984).

By Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele (1992)

This investigative duo at the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote an excellent biography of billionaire Howard Hughes and an expose of the nuclear waste dilemma before this 1992 blockbuster. America is an indictment of politicians, Wall Street traders, and corporate chief executives who fattened their bank accounts at the expense of the nation’s health, leaving millions of American workers living in poverty or seeking unemployment benefits. Since moving to Time magazine, the pair have written important books about income tax scandals and the failures of the American health care system.


Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
By Robert A. Caro (1974)

A landmark investigative biography of the city official whose public works projects between the 1930s and 1950s changed the face of New York, The Power Broker remains in print more than 30 years later. A reporter for the Long Island newspaper Newsday while researching Moses’s life, Caro eventually left the newsroom to write the award-winning, multi-volume biography of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Three of the projected four volumes are available: The Path to Power (1982), Means of Ascent (1990) andMaster of the Senate (2002).

The Way to the White House
By Richard Ben Cramer (1992)

After leaving the Philadelphia Inquirer, Cramer followed top presidential candidates Republicans George H. W. Bush and Robert Dole and Democrats Michael Dukakis and Gary Hart during the 1988 campaign. He hung out with them, interviewed their friends and foes, then wrote an insightful political campaigning book. Cramer is an inventive, daring stylist and a keen observer of humanity. Other investigative books by Cramer include a biography of Joe DiMaggio and an inquiry into Arab-Israeli strife.

The Politics of Hunger in America
By Nick Kotz (1969)

As a Washington, D.C., correspondent for The Des Moines Register, Kotz saw elected politicians and government bureaucrats talk with concern about hunger among millions of residents of the world’s richest nation, but do little beyond the talk. His book exposed their shameful behavior. Kotz continues to publish magazine features and compelling books.

By Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (1974)

As two young Washington Post reporters, the authors exposed the dirty dealings of U.S. President Richard M. Nixon and his corrupt staff in this highly influential investigative book. The movie version, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, added to the impact. Bernstein co-authored one more book with Woodward, then wrote a few mediocre books on his own. Woodward completed ten more investigative books (and counting), each one a bestseller. His subject matter includes the military, the courts, and federal bureaucracies.

A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath
By Seymour M. Hersh (1970)

A reporter trained at the City News Bureau of Chicago and the Associated Press, Hersh, while freelancing, heard a rumor about a massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. military troops. Tracking down the alleged leader of the massacre, Lt. William L. Calley, Hersh beat the major news media to the punch. The book version of his reports was his second title; in 1968 he had published a lesser-known expose about chemical and biological warfare. Hersh later conducted investigations as a New York Times reporter and, since My Lai 4, has written six investigative books, most recently Chain of Command: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib(2005).


John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam
By Neil Sheehan (1988)

Sheehan reported in Vietnam and elsewhere for United Press International and The New York Times before composing one of the best books about the history-altering involvement of the U.S. in a distant civil war. Part biography of John Paul Vann, a whistleblowing Army officer killed in Vietnam in 1972, part war chronicle, and part political expose, A Bright Shining Lie resounds painfully two decades later.


By Jonathan Harr (1995)

A long-time magazine staff member and freelancer, Harr altered the way many readers think of litigation in America. His narrative account centers on a lawsuit filed by families in Woburn, Massachusetts, whose members had suffered illness or death due to corporate pollution of the water supply. Harr focuses on the unconventional and often unsympathetic lawyer who represented the families. A 1998 movie starring John Travolta magnified the book’s influence.

This abridged article written by Steve Weinberg and provided courtesy of BookMarks Magazine. All rights reserved. For more information on the magazine, please visit

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