An offbeat Washington suspense novel, The Solomon Scandals explores major journalistic quandaries. Here’s a discussion guide for book clubs, libraries, and college classes, followed by a character list.
The novel, set in the 1970s, revolves around Jonathan Stone, a reporter whose searing, long-hidden memoir will emerge in the late twenty-first century.
Stone is on the trail of a crooked Washington builder, Seymour Solomon, who skimps on high-rises leased to the federal government. A rickety building may tumble, killing hundreds.
The self-made son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Solomon is famous as a leading philanthropist in the Washington Jewish community. Behind the scenes, he has bribed bureaucrats and donated massively to politicians. He has also enriched powerful people by way of stakes in his real estate partnerships. Some are judges and others whose decisions could help or hurt his business.
Jon Stone’s editor is among Solomon’s closest friends. Far from an absolute paragon, Stone himself has a romance going with a female news source.
Ahead are discussion questions on such topics as journalism, professional ethics, and gender dynamics in the workplace. No need to cover all the items here—just those of most interest.
1. Do we need new laws against conflict of interest and other forms of government corruption? Should high-level officials not be allowed to own individual stocks, just widely diversified funds, Treasuries, and the like?
2. Discuss Stone’s conflicts of interest—actual or feared—in the novel. How do they affect his pursuit of the Solomon story? Should a reporter’s personal relationships or feelings influence the ability to cover a story objectively? Why or why not? How would you handle matters if you were in Jonathan Stone’s shoes? What ethical guidelines would you follow? Should reporters tell editors of all personal, financial, and other ties to their subject matter? Maybe alert readers, too? What should be the thresholds for deciding whether these ties are too strong for the reporters to continue on a story?
3. Was Stone, a non-practicing Jew, right to worry about the effect of his possible Solomon exposé on the Washington Jewish community—in an era when anti-Semitism was less of a threat than now? What did you think of his ultimate decision to go ahead with the story anyway, as most reporters in his place would have done? Keep in mind that this is far from a Jewish-only issue. Another group could have been involved.
4. How should journalists balance their personal values with their responsibility to report the truth? Can you think of any real-life examples—especially in your state—where journalists have had to navigate the complexities of their personal values and professional responsibilities?
5. “Really, dear,” columnist and feature writer Wendy Blevin tells Jon Stone, “I can’t figure out why these people talk. I’d never let myself talk to me.” Your reaction? What do you think of the late Janet Malcolm’s New Yorker article saying, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible”?
6. Should governments—at any level—license newspapers in any way? Why or why not?
7. What do you think of efforts to make libel laws less friendly to journalists, so that, for example, they run more risk quoting anonymous sources? Would such laws severely restrict the flow of essential news?
8. Do you approve of Times v. Sullivan, a major Supreme Court decision that essentially says journalists are immune from damages if they strive to write fairly and accurately? They must not knowingly or recklessly publish false statements.
9. How should the law treat media organizations such as Fox News, which slanted its coverage to favor Donald Trump and helped spread the lie that the 2020 election was a fraud—despite all the court decisions to the contrary? Does the Fox News example illustrate the need for government licensing of media? Or does it show just the opposite since Times v. Sullivan did not protect Fox?
10. In what ethics-related ways does the fictional newspaper—The Washington Telegram, Jon’s mainly liberal employer—resemble Fox News?
11. Would media investigations command more respect if newspapers and others devoted more coverage than now to positive solutions to problems—socioeconomic, environmental, or otherwise?
12. Is there a place for civic journalism, where newspapers encourage citizens to discuss and act on issues rather than just being spectators? Is there too much focus on the “horse race” aspect of politics (for example, who’s leading in the polls) as opposed to meaningful civic participation? For more, see mentions in James Fallows’s book Breaking the News. How about citizen journalism—different from civic journalism? Individuals, not the usual media professionals, investigate wrongdoing and report in other ways. Pros and cons? In social media, citizen journalism is already happening.
13. What about your hometown newspaper and other media? In what ways, good or bad, do they resemble the fictional Washington Telegram? Have you seen many stories in them about political donations or bribes from real estate people or others to influence government actions? What can be done if local media are overlooking abuses, perhaps for business reasons such as advertising? Keep in mind that many newsrooms are on tight budgets and might be unable to act despite the best intentions.
14. If better financed, news organizations could run more investigative stories. What can governments at any level do to help papers and other media without corrupting them? Favorable postal rates exist for publications, but are these efforts enough?
See Steven Waldman’s article in Politico, dated April 2, 2023, and recommended by Jim Fallows, for more details. The title is: “There’s Already a Solution to the Crisis of Local News. Just Ask This Founding Father.”
Waldman notes that the proposed Local Journalism Sustainability Act “would “provide payroll tax credits to encourage the hiring and retaining of local reporters, tax credits for small businesses to buy advertising in local news organizations, and a tax credit for consumers to subscribe or donate to local news publications.”
15. What about philanthropy, which has subsidized efforts like ProPublica, a well-regarded nonprofit working with news organizations to expose government abuses?
16. Americans’ trust in the media remains stunningly low. Deservedly? What can be done to improve this? Did The Solomon Scandals in any way change how you perceive the media, even though it’s set in the past? So many of the integrity issues have remained the same.
17. How have gender dynamics in the workplace evolved since the 1970s, and what lingering issues most need to be addressed?
18. Just what do you think about Stone’s romance with Margo Danialson, his main news source on the Solomon story? Does the romance affect the integrity of his work? If so, how?
19. What do you most like, dislike, or both about Scandals’s main characters? During the story, do Jon and Margo change for the better or worse? How?
20. If Jon had written the memoir while older, how should his book have been different—as you yourself see it?
21. What do you think of the multiracial America depicted in Scandals’s afterword?