Rectangular photo of a close up view of books on a bookshelf, with spines facing out and many titles related to atomic science and history.

Vincent Kiernan—Atomic Bill: A Journalist’s Dangerous Ambition in the Shadow of the Bomb

Atomic Bill

Atomic Bill

ATOMIC BILL:
A JOURNALIST’S DANGEROUS AMBITION
IN THE SHADOW OF THE BOMB

Vincent Kiernan
Cornell University Press/Three Hills, Nov. 15, 2022
Hardcover, $32.95; ebook, $15.99
ISBN-13: 9781501765636
ASIN: B09SK2FLN8

Kiernan reports:

Almost 40 years ago, I was a local newspaper reporter covering two of the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories in Livermore, Calif. The experience left me with an abiding interest in how reporters cover, or don’t cover, the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

Vincent Kiernan

Vincent Kiernan

I’ve long been interested in William Laurence, who worked at The New York Times as a science journalist and science editor. I originally thought a chapter about him in a book about the history of science journalism would do him justice. But the more I looked into him, the more flawed–and therefore interesting–I found him to be. I judged that it was time to dig deeply and write about him.

Laurence has long been the center of controversy. To some, he was a despicable propagandist defending the Bomb; to others, he was a skilled science communicator whose diligent efforts provided the public with deep understanding of that same Bomb. But no one has provided a textured look at Laurence himself.

This book reveals how Laurence’s deeply flawed ethics pervaded his entire career as a journalist. As one of the early science journalists, Laurence helped set the pattern for how journalists long covered science and technology: he emphasized discoveries over serious consideration of the role of science and technology in society.

Laurence’s story shows the danger posed by journalists who lose their focus on serving the public and instead center on fame, fortune, and being close to those in power. After World War II, Laurence spent much of his energy building his new atomic brand through extracurricular activities such as speechmaking, book writing, and broadcasting. In this era, he rarely produced any important news about the United States’ nuclear programs for readers of The New York Times.

He instead shared his insights and tidbits of news for his other projects, and he even went out of his way to try to debunk reporting by other reporters who sought to pierce the nuclear programs’ curtain of secrecy. Laurence lost his way as a reporter serving the public.

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November 14, 2022

Advance Copy

The path from idea to book may take myriad routes. The Advance Copy column, started in 2000 by NASW volunteer book editor Lynne Lamberg, features NASW authors telling the stories behind their books. Authors are asked to report how they got their idea, honed it into a proposal, found an agent and a publisher, funded and conducted their research, and organized their writing process. They also are asked to share what they wish they’d known when they started or would do differently next time, and what advice they can offer aspiring authors. Lamberg edits the authors’ answers to produce the Advance Copy reports.

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