Timing is everything.
In 2016, Jeff Pegues published Black and Blue: Inside the Divide Between the Police and Black America.
The author — a 1988 Staples High School graduate who rose through the broadcast ranks to WABC-TV News, and now is CBS News justice/homeland security correspondent — spoke with hundreds of officers, police chiefs, community activists, even then-FBI director (and Westporter) James Comey. Pegues’ unbiased view of both sides of the cop/community divide came out in the midst of a national debate over police/citizen relations.
Earlier this month he published Kompromat: How Russia Undermined American Democracy. It too is the right book, at the exact right time.
Russia’s influence on our elections was a hot topic during the 8 months Pegues researched and wrote it.
But even he had no idea his book would hit the shelves just days before President Trump’s Helsinki Summit moved the title — “kompromat” means “compromising material” — out of obscurity, and into our national dialogue.
Pegues’ interest in the subject was piqued during the summer of 2016. In his CBS News role, he was one of the first people to hear — from reliable intelligence sources — about Russia’s interference in our election.
“Intelligence and law enforcement people who do not usually panic were really worried,” Pegues recalls.
He watched as American media focused on the presidential campaign — not on “the story behind the campaign, which was Russia’s hacking and influence.”
His own network was part of that surface coverage, Pegues notes. “I was stomping around the newsroom, saying we should be covering the Russian story every night.”
He spent 24 hours traveling with then-CIA director John Brennan, who told the CBS correspondent, “Unusual stuff is happening.” Pegues says, “It felt like we were living in a movie script.”
Pegues pitched a book idea to publishers. Some did not think it was a story. Prometheus — which published Black and Blue — trusted the author’s judgment. “I told them this would be a story for the ages,” he says.
During the day, Pegues talked to sources for his “Evening News” or “CBS This Morning” reports. On weekends and during vacations, he wrote Kompromat.
The more he dove into his research, the more it surprised him. “This is really remarkable,” Pegues says. “We haven’t gotten all of it yet. This is a new kind of warfare.”
But Kompromat is not just a frightening tale of ongoing Russian influence in our elections. Pegues confronts a related question: What will it take to protect American democracy?
“The intelligence community says this is ongoing,” the journalist says. “I’m worried about 2018 — and 2020.”
And he worries about kompromat — not the book title, but the actual activity.
“If in 2016 you’d told people we’d be where we are this week — with national talk about the president possibly being compromised — everyone would say ‘impossible,'” Pegues says.
“But officials are behind bars. They’re on trial. They’re cooperating with prosecutors. It’s amazing. And what’s happening now has serious repercussions for our entire democracy.”
Russians do not have to actually change votes in order to have an impact, Pegues emphasizes. “They just have to to change how we think. What we see and read has an impact on how we vote.”
The ultimate goal of the Russians, Pegues says, is not about Donald Trump. “It’s about weakening our democracy, so Putin can point to us, and our fragile democracy, and use our example to build up the Russian Federation. That’s really what he wants.”
So is Pegues hopeless about our future?
“Reporters are doing incredible work,” he says. “The New York Times, Washington Post, CBS, NBC, ABC — these are not easy stories to do.
“Intelligence people don’t give out information like candy. It’s hard to get. But we’ve seen very good, collective reporting. Like Watergate, it’s important for democracy to dig, so we can move forward.”
It is crucial, Pegues adds, that reporters “get this story right. We’ve been called ‘the enemy of the state,’ and Trump’s supporters believe we are.”
Pegues thinks special counsel Robert Mueller will deliver a report before the midterm elections. He also thinks “35% of the country probably won’t buy what he says.
“But I think at some point the public will realize this story is about the future of our country. Our adversary is trying to change who we are, and how we think. That’s not about partisan politics at all. It’s about our democracy.”
Pegues expects “a couple of years of trials. Even so, it will be quite a while before we get the full story. And I don’t think 100% of the country will ever think we got all the answers.”
When Pegues began writing Kompromat, he knew it was an important story. He had no idea though that his book would be published the same month the American president met alone — for 2 hours — with his Russian counterpart.
In book publishing — as in politics — timing is everything.