Article — From the August 2000 issue
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Article — From the August 2000 issue
In mid-February, Jack Sirica, a reporter at Newsday, wrote a letter to Simon & Schuster, calling attention to a sentence, at the end of a passage on page 125 of my book, in which I wrote about having been assigned, by William Shawn, and deciding not to review, To Set the Record Straight, the autobiography (published in 1979, by Norton) of Judge John J. Sirica, Jack Sirica’s father. The sentence in question said I had found that “contrary to his reputation as a hero, Sirica was in fact a corrupt, incompetent, and dishonest figure, with a close connection to Senator Joseph McCarthy and clear ties to organized crime.” Jack Sirica challenged me “to produce any evidence whatsoever” that his father was a “‘corrupt, incompetent and dishonest figure’” or “‘had clear ties to organized crime.’” He demanded that Simon & Schuster “issue a public & written retraction” and “remove the references” from all future editions of the book. He distributed his letter widely to his colleagues in the press. A reporter from the Associated Press called me and asked, in highly professional and neutral terms, whether I planned to document my remarks in any way. I said I did. The reporter asked when. I said soon. The reporter asked where. I said in any place that seemed appropriate.
Some days later, I had a call from Felicity Barringer, a Media correspondent of the New York Times. Barringer, I knew, is married to Philip Taubman, a member of the Times editorial board and an assistant editor of the editorial page. From the outset, the conversation had nothing of the tenor of an “interview.” Barringer did not even pretend to any interest in Sirica, only in “ethics in book publishing.” Would I give her my “sources”? “Come on. Yes or no? Up or down?” Her deadline: forty-eight hours. No. Why would I not disclose my evidence, if any, to her? Because, as the A.P. reported, I was writing a piece of my own. Why wait? I was not waiting; I was writing.
Had I no concern meanwhile, she asked several times, about what I had done to Judge Sirica’s reputation? I said I didn’t think most people relied for their information about Judge Sirica on a sentence in a book about The New Yorker. In fact, none of the reviews, in the Times or elsewhere, had so much as mentioned the passage about Judge Sirica. Before Jack Sirica’s letter, no one had apparently noticed it. “Well, that raises the old question, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to notice,” Barringer said. A think piece, evidently.
If I did not wish to “disclose” my “sources” to her in an interview, Barringer said, “Why don’t you post it on the Internet?” “You post a lot of your own pieces on the Internet, do you, Felicity?”
It must be said that, although I was not, as far as I know, discourteous, I was not particularly deferential or awestruck either. This was, it was true, the Times. It was also an unusually repetitive and mindless interrogation. The game and its rituals, anyway, are fairly set. The reporter will write what she chooses–not infrequently regardless of what is said. It is one of the many reasons I have always preferred to work with documents. Barringer had a final question: was my source G. Gordon Liddy? No.
The following Monday, April 3, Barringer’s piece appeared on the front page of the Business section. On Wednesday, April 5, a piece, by Eleanor Randolph, but unsigned (I had mentioned Randolph unfavorably in my book), appeared as an Editorial. On Thursday, April 6, there was an Op Ed piece, written by, of all people, John W. Dean. On Sunday, April 9, the Times published the last (at least so far) of these pieces in its Week in Review.
Barringer’s article was, in its way, exemplary. In my “offhanded evisceration of various literati,” she reported, not many people had noticed “Ms. Adler’s drive-by assault on the late Judge Sirica.” She deplored the lack of “any evidence” and managed to convey her conviction that none existed. Barringer’s own “sources,” on the other hand, were the following: Jack Sirica (whom she did not identify as a Newsday reporter); John F. Stacks, who co-wrote Judge Sirica’s autobiography (and who said Sirica “didn’t have the imagination to be anything other than absolutely straight all his life”); “those who have read just about all the books on Watergate” and “those most steeped in Watergate lore” (whether these “those” were co-extensive was not clear); two lawyers, who confirmed that “the dead cannot sue for libel”; an editor, who did not claim to know either me or anything about Sirica, who “explained” (not, for Barringer, “said”), in four paragraphs of a bizarre fantasy, what I must have said to my editor and he to me (“It is, ‘Love me, love my book.’ If that’s what she wants to say…it’s either do the book or don’t do it”); and Bob Woodward, co-author of All the President’s Men, who “absolutely never heard, smelled, saw or found any remote suggestion” that Sirica had ever had “any connection” to organized crime.
An impressive roster, in a way. I had once, as it happened, unfavorably reviewed, on the front page of The New York Times Book Review itself, a book by Woodward, but he was certainly the most impressive of Barringer’s sources in this piece. Woodward could, of course, have crept into Judge Sirica’s hospital room and elicited from him on his deathbed the same sort of “nod” he claimed to have elicited from CIA director William Casey on his deathbed, and then claimed, as he did with Casey, that to divulge even the time of this alleged hospital visit would jeopardize his source. And when asked, as he was in an interview, what color pajamas the patient was wearing, he could, as he did in the instance of Casey, express a degree of outrage worthy of the threat such a question poses to the journalist’s entire vocation. That is evidently not a kind of sourcing that raises questions for a Media correspondent at the Times.
Barringer, in any case, did not conceal her views or quite limit her account to a single issue. “The attack on the basic honesty and decency of the judge,” she wrote, “is of a piece with the whole work.” Then came a memorable line. “What she writes and when she writes it, she said,” Barringer actually wrote, with all the severity of the bureaucrat deep in a politburo, “is for her to decide.” Who else, I wondered, at least in our society, could possibly decide it? Her essential formulation, however, was this:
As it stands, Ms. Adler and Simon & Schuster, a unit of Viacom, are either cheaply smearing Judge Sirica–with legal impunity–or they have evidence…. But neither the publisher nor the author shows any urgency about resolving the issue, either by retracting the accusation or establishing its accuracy.
Jack Sirica merely demanded “any evidence whatsoever.” Barringer wanted evidence (to her standards, presumably, and Woodward’s), with “urgency” and “establishing…accuracy.” Otherwise, in spite of that lamentable “legal impunity,” a retraction. An interesting position, from a reporting, a First Amendment, or even a censorship point of view. I will return to that, and even get to the evidence about Judge Sirica. But first a bit more about conditions in the mine shaft.
Renata Adler is a graduate of the Yale Law School and the author of seven books. A new collection, Politics, will be published in the spring.