Article — From the August 2000 issue
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Article — From the August 2000 issue
The Editorial, two days later, entitled “A Question of Literary Ethics,” ran immediately below a slightly shorter piece, “The Pursuit of Justice in Bosnia.” “In an irritable little book published late last year about The New Yorker,” it began. Why the Times would address an entire editorial to a “little book,” “irritable” or not, was not entirely clear. One might have thought that, almost thirty years after Watergate and more than sixty years after some of the events in question, the country really does turn for its information about Judge Sirica to a passage in a book about The New Yorker magazine. “Since Judge Sirica is dead,” the Editorial again pointed out, “he is unable to sue for libel.” True enough. “But that does not lift the ethical burden from Ms. Adler to support her charges with evidence she says exists” but “that she and her editors at Simon & Schuster, for some unfathomable reason, omitted from her book.” Then, a new standard, not just “evidence” but a cognate of proof, crept in. “If Ms. Adler is raising a long-simmering allegation [about] Judge Sirica’s father…she will need to document that unproven contention and show how it relates to the judge himself.”
It was interesting to learn what I needed to document and show. I found it difficult, however, to see in what sense my “burden” was (as the anonymous Randolph put it) “ethical”–or how the passage in my book could have raised an issue of “ethics,” “literary” or other. Professional issues, perhaps. Issues of fact, history, judgment. Ethics, no. I was either right or I wasn’t, and I either had evidence or I hadn’t. (The questions were, by no means, the same.) The Times, as it turned out, had not the slightest interest in Sirica or his history. No reporter for the Times, or, as far as I know, any other publication, made any effort to investigate the nature of the connection with Senator McCarthy–let alone the basis for an assertion of “clear ties to organized crime.” This lack of curiosity seemed to me extraordinary. The sole preoccupation was with a kind of meta-journalistic question–not what happened but what were my sources and my obligations. As to what was, however, “for some unfathomable reason, omitted,” the Times had only to look at its own Op Ed piece the following day.
That piece, entitled “A Source on Sirica?” consisted of John Dean’s speculation about something the Times had reason to know not to be the case: that my “source” was Dean’s old enemy and current adversary in an embittered lawsuit, G. Gordon Liddy. What was remarkable, however, was less the content of the piece than the words with which the Times identified its author. The caption, in its entirety, read as follows:
John W. Dean, an investment banker, is former counsel to President Richard M. Nixon and the author of “Blind Ambition.”
If this is the way Dean will enter history, then all the Times pieces in this peculiar episode have value.
That Sunday, April 9, there was the Week in Review section. A single sentence, in a book published months before, had now become part of the news, perhaps more accurately the meta-news, of that week. The word “evidence” was abandoned, replaced entirely by “proof.” My book had “announced without proof”; “Ms. Adler told a New York Times reporter that she would publish proof…when she pleased,” and so on. I had said nothing of the kind. In repeating what had long been a Times characterization of Judge Sirica as “a scrupulously honest jurist,” the piece surpassed even the Op Ed page in the brevity of its identification of John Dean as “former Nixon counsel.” The laconic formulation was apparently designed to lend him credibility, in contrast to G. Gordon Liddy, “whom Judge Sirica sentenced to prison for his role in Watergate.” Under any circumstances, this would have been a howler. (Dean, of course, was also “sentenced to prison for his role in Watergate” by Judge Sirica. One might, as readily, characterize Liddy as an “author, attorney, and talk show host.”) By now, however, these descriptions of Dean had gone beyond inadequacy. They relied upon, and actively perpetuated, the ignorance of readers. The Times, for some reason, was publishing disinformation.
I have always read the Times. In a day of perhaps more distinguished and exigent editing, I even worked for it. On the day Barringer’s piece appeared, I wrote a letter objecting to certain errors. I said I hoped Barringer had made a tape of our conversation, so that my claim of inaccuracies could be verified. No dice. No acknowledgement, even, of the question of a tape. On April 6, I received a phone call from the secretary to the deputy editor of the Editorial page. “They have decided not to run your letter,” she said, in a very cheery voice. They have? I said. Did they give any reason? “No. They just asked me to call and tell you they have decided not to run your letter.” April 6 was the day they ran the Op Ed piece by John Dean. On April 7, Jared Stern, of the New York Post, ran a piece quoting from my letter (which had been given to him by Blake Fleetwood, a friend of mine and for years a Times reporter). A spokesman for the Times told Stern what was plainly untrue, that my letter was still “being considered for publication.” That very afternoon, an editor called to ask whether I would like to submit another, “revised,” letter. One of my adventures in this mine shaft had already been to learn that, as a matter of policy, the Times does not publish letters that question, or criticize in any way, the work of its reporters. Any claim of inaccuracy or unfairness must be made to the department of Corrections or the Editor’s Note. In these departments, however, the reporter, in consultation with her editor, decides the issue–which, I suppose, is why the Corrections, in particular, always seem to consist of rectifications of middle initials, photo captions, and remote dates in history. (In one recent week, the Corrections column pointed out that the correct spelling of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s “given name” is “Madeleine K. Albright, not Madeline,” and that the middle name of William D. Fugazy,”the chairman of the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations” is “Denis,” “not Dennis.”) There are, as a rule, no genuine corrections. These departments are cosmetic, a pretense that the paper has any real concern, any mechanism even to consider, whether what it has published is, in some important or, for that matter, unimportant way, false.
This, I would say, raises issues, fundamentally, of ethics. So does covering up conflicts of interest: unsigned editorials by writers mentioned unfavorably in books the editorials disparage; quotations, without any acknowledgment of conflict, from “sources” whose work, whose very methods, has been attacked by the person under discussion, in the pages of the Times itself. So does the concealment of undeniably relevant information: the fact that Jack Sirica was not just the son of Judge Sirica but a reporter at Newsday, a journalist, a colleague (imagine the Times coming to the defense, against a single passage, of the father of anyone who was not a fellow journalist); even the omission of virtually defining facts about John Dean. And, finally, the bullying, the disproportion, in publishing eight disparaging pieces (seven in non-reviewing sections) about what was, after all, one little book. The Times, clearly, was cross about something. But there are ethical issues, I think, raised even by this sort of piling on.
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.