Readers deserve more from media
October 31, 1999
Quiet as it’s kept among publishers of books, most of them are chronically irresponsible when it comes to checking the accuracy of the product they send to bookstores or to Amazon online.
While daily newspapers have little time to check the facts of all the stories they print, a number of magazines among them The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and Playboy have diligent fact-checking departments even though they have only weeks, and sometimes only days, to be sure their readers are not deceived.
Book publishers have from four to nine months or longer to examine manuscripts for errors. Their lawyers do look intently to protect book firms from possible libel suits based on defamation of character and invasions of privacy. But book editors and copy editors seldom check basic facts.
St. Martin’s Press, a mainstream book publisher, has recalled the 70,000 copies it shipped to bookstores of J.H. Hatfield’s “Fortunate Son,” a biography of George W. Bush.
Those volumes will be burned or shredded along with 20,000 others in the firm’s warehouse.
A newspaper, The Dallas Morning News, had suddenly revealed that the author was a convicted felon, having been imprisoned for trying to have a former employer murdered, and, another time, for falsifying his signature to cash checks from a government agency.
Clearly, the author had lost credibility, to say the least. But what if The Dallas Morning News had not revealed Hatfield’s felonious past? His book would have gone on to considerable sales, because in it Hatfield accused George W. Bush of having been arrested in 1972 for possession of cocaine. And Hatfield added that because of the intervention of his father, the record of that arrest had been expunged. Hatfield wrote that the senior George Bush had gotten a Republican judge to erase the arrest, but the fact is that no Republican judge in that city handled such cases in 1972. Another fact is that the Texas law permitting the expungement of the alleged arrest was not in force until 1977.
Since charges of cocaine use by George W. Bush have been circulating in the media for months without proof how come the book’s editor and copy editor did not demand evidence of those accusations in Hatfield’s manuscript? All of his sources were anonymous, and he provided no copy of the arrest record or the name of the supposed judge who had expunged it.
St. Martin’s Press is not alone in its irresponsibility toward those who buy its books. Recently, Atlantic press stopped publication of a biography of John Paul Jones by author James Mackey after newspapers reported that he had a record of plagiarism.
And Schocken Books received a report from the original German publisher of a memoir by an alleged survivor of the Holocaust that the author was a liar.
A year earlier, as The New York Times has reported, Schocken Books’ American editor and translator of the “factual” book about the Holocaust said it was not a publisher’s role “to vet every manuscript and every author on an adversarial basis.”
Where does that leave the reader?
I have some experience in this matter. Over the years I have had 31 books published, all by mainstream publishing houses. I am grateful to the editors and copy editors for occasionally clarifying my grammar and sometimes making very useful suggestions about restructuring the book.
But except for a few lawyers’ queries about possibly defamatory passages about persons in my books, I have never been asked to verify any of the other facts in my manuscripts. Far from all critical comments in a book are subject to possible libel suits.
Because more and more book publishing firms are being folded into conglomerates, there are many downsized people capable of being rehired and trained to be fact-checkers as conscientious as those at The New Yorker and other magazines.
Readers depend on books to be more accurate than what they feel is transient newspaper reporting. Book publishers, at last, should begin to merit the trust of their readers. (Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights. Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn.)