Much has been made nationally of the humiliating decision by St. Martin’s Press to recall the 70,000 copies it had shipped to bookstores of J.H. Hatfield’s ‘Fortunate Son,’ a biography of George W. Bush. These books, along with the 20,000 still in the warehouse, were burned or shredded. The firm is among the 10 leading publishers of trade books in the country. Coverage of this story has focused on the biographer’s stunning lack of credibility. Peter Slover of the Dallas Morning News revealed that Hatfield had hired a hitman to kill the manager of a financial firm where Hatfield had worked. Hatfield then served five years of a 15-year sentence. The author had also been convicted of a federal crime for falsifying a signature to cash checks from a government agency.
Far more troubling to readers is St. Martin’s failure to check Hatfield’s claim—published in a hasty afterword—that in 1972 George W. Bush was arrested for possession of cocaine—and that his father arranged to have the record expunged.
Hatfield’s sources were not identified. He also wrote that a Republican judge had been involved in the cover-up. But no Republican judges handled such cases in 1972, and the law that would have permitted the expunging of the alleged arrest wasn’t on the books in Texas until 1977.
Hatfield’s was a book about a very public figure who had already been accused—without proof—of cocaine use in all the media. There had also been widespread discussion about the lack of proof for those allegations. So how come Hatfield’s blockbuster afterword was never looked into by his editor, the copy editor, or the lawyer who vetted the manuscript?
The truth is that many book publishers are exceedingly careless about the “facts” in their product. I say this with some experience, having had 20 nonfiction books published, all by mainstream book houses, but except for a few lawyers’ queries about possibly defamatory references, I’ve not been asked to verify any other facts.
St. Martin’s Press is hardly alone in abdicating responsibility. Recently, Atlantic Press stopped publication of a biography by James MacKay, who, it turned out, had a record of plagiarism. And four years ago Schocken Books published Fragments, a memoir by an alleged survivor of the Holocaust. It suspended all sales of the book this November, after receiving a report from the original German publisher that the author was a liar.
A year ago, as The New York Times has reported, the American editor of that allegedly 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?
Before going into what book publishers can and should do to merit the trust of readers, let’s begin by exploring how the original accusations about George W. Bush by the felonious author, J.H. Hatfield, began to be circulated.
It started on the Internet.
As Howard Kurtz has noted in The Washington Post, “Salon and the Drudge Report were the first to publicize Hatfield’s allegations. In fact, Salon helped put the story in play. Hatfield writes that he began investigating after an August gossip column in Salon reported a widely circulated e-mail claiming that a Texas judge had ordered Bush to perform community service ‘in exchange for expunging his record showing illicit drug use.’ ” Kurtz adds that Salon columnist Amy Reiter did quote the head of the Houston community center as denying that Bush had served there. She also reported that the Bush camp denied the charges.
But the story was out. And then, once Hatfield put it in his book, Salon, as the Times said, “started things off with a report, flagged on its front page,” about the cocaine charges in the biography.
David Talbot, Salon‘s editor, is right to say that once the story had been published by a reputable book firm, it was news. But keep in mind the gossip item about the accusations that Salon first put out in August.
Said Salon senior vice president David Weir to Howard Kurtz: “Salon, and the Internet generally, aren’t really interested in the corporate gatekeeper mode of deciding about stories. . . . On the Internet, you get the information out there and your readers help you evaluate it.”
How are the readers supposed to do that? If the Dallas Morning News, by routine newspaper reporting, had not broken the all too factual story about Hatfield’s own disreputable past on October 21, his book would still be in the stores and its buyers would have been deceived. (The New York Times, at first, didn’t run a story on the book because it couldn’t find proof of Hatfield’s charges.)
There is no question that the Internet has become the most vital democratizing force in the world since the invention of the printing press. Even the technologically challenged can now find all kinds of information swiftly from nearly all parts of the world.
And the totalitarian rulers of China have not been able to control the infinite area of cyberspace. Frissons of democracy reverberate there on the Web. However, Stalin once ordered that all typewriters in the Soviet Union be turned in—or else. So watch out!
But there is a risk in relying on the Internet for news. In his valuable book, The Control Revolution: How the Internet Is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know (Public Affairs), Andrew Shapiro presents this cautionary note:
Along with a steady increase in available information, there will correspondingly be “an increase in the number of mendacious smears, dangerous distortions, and wacky conspiracy theories that float around. The split-second speed at which digital material can be distributed anywhere allows these half-truths and lies to spread instantly and with little time for verification.
“This increases the pressure on all content providers, including the most venerable journalists and media organizations, to cut corners and lower standards in order to get the story first—or at least not to lag far behind.”
Coming attraction: How far can you trust daily and weekly newspapers, radio and television, or the venerable but now conglomerated book publishers?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 30, 1999