On Oct. 2, 1986, Times reporter David Johnston delivered the results of an investigation into James Mills' best seller, "The Underground Empire: Where Crime and Governments Embrace" (Doubleday). In a lengthy front-page article, Johnston presented an appalling picture of distortions, errors and uncritical use of suspect sources. His article ran under the headline "Credibility of Drug Book Challenged." The challenge was clearly a serious one.
But so what?
Aren't there errors in any book? Couldn't a smart and determined reporter find flaws almost anywhere? Does it matter that the credibility of a given book is not total?
Yes, there are errors of detail in every book. But no, there are not errors of this magnitude. And no, the smartest, most determined reporter would not get far against a carefully researched book. The documentation of James Bamford's "The Puzzle Palace" (Houghton Mifflin), for example, which was, like Mills' book, the first on the government agency it described, would stand up in a court of law. The same can be said of many another serious book.
But what makes a detailed report on Mills' book worth the months Johnston spent preparing it is the harm the book has been doing since its publication last June.
Mills has the facts of his story not just wrong but backward. The terrifying international drug lords whom he interviewed--crime czars with unlimited funds, state-of-the-art weaponry, political power greater than that of many sovereign nations, and ominous political friends in Washington-- were behind bars when he spoke to them! If that part of their story had been given appropriate play, the moral of the story would have been simply: Crime does not pay. But Mills chose, instead, to bury that part of the story in lurid and highly questionable details from the crooks' lives before they got caught. Small wonder that the FBI has objected to the book.
Johnston reports that Mills did not permit people whom he implicated in drug crime to offer any rebuttal, and the point is well taken. But whatever the harm done to those individuals, the harm done to the public by a blatant exaggeration of the drug problem is potentially much greater.
During the time since Mills published his book (June, 1986), there is little or no evidence that the national drug problem has grown suddenly and drastically worse. The most recent survey of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the U.S. government's own authority on drug-use statistics, shows the problem to be serious but, quite demonstrably, not growing.
And yet, during this same six-month period, there has been a sudden and drastic change in the official American attitude toward that problem. The American military has been used for the first time to attack drug cultivators on foreign soil. Obligatory urine sampling for U.S. government employees has been introduced; some corporations are moving in the same direction. We have seen an unprecedented, deeply emotional double address to the nation by President and Mrs. Reagan. There has been, in short, something of an outbreak of national hysteria. By contributing to this hysteria, Mills' book has done significant harm.
As Johnston points out, both Time and Newsweek reviewed Mills' book favorably. Later, both ran cover stories on the drug "crisis." The cover story on the October issue of Life magazine is "I Am a Coke Addict." Now, the number of people who died last year of cocaine poisoning is smaller than the number who died of ruptured appendixes; and that number will probably be about the same this year. But we are not likely soon to see a Life cover story with the headline, "I Have a Ruptured Appendix." The number of deaths may be the same, but the furnishings are different, and the appeal of the cocaine story, like the appeal of Mills' book, is all in the furnishings.
"The Underground Empire" seems to me to have done harm in another, if smaller, way as well. It has debased the intellectual currency of its publisher. As with disinformation in the political arena, so with this example of public discourse: Mills' distortions and errors make it harder to take future Doubleday books at face value. And Doubleday, no matter who owns it, is "we," not "they." We are all diminished by this loss.
All in all, the painful fact is that the honor system of publishing seems not to have functioned well this time out. The full glare of publicity was on "The Underground Empire" for months before anyone stopped taking the book more or less at face value. The wonder ought not be that Johnston has now challenged the book but that no one else did so sooner.
Lincoln is still right: You can't fool all of the people all of the time. But in a society where busy announces a virtue and where questions are too often settled by hearsay and the executive summary, you can, alas, fool all of the people for a good long while.