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Hite Report Plagued by Controversy : Pollsters Challenge Author's Techniques

November 16, 1987|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The controversy over self-proclaimed cultural historian Shere Hite, best-selling author of "The Hite Reports" on female and male sexuality, took curious new twists last week as renewed questions surfaced about her methodology as well as her personal conduct.

One problem surrounded the curious identity of a woman called Diana Gregory, said to be a former staffer of Hite who reportedly contacted several journalists and news organizations on behalf of Hite and her latest book, "Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress." The puzzle arose when journalists tried, and failed, to find Gregory--and when Hite's given name was revealed to be Shirley Diana Gregory.

Admitting to Assault

New attention focused also on two incidents that took place more than a month ago. In one, Hite acknowledged she assaulted a limousine driver assigned to transport her to a television talk show taping, and in the other, she reportedly "slugged" a television camera when she walked off the set of a second taping.

Then, late Thursday Sterling Lord, Hite's literary agent, resigned. Lord's associate, Elizabeth Kaplan, insisted the decision to terminate the firm's working relationship with Hite was "simply a business matter" that had nothing to do with the swirling dispute. Hite then announced she would work with Beverly Hills superagent Irving "Swifty" Lazar.

And finally, in articles in the Washington Post and elsewhere, many of America's leading survey specialists and social science researchers fired powerful new salvos at Hite's research technique. In an interview I. A. Lewis, director of the Los Angeles Times poll, for one, charged that Hite's methodology "does a great deal of harm to public opinion research," "abuses the very indulgent public out there" and "makes it harder for us to do good work because there is more resistance when you realize that every Tom, Dick and Harry is messing around" with methodology.

Hite, taking time off from taping an interview with Italian television in her apartment here, said in a telephone interview late Friday that the entire flap represented a "pattern of diversion" that has "happened with every book of mine."

Saying simply: "I am not going to discuss Diana Gregory," she refused to respond to questions about her ostensible one-time employee. But she continued to defend the methods by which she reached her conclusions about women and their views about men and love, and termed the continuing attack on her approach "really about nonsense."

The elusive Gregory, in addition to calling the media, was also said to have ferried material to Hite's publisher. But no one there remembers meeting or hearing of her. William Loverd, Knopf vice president, said he had neither seen nor met anyone by that name. Karin Lippert and Cathy Saypol, independent publicists who worked closely with Hite in launching her latest literary effort, voiced surprise at the coincidence of the name of the person who was contacting the same news people they themselves had been in touch with.

"We were all very stunned when that name came up," Lippert said.

On the issue of the incidents, Hite described the run-in with the limousine driver as a "little confrontation" on "a very tense day." The Washington Post/ABC poll taking exception to her findings had come out that day, she remembered, and she was unprepared for the fact that New Haven, Conn.-- where she was scheduled to tape the afternoon Sally Jessy Raphael television show--was a two-hour drive from New York. Also, she was running late, she said. So when driver Frank Nicoletti called her "dear" and told her she would be unable to make the show, "she punched him and grabbed him by the throat and used foul language," according to the show's executive producer Burt Dubrow.

In hindsight, Hite now calls it "one of those incidents you wish hadn't happened."

Nicoletti, describing the episode the following night on "A Current Affair," a New York-based nightly news-magazine television show, said: "She tried to separate me from my windpipe."

Lauding his new client's past work as "extremely successful," Lazar said he "can't imagine why there is all this controversy." He speculated that the uproar may trace to the fact that "all these books, which are 'reports,' you know--diet reports, health reports and reports of one kind or another--are attacked."

And the attacks continued.

Eleanor Singer, president of the American Assn. for Public Opinion Research, said from her office at Columbia University that Hite's "kind of research, if it is thought of as survey research, is damaging to all of survey research."

"No public opinion researcher would claim this as a piece of public-opinion research," Singer added.

Robert Groves, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and senior study director of that institution's Survey Research Center, blasted Hite's methodology as "the equivalent of medical malpractice in our field."

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