Writer Benjamin Stein and CBS reporter Kathleen Sullivan engaged in a brief confrontation during Wednesday's "This Morning" show on CBS, and though it won't ripple across America like last week's George Bush-Dan Rather bout, it was hot TV.
There was also a clear loser--Stein, by self-inflicted arrogance.
For a journalist, watching Stein defend his pseudonymous article about Joan Rivers in December's Gentlemen's Quarterly on the grounds that he used traditional news-gathering techniques was as agonizing as it appeared to have been for Sullivan.
In less than five minutes, Stein incredibly compared his reporting techniques for the GQ article with the work done on Watergate in the Washington Post, and said that in writing under a false name, he was happy to be "in the tradition of Alexander Hamilton and Samuel Johnson."
Stein, as he has done elsewhere, acknowledged to Sullivan in his first TV interview that he wrote the article that appeared under the byline Bert Hacker. Stein's name surfaced as the author after Joan Rivers offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who identified him.
Rivers has since filed a $50-million lawsuit against Stein and the magazine.
In the first-person GQ story, Stein/Hacker recounted firsthand conversations with Rivers--in West Hollywood's Hard Rock Cafe before the suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, and in her home just days after his death--during which he claimed she portrayed Rosenberg as a chronic whiner who was continuing to perturb her from his grave.
Stein told Sullivan that it was disingenuous of Rivers to be offended by his portrayal of her in the article because she has herself used jokes about her deceased husband in her nightclub act.
"I didn't make up these jokes," Stein said. "I reported jokes that she--I am told--had already been making."
When Stein, a former Richard Nixon speech writer and Los Angeles Herald-Examiner columnist, acknowledged that he had never met Rivers, Sullivan seemed to blanch, then read aloud the first line of the article: "I have known Joan Rivers for more than 20 years. . . . "
"You've never met her?," Sullivan asked, with some incredulity.
Moments later, Stein became irate at Sullivan's use of the word "hearsay" to characterize the material he had used.
"I beg your pardon, Kathleen," Stein said, interrupting her. "That is called hearsay in a court of law. It is not called hearsay at a newspaper or at CBS News. . . . If hearsay were disallowed, they would close down CBS News. . . . "
Stein went on in his remarkable speech to say that the kind of reporting in his Rivers piece was routine in American journalism.
"The entire Watergate coverage was based on hearsay," he claimed. "They gave the people who wrote that the Pulitzer Prize. . . . If you look at any day's front page of the New York Times and the Washington Post, the huge majority of what is reported is hearsay.
"The hearsay objection is simply a nonsense objection to journalistic coverage. If you apply it, there would be no journalism in the United States today or anywhere else."
Whew! If this were a journalism seminar, everyone would be looking at one another right now wondering who invited this guy.
I have no particular sympathy for Rivers in this. Her comedy is often vicious and personally hurtful to the subjects she singles out. She can do with a bit of harsh upbraiding, or as Stein said, "inquiring."
But inquiring generally suggests an interview, or an attempt at one, and Rivers at least has the courage to perform her act under her own name.
Whether she has a legal case against Stein or not will hang on legal precedents that were not discussed in Wednesday's interview. But I don't know who Stein thinks he is going to convince that creating events from secondhand information, then reporting those events from a fictionalized and hostile point of view, is traditional--or even acceptable--journalism.
In the case of Watergate, we may never know who or what Deep Throat is or was, but I don't remember Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reporting that they were at the Watergate break-in, or that they had been personal friends of Richard Nixon for more than 20 years.
It is one thing to defend yourself as an eccentric stylist who believes in reporting rumors from a trumped-up eyewitness vantage point. It's something else to drag the rest of the profession along with you.
Who did invite this guy?