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Where News and Commerce Gladly Meet

May 20, 1994|PAUL D. COLFORD | NEWSDAY; Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His column is published Fridays

When Ted Koppel opened the first of two broadcasts this week examining "The Haldeman Diaries," the ABC newsman trumpeted what he called "a 'Nightline' exclusive."


Tantalizing entries written by H.R. Haldeman during his years in the Nixon White House, as well as home movies and audiotapes, were "being made public for the first time," Koppel added.

But this was no "exclusive" in the old-fashioned sense, when a reporter sleuths about and works the phone, a la Woodward and Bernstein, and unearths stunning truths about government and its leaders.

Rather, "Nightline" obtained its exclusive on a silver platter--from the publisher G.P. Putnam's Sons, which put "The Haldeman Diaries" on sale Wednesday, the day after Koppel's second broadcast. As other news organizations waited to receive the book from Putnam, they cobbled their initial reports from broadcast transcripts provided by "Nightline."

If Putnam's agreement with "Nightline" works out as the publisher hopes, Koppel's two-parter will lead to an immediate burst of book sales. Meanwhile, ABC, which had promoted the "Nightline" broadcasts in this important May sweeps ratings period, led CBS and NBC in the top 31 TV markets on Monday and won the time slot even more impressively on Tuesday night.

This sort of arrangement happens all the time at the intersection of news and commerce. Publishers and authors routinely sell the so-called first-serial excerpt from a hot book to a weekly newsmagazine or a tabloid--on an exclusive basis, of course--or they try to line up "Nightline," "20 / 20" or another popular broadcast to launch the book into the marketplace. The show bites if the book might make for good television.

"If you have a book with news, you want to orchestrate the campaign so that all the news breaks on the same day," said Lynn Goldberg, the president of Lynn Goldberg Communications, which has organized Haldeman-like rollouts for the memoirs of former Secretary of State George Schultz, Iran-contra principal Richard Secord and other figures.

To go the more-traveled route, and circulate unedited galley copies of a book before publication, may generate a published blurb or two to whet readers' appetites, "but you dissipate the explosive value of the news in the book," Goldberg added.

Last fall, Random House withheld copies of Gerald Posner's "Case Closed," which presented compelling evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald alone killed President John F. Kennedy, until ABC's "20 / 20" had aired its report on the book and U.S. News & World Report had run an excerpt.

Former Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan, whose 1988 memoir, "For the Record," revealed that First Lady Nancy Reagan used to consult an astrologer in the planning of President Ronald Reagan's schedule, was made available to reporters no sooner than a Sunday afternoon--so that the resulting stories would not preempt that day's release of Time magazine, which had purchased the first-serial excerpt.

Common as these arrangements are, they do pose risks to the publishers. For example, critics' reviews of "The Haldeman Diaries" may not appear for days--a significant lag, given the public's attention span--because Putnam delayed the release of review copies until Tuesday to protect "Nightline."

In addition, publishers typically have little control over how a book will be treated by the news programs they do business with. Some authors have watched in horror as TV shows lay out their published revelations--but barely mention the name of the book and who wrote it. Despite the enormous popularity of "60 Minutes," CBS' Sunday newsmagazine is regarded warily by some publicists because the show has been known to do stories prompted by new books while giving minimal credit to the author.

To be sure, journalists are not in the business of selling books, and publishers are not in the business of journalism. A question raised by the careful release of "The Haldeman Diaries" may be whether the public is served by an exclusive arrangement between a publisher and a news organization.

"Does it bug me? Sure it does," said Thomas F. Mulvoy Jr., managing editor of the Boston Globe. "All of us have the concern that we have become the ultimate transmission belt. . . . But my sense is that we will continue to do what we always do--report what we see on 'Nightline' and then weigh in with our own view a day later. The idea of breaking news by book excerpt--we're just faced with it."

"I'd be upset (by the deal with 'Nightline') if the book convincingly said that Nixon and Haldeman had been badly misunderstood all these years," said Ashley Halsey, national editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "But a book that says these two guys are still nasty? . . . It's not that big a deal to us."

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