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'Primary Colors': Green for Greed

Media: Newsweek's Joe Klein has no excuse for denying his 'Anonymous' identity.

July 19, 1996|DAVID SHAW | David Shaw writes about the media for The Times

Sir Walter Scott said it best, almost 200 years ago:

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!"

Joe Klein, the Newsweek political columnist who admitted this week that he was the anonymous author of the best-selling political novel "Primary Colors," may have had legitimate reasons for withholding his identity when the book was published in January.

It was his first attempt at fiction, and he didn't want to be embarrassed if it was no good, he said Wednesday after the Washington Post blew his cover. Besides, he said, he wanted the book to be "judged on its own merits," not as the work of a journalist widely known for his disillusionment with Bill and Hillary Clinton--the thinly veiled models for the protagonistsin "Primary Colors."

But even though early reviews of "Primary Colors" were generally favorable--thus relieving Klein of his fear of embarrassment--he dramatically raised the ante of anonymity, moving from simply withholding his identity to blatantly lying about it.

After a literature professor's textual analysis concluded early this year that Klein was the author, Klein told CBS News, "It's not me. I didn't do it." He told the New York Times, "For God's sakes, definitely I didn't write it." He told a Washington Post editor that he would stake his credibility as a journalist on his disavowals. He even went out of his way to bring up "Primary Colors" with reporters at the Iowa caucuses in February so he could indignantly protest how the author had insultingly portrayed him (as the fast-talking magazine columnist Jerry Rosen).

Klein's reason for lying was clear and not at all legitimate:

Greed.

With the "whodunit?" game in full swing, sales of "Primary Colors" skyrocketed. Klein has already earned an estimated $6 million from the book and movie rights. To have identified "Anonymous" would have prematurely terminated the hype--and probably reduced sales.

Klein says he had a commitment to his publisher not to disclose his identity, but he has also said that anonymity was his choice in the first place, and while Random House might well have been disappointed by the loss of that sales-boosting gimmick, I can't imagine such a reputable publisher saying, "No, Joe, you have to lie or we'll have to cut your royalty check."

Klein now says that his lies were no different than a reporter telling a lie to protect a confidential source. His source in this case, he says, was his book, and he owed it to the "integrity" of the book to do what he did. Given his brazen dissembling, "integrity" is not a word that should trip lightly off Klein's lips.

Besides, Klein is the book. Protecting a human source from possible harm is one thing; protecting your book--the engine of your own burgeoning wealth--is quite another.

Most reputable reporters don't lie to protect their confidential sources. They just refuse to disclose them. He could have done the same thing. When the journalistic "scorps" Klein ridiculed in his book came around, he could have said, "Sorry, guys, I'm not going to play the guessing game. If you want to try to find out who wrote it, be my guest. But I have my own work to do."

That "non-denial" would have led many to conclude that Klein was the author. He didn't want that. So he kept lying.

Journalists--good journalists--regard themselves above all as truth-seekers. Few things give a reporter a greater sense of satisfaction than catching someone in a lie, especially if that lie is told in the interest of self-enrichment or self-aggrandizement. By lying for exactly those reasons, Klein has dishonored his profession, undermined his credibility and given aid and comfort to those who accuse everyone in the news media of writing fiction in the guise of journalism.

Nevertheless, Newsweek Editor Maynard Parker stands by Klein. Parker calls the controversy a "summer diversion . . . hardly a matter of state security," and says the lies don't affect Klein's "credibility as a journalist."

Of course, Parker is not exactly in an unassailable position to chastise his columnist. Klein says Parker was the only person apart from his agent and his family whom he'd told before this week that he wrote "Primary Colors."

Yet Parker allowed Newsweek's Feb. 12 "Periscope" section to name the five "favorite candidates" for the authorship of "Primary Colors." Klein was not on the list. Nor did Parker stop publication a week later of a "Periscope" item that said, "The search for 'Anonymous' . . . may finally be over. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter is convinced that the author is a former top speechwriter for New York ex-governor Mario Cuomo . . . Luciano Siracusano."

More important, although Parker said Thursday that he had "strenuously suggested" several times that Klein either acknowledge his authorship or be more coy in his denials, the editor does not appear to have insisted that Newsweek could not have a political columnist who was a public liar.

Meanwhile, CBS, where Klein is a part-time consultant and commentator, hasn't decided about his status. News executives there were waiting to see if public sentiment turns against him--a shameful abandonment of their responsibility to do what's right, regardless of public sentiment.

But then there's more than enough shame to go around in this case.

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