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TIM RUTTEN

Book clubbed

Even an important work of political journalism can suffer when it's wrapped in the publicity campaign of a celebrity tell-all.

August 06, 2008|Tim Rutten

The controversy that erupted Tuesday over Ron Suskind's new book-length account of the Bush/Cheney administration's conduct of the war on terrorism raises some interesting questions about the way publishers treat a literary genre that has become increasingly vital to our political journalism.

The flap, at least so far, stems from the book's allegation that the White House ordered then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet to fabricate a letter from an Iraqi intelligence official in which he not only admitted a Baghdad-Al Qaeda connection but bragged that Mohamed Atta, ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers, had been trained in Iraq. Nothing of the sort is true, of course, but Vice President Dick Cheney and his inner circle long have insisted such a link existed and that it justified the Iraqi war in which more than 4,000 Americans have died.

Suskind, formerly the Wall Street Journal's senior national affairs writer, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for a series on inner-city education. His new book, "The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism," is the third extended nonfiction narrative he has reported and written on Washington under George W. Bush. To keep the record clear, I favorably reviewed the second of those volumes, "The One Percent Doctrine," and a laudatory quote from that review appears on the dust jacket of this new book, which I'll review for The Times later this week.

The latter fact has provided a front-row perspective on how Suskind's publisher, HarperCollins, has chosen to market this book, a work of journalism that involves questions crucial to the public interest.

It's customary for publishers of a newsworthy book to provide copies to reviewers with the understanding that reviews are "embargoed," that is, nothing will appear prior to the official publication day. In the cases of books containing extremely controversial or sensitive information, some publishers demand that the reviewer and his or her editor sign confidentiality agreements. Under its current book editor, David L. Ulin, The Times declines to enter such agreements because, should another publication break the embargo, our book staff would be precluded from sharing newsworthy information with Times reporters, which would impinge on our readers' right to know.

Review copies of Suskind's book were supposed to be made available Monday, which should have made it possible for the first reviews to appear today. HarperCollins, however, chose to hold them until midday Tuesday. But, as part of the publisher's publicity campaign, Suskind was booked for exclusive interviews on NBC's "Today" show Tuesday and today.

But the book also fell into the hands of reporter Mike Allen at Politico.com. At 7:46 a.m. EDT Tuesday, Allen posted a story containing Suskind's allegations concerning the fabricated letter.

Allen's article is detailed and includes key quotes from the book: "The White House had concocted a fake letter from [Iraqi intelligence chief Tahir Jalil] Habbush to Saddam [Hussein], backdated to July 1, 2001," Suskind writes. "It said that 9/11 ringleader [Mohamed] Atta had actually trained for his mission in Iraq -- thus showing, finally, that there was an operational link between Saddam and Al Qaeda, something the vice president's office had been pressing CIA to prove since 9/11 as a justification to invade Iraq." Allen's story contained a flat denial from the White House -- "Ron Suskind makes a living from gutter journalism" -- and, three hours later, the website posted an extended rebuttal from Tenet: "There was no such order from the White House to me nor, to the best of my knowledge, was anyone from CIA ever involved in any such effort."

Great stuff -- all the inherent drama of he said/she said played for the highest of geopolitical stakes. By midday Tuesday, it was all over cable news and the publicity campaign for "The Way of the World" was well and truly launched.

It's interesting, though, that Politico's Allen writes in his article that he purchased his copy of the book in a Washington book store Monday night. The allegations concerning the forged letter appear on Page 371 of the 415-page book. Allen is a rapid and acute reader, indeed, to have digested the entire book, fixed on its most controversial allegation, written a story and obtained a White House denial, all before 8 the next morning. On the other hand, HarperCollins' review copies come with an addendum to the standard publicity material: a four-page list titled "major news breaks," citing Suskind's most newsworthy findings and the numbers of the pages on which the reporting appears. (As Thoreau once observed, "Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.")

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