There’s a journalism brawl going on that’s too vicious to miss but too long-winded to slog through. It began with David Kirkpatrick’s Feb. 14 piece in the New YorkTimes outlining the unusual geegaws (multiple covers, new appendices, etc.) in the paperback edition of one of last year’s best-reviewed books, Dave Eggers’ memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Eggers was so enraged by the piece that he responded with a “Clarification” on his Web site that included the entire text of his e-mail correspondence with Kirkpatrick, which Kirkpatrick had requested remain confidential. Kirkpatrick shot back this defense.
If you don’t feel like dragging yourself through the 1,500-word Times article, the over-10,000-word counterattack in McSweeney’s, and Kirkpatrick’s 1,000-word reply, here’s a condensation. Kirkpatrick e-mailed Eggers several times asking for an interview. Eggers resisted and then eventually agreed to an e-mail-only exchange. In order to secure the interview, Kirkpatrick promised to check every quote with Eggers: “I will email you the text of the passages in question for your approval. No approval, I cut it.” In exchange, he asked Eggers to make himself available Feb. 12, the day before the article went to press. On the appointed day, Kirkpatrick emailed Eggers “at 2:25 p.m. to alert him that I was ready for a final correspondence,” and then sent Eggers the quotes on the late side (at 9:45 p.m. on the 12th). Eggers, who says he was asleep in a time zone 18 hours ahead, did not get the e-mail until the next day: “you told me it would be coming on the 12th I expected it during New York’s business hours,” he explained. Eggers left Kirkpatrick a frantic voicemail, but the piece had already gone to press.
Eggers’ charges against Kirkpatrick are: 1) disingenuous buttering up; 2) “Factual fabrications”; 3) using a sneering, unpleasant tone in his article; 4) repeated use of off-the-record quotes; and 5) defaulting on his promise to let Eggers check the text of his remarks.
Let’s take the charges one by one:
1) Buttering up: Kirkpatrick did compliment Eggers’ book and mention a mutual friend. But chitchatting with a source and looking for common ground is standard operating procedure (compared to the grotesque fawning of CNN and 60 Minutes while trying to woo the Unabomber, Kirkpatrick’s comments barely register on the obsequious-o-meter). And Eggers is no media naif. Unlike the classic victim of fake journalistic chumminess—see Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer—Eggers knew all along that Kirkpatrick was trying to ingratiate himself in order to win Eggers’ cooperation. Kirkpatrick flat-out said, “I have an occupational obligation to try to talk you into talking with me.”
2) “Factual fabrications”: Kirkpatrick mistakenly placed a Newark bar in Trenton. Eggers claims not to have sold tickets to raise money for charity at his events, as Kirkpatrick wrote in his piece (Kirkpatrick responded by producing a schedule, provided by Eggers’ publisher, advertising “a fundraiser for the Rush Hospice Partners of Lake Forrest.”) Kirkpatrick described fans reportedly “throwing themselves” at Eggers. Eggers says they were actually interested in someone else, but Kirkpatrick’s account is corroborated by a report in the Toronto Star that describes “nubile young women” who “indicated their willingness to move into Eggers’ chaotic Brooklyn home to be his muse, mother, cook, lover—or unpaid intern.” Kirkpatrick characterized a lawsuit filed against Eggers by his former agent in a way Eggers’ lawyer agreed with but Eggers himself did not. The Times has corrected the location of the bar, but nothing else. This seems reasonable, since Kirkpatrick has provided evidence to rebut the other claims.
3) Sneering tone: On the issue of what Eggers calls Kirkpatrick’s “icky, almost angry” tone, Eggers is simply wrong. The piece has no such nasty tone, though it does have a dose of skepticism, as it should.
4) Off-the-record quotes: This is a more serious charge. If Eggers’ posting of their e-mail exchange is correct and complete, Kirkpatrick broke a basic rule of journalism. Kirkpatrick defends himself on the grounds that he had Eggers’ publicist’s blessing to go ahead. But Eggers is especially sensitive about quotation and privacy, and Kirkpatrick must have known it.
5) Failure to get Eggers the material in time: Tough one. Kirkpatrick knew that Eggers had only agreed to do the piece with the reassurance that he’d be able to check the quotes. Eggers knew that Kirkpatrick had only agreed to show him the quotes with the reassurance that Eggers would respond to them immediately. This could be an honest, time-zone-induced mix-up. Or it could be that both violated the terms of their deal. This kind of confusion is one of the reasons journalists generally don’t share their material with sources.
If Eggers had simply exposed Kirkpatrick’s real offense—using off-the-record quotes—that would have been enough to impugn Kirkpatrick’s reputation. But Eggers gets schoolyard-bully mean: He quotes a friend who called Kirkpatrick’s piece ” ‘a gossipy thing written by a bitter little bastard.’ You actually know the person who characterized it that way. I don’t want to throw insults around, but I wanted you to know how it’s perceived.” It doesn’t stop there: “everyone at Vintage and Random House thinks you’re a hatchet wielder.” And then the final, self-righteous blow: “I think it’s important that our exchange be published. It’s the only remedy commensurate with the impact you enjoyed with your original piece.” In other words, two wrongs make a right.
In the end, Kirkpatrick succeeded in what he set out to do—explore Eggers’ ambivalence, hostility, defensiveness, and creativity—more amply than he ever could have hoped for. Unfortunately, Kirkpatrick’s rule breaking seems to have given Eggers more ammo in his war against those who attempt to cover him. In fact, by bloodying Kirkpatrick, Eggers may succeed in scaring off less-determined journalists. If you were a reporter, would you accept an assignment to interview him?