Ballot Box

Fortunate Son Revisited

It took me about an hour on Monday to figure out that Fortunate Son, the book that accuses George W. Bush of getting arrested for cocaine in 1972, was a crock (see “Busting Bush’s Biographer“). I say this not to congratulate myself (well, not merely to congratulate myself) but to ask why St. Martin’s Press, which announced yesterday that it was “suspending” publication of the book, was unable to make a similar determination before shipping 70,000 copies to book stores–copies that it has so far not recalled, by the way. These people evaluate books for a living. Why couldn’t they smell the huge fish rotting in the top drawer?

The answer is that book editors, and especially some of those at St. Martin’s, are very skilled at holding their noses. People often assume that books are more reliable than newspapers and magazines because they are printed on higher quality paper and bound between hard covers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Book publishers have the lowest editorial standards in journalism, with the possible exception of the Drudge Report and Salon (which after putting the rumor into play in August and hyping the charges in Hatfield’s book, is now reporting on the scandal as a disinterested third-party observer).

In news journalism, editors assume a degree of responsibility for the veracity of what they edit. If a newspaper reporter quotes anonymous sources, his editor will usually want to know their identity, so he can reach some conclusion about whether they are trustworthy. Many magazines employ fact-checkers (whose work is premised on the books-are-more-reliable fallacy). In book publishing, by contrast, editors avoid getting involved in issues of reliability. Before the Dallas Morning News exposed him as an attempted murderer and he went underground, J.H. Hatfield told me that his editor only knew who one of his three alleged anonymous sources was. (I stipulate that I have no idea whether this is true, since St. Martin’s employees refused all comment.) Nothing in a book is ever fact-checked. And when the contents of a book are attacked, the editor is not obliged to defend them or even to have an opinion on the matter.

Thomas L. Dunne, the editor at St. Martin’s Press under whose imprint Fortunate Son appears, has taken this position explicitly in the past. In 1996, various individuals and organizations called upon St. Martin’s not to publish a biography of Joseph Goebbels by the Holocaust revisionist David Irving. In defending his decision to publish the work (which St. Martin’s subsequently dropped), Dunne made it clear that he considered it absurd for people to expect him to judge the author’s reliability. “I have been told,” Dunne wrote in his press release, “that Mr. Irving is at the center of much controversy of late and has been accused–and I do not know if this is true or not–of denying the Holocaust.” After making it sound like he knew about the book only from reading about it in the newspaper, Dunne went on to assert that for an editor to sit in judgment of his own books would be censorship!

In place of editorial standards, book publishers have legal ones. While they may not care whether what they publish is true or not, they do care whether they can be sued. So lawyers vet books like Fortunate Son for libel. But a good libel lawyer doesn’t charge his clients $300 an hour to serve as a fact-checker. He concentrates on the risk that a living person might actually sue his client. And in an instance like this one, a libel lawyer would say that the chance of a lawsuit was next to nil, even if he suspected that Fortunate Son was fabricated out of whole cloth. Why? Because nonexistent sources can’t sue, and politicians don’t sue. By filing for libel, a candidate or elected official would open himself to an open-ended process of legal “discovery.” In this case, George W. Bush would be a fool to allow that to happen even if he stood a chance of winning a judgment against St. Martin’s. To sue would mean that Bush would have to answer endless questions about his past drug use, among other things.  

The lesson of this shameful episode is clear: caveat lector. And caveat especially lectors of books published by St. Martin’s Press.