HERE WE HAVE A FELLOW who has made $ 6 million since January off his first novel — a novel that won nearly unanimous critical acclaim and sold more than one million copies, with another 1.5 million coming out in paperback. His book turned into a pop culture obsession on the order of “Who shot J. R.?” and its movie adaptation is being directed by Mike Nichols, starring Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, and Jack Nicholson. That it should now be necessary to put in a good word for such a lucky, talented guy as this author, because he is under relentless attack, is astonishing. But here we are.
The author is Newsweek columnist Joe Klein — formerly known as ” Anonymous,” the author of Primary Colors, the stunning portrait of the Clinton-like presidential primary campaign of Jack Stanton, philandering southern governor. The attack is coming from his fellow journalists and it would seem to be a shot aimed at the heart: Klein’s very integrity and credibility as a journalist are in the dock, and he is being found wanting, wanting, wanting.
The problem is not the fact that Klein is “Anonymous.” It is that Klein has specifically and directly and on several occasions denied to journalists that he is “Anonymous.” To the editor of the Washington Post’s Style section, who challenged him to stake his journalistic credibility on his denial. To CBS, for which he is a consultant, on camera. And to numerous other reporters.
Does this dissimulation not — you can feel the selfrighteousness and sanctimony heating up — does it not gravely affect Joe Klein’s credibility as a journalist? How can he ask others to believe him when he himself has . . . has . . . has lied? If the most precious thing a journalist has is his credibility, and Klein has thrown his away, does it not thereby strike a blow against the credibility of all journalists? And does it not feed the suspicions of a public grown increasingly cynical about those whose job it is to report the news? Quick, to an ethics seminar!
Iver Peterson noted in a “News Analysis” in the New York Times, “The question is, is Mr. Klein somehow morally or ethically at fault for not only denying his authorship, but going out of his way to deny it?” Or as Howard Kurtz put in the Washington Post, “Klein’s admission . . . unleashed a flood of criticism, put his CBS job in jeopardy and turned the tables on a high-profile writer known for his caustic judgments about politicians.”
Spake Mark Halperin, an ABC producer: “On a personal level, many of his friends who asked him directly feel hurt because they’re not used to being lied to repeatedly about something they came to care about a great deal.”
Moaned Ken Auletta, the New Yorker’s media critic: “Joe fibbed, and that’s not acceptable. He not only hurts himself, he hurts the business of journalism. It grants a weapon to the enemies of the press, the feeling that we’re all seedy, slimy bums.”
Opined Kevin Smith, chairman of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists: “You . . . never give up your obligation to deal truthfully with people, whether you are working on a story or in your personal life. So I think Mr. Klein has lost credibility here, and that hurts all of us.”
Sanford Ungar, dean of the school of communications at American University: “He’s going to pay a terrific penalty in terms of his credibility.”
Lane Venardos, CBS news vice president: “Clearly, it’s impossible to have a relationship with someone — even at the low-level consultancy Joe had with us — who is not telling the truth.” (Clearly, the “low-level” defense pioneered by the Clinton White House is catching on.)
Here is the flavor of the questioning at the New York press conference at which Klein came forward: “As a journalist, how were you able to do that? To lie about your identity? . . . I’ve talked to a number of your friends yesterday and today who say that they have been betrayed by you. . . . What about your credibility with your own readers at Newsweek? I mean, basically you had to lie. How can you expect your readers to believe anything that you would write in any of your columns?”
As for Klein himself, in the face of this onslaught, he has tried splitting hairs, drawing a distinction between lying in the service of a prior commitment to his publisher to maintain his anonymity and other, worse forms of lying, and he has tried being self-righteous right back: “Joe Klein has never lied in a column. And never will, at least not knowingly.” (Joe Klein, meet Bob Dole.) But he seems a bit shaken. In an article “Anonymous” published in the New York Times Book Review in May, he observed, “People who’ve never read the book have speculated with great authority about who wrote it. I realize that I’ve been the commercial beneficiary of all this, and that much of it was inevitable, but it’s still been pretty perverse and occasionally nauseating. Too late, I gained a better sense of how Jack Stanton must have felt as the witless, ravenous pack descended on him in New Hampshire.” All the more so, no doubt, since he came clean.
The essential fact that Klein has to deal with is that he has crossed the line into celebrityhood — he is now someone who is more written about than writing. Sanford Ungar’s warning about the “terrific penalty” Klein will pay is truly goofy: Joe Klein has now been identified as the single hottest literary commodity in America, a John-Grisham-cum-Bob-Woodward. He can do anything he wants and Sandy Ungar will sit up and pay attention, or else Sandy Ungar will relegate himself to the sidelines of the American political and cultural action.
As for the press ethicists, what can one say? If CBS has a problem with Klein’s lying, the network will now have to weigh that problem against the fact that Klein is a Superstar. It’s hard to say how the balance will come out, but one thing you can bet on is that Klein’s next network consulting deal — Does anybody really think there won’t be one if he wants one? — is going to be for a lot more money than he’s getting from CBS now.
Honesty? Credibility? The denunciations of Klein would be a little more honest and credible were they at least accompanied by an admission of how sneaky the press is as a general rule and how often its members have to practice one form of deception or another to do their job — from keeping their sources secret to feigning ignorance to drawing people out with false displays of sympathy. With apologies to Winston Churchill, you might even say it takes a bodyguard of lies to get at the truth.
But even that is rather self-righteous, and selfrighteousness is a frame of mind journalists almost inevitably fall into when they talk about themselves. Klein, writing as “Anonymous,” actually managed to have a sense of humor about the press — the “scorps,” for scorpions, as the folks in the Stanton campaign call them.
It’s a pity Anonymous is gone now, because he could probably have written a wickedly funny and devastatingly accurate portrait of the modern media world. We’ll see if Joe Klein can do it — or if, deprived of his anonymity, he’s just too much a part of it now.