Book publishers don't check their authors' facts

Bush bio scandal highlights a chronic problem.

Published October 25, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

As red-faced St. Martin's Press recalls copies of J.H. Hatfield's controversial George W. Bush biography, "Fortunate Son," it may be experiencing a sensation of dij` vu.

Only three years ago the same St. Martin's imprint, Thomas Dunne Books, was forced to withdraw a Joseph Goebbels biography after the publisher belatedly realized that the author, David Irving, had links to Holocaust revisionist groups. With the Hatfield affair, it appears that Thomas Dunne Books could be accused of a similar lapse in judgment: If a report in the Dallas Morning News is true, Hatfield, whose book alleges that Bush was once busted for possession of cocaine and used his family influence to expunge his record, is himself a felon.

But even if Hatfield is a felon, does that also make him a liar? St. Martin's seems to think so. One week ago, the publisher was rallying behind the book's claim, substantiated by three unnamed sources. "I believe Jim, and we stand behind him," editor Barry Neville said in an interview Tuesday. Three days later, however, the publisher began backpedaling. "Since Mr. Hatfield's credibility has been called into question, we feel compelled to suspend publication," Sally Richardson, St. Martin's trade division publisher, stated Thursday.

Having published such serious accusations against Bush with only unnamed sources to back those charges up, St. Martin's has been on the defensive from the get-go with "Fortunate Son." Now the publishing house is being dunned by critics outraged by what they claim is the lack of editorial rigor applied to Hatfield's book. "St. Martin's didn't respond to questions about whether it tried to vet the charges against Bush," reads the kicker of a New York Post piece by Deborah Orin last Friday, referring to the process in which a publisher's lawyers examine a manuscript.

Thomas Dunne told Salon Books that the book was vetted -- but even if Orin were correct, her point would not be entirely relevant. A publishing house's lawyers aren't responsible for establishing the veracity of a work. "It's the lawyer's job to review the manuscript and indicate where the risks lie," says Kevin Goering, a media law expert at Coudert Brothers. Goering, who has worked for Random House and Grove/Atlantic, says that lawyers are not hired to fact-check. They only flag portions that may be actionable.

In her syndicated column Friday, Arianna Huffington hammers away at the publisher's internal fact-checking, speculating on what dark motivations led St. Martin's to publish the book. She accuses the publisher of withdrawing the book simply because of its author's past and not out of "any shame or misgivings for having published a malicious fabrication that could have destroyed a presidential candidacy without meeting even the most rudimentary standards of proof."

Huffington takes exception to the fact that St. Martin's accepted Hatfield's afterword (in which he presents the story about Bush's alleged cocaine bust) without any solid documentation or corroborative data for its allegations. What Huffington, herself an author, doesn't explain is that this sort of on-faith acceptance of a writer's assertions is pandemic in publishing. Book editors, like lawyers, aren't fact-checkers. They often have barely enough time to line-edit, let alone sift through supporting evidence for their authors' facts. Most book contracts require an author to warrant that his or her work is not libelous, and that the facts are true, or are based on reasonable research. So ultimately, it is the author, not the editor, who is responsible for the book's accuracy.

According to a leading publishing lawyer, David S. Korzenik, accuracy is a big problem in book publishing, especially with blockbuster books, such as Hatfield's, that are completed on tight schedules. "It happens often enough. A lot of books -- and more and more of them -- are books that are being written about very controversial events and they are being distributed right into the controversy," Korzenik said. "They're not after the fact, they're in the middle of the dispute."

Because five other books about George W. Bush were already in the works or had been released, St. Martin's must have felt pressured to publish Hatfield's. Initially, the house planned to bring out the book in January 2000, but it stepped up the shipping date after Hatfield finished his explosive afterword. "We were afraid we were going to get scooped," editor Neville said after the book was released last Monday.

But even in less pressured situations, other publishers have let some shady characters slip under their radar. Only a month ago Grove/Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin held back distribution of James Mackay's "I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight: A Life of John Paul Jones" after reports that portions of the book were plagiarized and that Mackay had been accused of similar misconduct before. (Mackay denies the charges.)

In 1996, Little, Brown dropped plans to publish "The City of Light" when scholar Jonathan Spence figured out that the book, about a Jewish merchant who went to Asia before Marco Polo, was a hoax. That year also marked the controversy surrounding Random House's "Primary Colors," a novel that was considered a roman ` clef about the first Clinton presidential campaign, written by an anonymous author who turned out to be then-Newsweek columnist Joe Klein. When the truth was revealed, many observers questioned the ethics of anonymously publishing a book that presented insinuations about the scandalous behavior of real-life public figures behind a thin scrim of fiction.

With Hatfield's and St. Martin's Press' reputations now under siege, their best hope for vindication is for any of those three sources to come forward. But that's the sort of thing that seldom happens unless the law brings all the parties together.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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