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Author Put Credibility at Stake to Shield Identity

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 18, 1996

   


In February, the "CBS Evening News" asked Joe Klein, a commentator for the network as well as a Newsweek columnist, about a published report that he was the mystery author of "Primary Colors."

"It's not me," Klein said on camera. "I didn't do it. This is silly."

Klein made similarly flat denials to other reporters, including some of his Newsweek colleagues and a Washington Post editor who challenged him to stake his journalistic credibility on whether he had written the blockbuster novel about the 1992 campaign.

Klein's admission yesterday that he is in fact "Anonymous" -- hours after The Post fingered him on the basis of a handwriting analysis of manuscript changes -- 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.

Questions were raised as well about Newsweek Editor Maynard Parker, who acknowledged yesterday that he knew Klein was the author all along, yet allowed his reporters to speculate in print about other authors and to publish Klein's denials.

Asked if he is bothered by Klein lying to other journalists, Parker said: "It made me a little uncomfortable, yes. But it was his book, and it was his decision." He called himself "bemused by the frenzy in the press," adding, "Everyone should get a life."

Others were not treating the matter lightly. Lane Venardos, CBS's vice president for hard news, said: "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. We put him on the air saying no. People in management asked as well and got the same answer."

Late yesterday, the network said it was deferring a decision on Klein, who often talked politics with Dan Rather and other anchors, until CBS News President Andrew Heyward returns from vacation. "He wants to talk to the guy face to face," said Executive Vice President Jonathan Klein (no relation).

In an interview, columnist Klein said he had been "very anguished" about lying to news organizations but that "I really felt I had a prior commitment" to the publisher, Random House, to preserve the book's anonymity. "I'm not a politician, I'm a journalist," he said. "We're dealing with a form of entertainment. . . . Who has been hurt by this?"

He added that "there are a lot of people on their high horses today skewering me . . . a lot of envious people out there."

But even some who admire Klein reacted harshly. Ken Auletta, the New Yorker's media critic, said he is "angry" because "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."

Sanford Ungar, dean of American University's School of Communication, said that "journalists are constantly measuring whether other people are telling the truth. I don't think a journalist has a higher right to lie about his work. He's going to pay a terrific penalty in terms of his credibility."

"Suppose a political figure acted in a way a major political journalist is now said to have acted," said Ann Lewis, communications director for President Clinton's reelection campaign. "He writes a book, flat-out denies that he did, is confronted with evidence he did it, and says no comment. How would political journalist Joe Klein write about a political figure who behaved in that way?"

The unmasking of Joe Klein is replete with enough plot twists to fill a novel about the relationship between politics, journalism and fiction. As a columnist for New York magazine, Klein was the first major journalist to write an admiring cover story about candidate Clinton, in January 1992. Klein soon moved to Newsweek and continued his generally upbeat coverage.

By late 1993, however, Klein began to turn on the president, writing that he "hasn't seemed personally trustworthy." And in a May 1994 piece titled "The Politics of Promiscuity," Klein painted a devastating portrait of Clinton that would be fully fleshed out in the person of Jack Stanton, the Southern governor and presidential candidate in "Primary Colors."

In a work of fiction that many Clinton advisers described as uncannily accurate, Stanton was depicted as a man of gargantuan appetites -- both political and sexual -- whose prodigious campaigning talents were at war with his personal irresponsibility. In the Newsweek piece, Klein wrote of a "rising landfill of allegations of personal misbehavior that Bill Clinton has had to deny, deflect, defend and derail."

Parker says he never told anyone that Klein had confided in him while he was writing "Primary Colors." That, in turn, allowed Newsweek to engage in the same guessing game about Anonymous as other news organizations.

In early February, Newsweek Senior Editor Jonathan Alter pitched a story based on his belief that the author was Luciano Siracusano, a former New York speechwriter. Parker would run only an item in the magazine's "Periscope" section, and it was strangely worded to distance the magazine: "Newsweek's Jonathan Alter is convinced that the author is . . ."

"That was Jon's speculation," Parker said. "I told Jon, `You'd better be damn sure of it.' "

Alter said that at the time, "Maynard seemed curiously uninterested in the story, which later took on significance. . . . Sure it would have been nicer if he'd just killed the item. But if he had killed that Periscope item, that would have given up the game."

Klein responded: "We're not talking about the serum for AIDS here. We're talking about a work of fiction. . . . In the history of Newsweek, that wasn't even a speck of a mote of dust."

When New York magazine unveiled a computer analysis by a Vassar College professor who concluded Klein was the author, Newsweek published a quote from Klein ("New York Magazine hired the wrong computer and the wrong expert"), describing Klein as "denying . . . that he wrote the best-seller `Primary Colors.' "

Shortly afterward, according to David Von Drehle, The Post's Style editor, Klein called him and denied he was the author. When Von Drehle told him his reputation as a journalist was at stake and he could not lie about such a matter, Klein replied, "I'm telling you, I didn't write it."

Klein called that conversation "one of the most difficult things I've ever done in my life."

At Newsweek, which is owned by The Washington Post Co., one staffer said yesterday, "People were shaking their heads about the idea Maynard knew all along and the idea we printed stories that weren't true."

The millionaire author missed few opportunities to deny the speculation. One reporter recalled that during the Iowa caucuses, Klein approached a group of journalists and began loudly complaining about the portrayal of the Kleinlike reporter in "Primary Colors."

Ed Kosner, Klein's former editor at New York and now editor of Esquire, said there was "no problem in being coyly evasive at the very start. But as soon as the book was established and he was challenged, he should have said, `I did it.' . . . The integrity of your reporting is a function of your personal integrity."

   
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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