By: Joe Nicholson
A literary agent’s $2 million book proposal heightens the controversy
The same day that New York Times reporter Gina Kolata’s cancer cure story appeared on the front page, she received a call from literary agent John Brockman who suggested the story could be the basis for a $2 million book advance.
In response, Kolata sent Brockman an e-mail with a two-page book proposal. But a day later, Kolata ? who apparently was unaware of a Times policy prohibiting reporters from writing books about subjects they are actively covering ? withdrew her offer after speaking with her editors.
Kolata, a Times reporter for a decade, is also a prolific author who has written several books.
A Times spokeswoman, Lisa Carparelli, told E&P, “Our editors are very much opposed to a reporter undertaking a book on a set of developments that he or she is currently covering.”
In the case of Kolata, Carparelli said, “Ms. Kolata mentioned the book proposal to her direct supervisor, and then they jointly decided that it was appropriate for her to tell the executive editor about it.”
Kolata’s supervisor is science editor Cornelia Dean; the executive editor is Joseph Lelyveld. Kolata returned a call from E&P, but declined comment. Times editors did not respond to requests for interviews.
The Times did its own story on the series of events, and quoted Lelyveld as explaining, “We don’t want reporters trading on stories they are currently covering. There is the danger of a conflict of interest, and there is an appearance of a conflict of interest.”
A reporter at Newsday was also reported to have been offered a $1 million advance for a book about the cancer cure stories he had been reporting.
Along with heightening the overall controversy surrounding the Times’ “cancer cure” story, the book advance offers also sparked national debate about whether newspapers should forbid reporters from writing books about news stories they are covering.
Yes, said the New York Times and Newsday.
Not necessarily say two prominent journalism deans and a professor of ethics.
The deans of the graduate schools of journalism at Columbia University and at the University of California at Berkeley said it appeared that the efforts to avoid potential conflicts of interest may become excessive.
“I don’t think there can be a hard and fast rule,” said Tom Goldstein, the Columbia dean whose varied career also includes a half-dozen years as a Times reporter. “You shouldn’t be writing about something whose outcome you can effect.
“My sense is that people will tighten up because of all the attention that is being paid,” added Goldstein. “I don’t think it is necessarily a good thing to tighten. You want to be able to get the really talented people in the newsroom who might be tempted to go off into book writing.”
Orville Schell, the Berkeley dean, expressed stronger reservations.
“It’s very common and a perfectly respectable practice to be writing books and to be reporting on the breaking aspects of the story,” said Schell, a former staff writer at the New Yorker and author of 13 books.
“You’d write the articles, and you’d be writing the books as a kind of double bill. The magazine article would generate the book contract or a higher advance.”
“However,” added Schell, “I would be very wary of soliciting a book contract the day after a front-page story in the New York Times has created a brouhaha. It gives the appearance of sort of profiting at a moment when news is in its most vulnerable state. It’s unseemly.”
Long Island’s Newsday has its own respected science reporter, Robert Cooke, who has tracked Dr. Folkman’s decades of efforts to conquer cancer. He has accepted a contract from Random House to put together a book on Folkman; the Times quoted industry sources as saying Newsday’s reporter would make $1 million.
While Cooke wouldn’t tell E&P the extent of his windfall, he acknowledged, “I never expected to get such a big advance.” Researcher Folkman has promised the reporter, according to Random House publicist Tom Perry, “exclusive access for the next couple of years.”
Cooke hoped to write about Folkman simultaneously in news stories and in his book, he said, adding, “I have to work that out with Newsday. We’ll see what I’m allowed to cover.”
Ultimately, Cooke’s editors ruled out part of his plan. Howard Schneider, a managing editor-news and vice president for content development, said, “We just came out of a meeting. . . . Bob will not be able to continue to cover Dr. Folkman’s research or the cancer research of any of his competitors because he is going to go ahead and do the book.”
Newsday editors decided Cooke might be put in a position where it would appear he might hesitate to report criticism of Folkman for fear the researcher would cut off the special access he has granted the reporter-author for his book.
?( New York Times reporter Gina Kolata has also written several books) [Photo & Caption]
?( Editor & Publisher Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher May 30,1998) [Caption]