By: Allan Wolper
Washington, d.c., is a place where every- one is connected to everyone else, and every high-profile journalist and politician seems to have a book publisher in New York City. It is where anonymous sources are licensed to destroy reputations, where deals involving public funds and public policy are made in private conference rooms.
Once newspapers were watchdogs of this scene. Now they might publish a conflict-of-interest investigation without fully informing the reader of their own stake in the issue.
That was the story on May 25 when The New York Times suggested W.W. Norton & Co. won the contract to become “the authorized publisher” of the report on the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks because of its relationship with Philip D. Zelikow, the 9/11 commission’s executive director. Zelikow is director of The Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, which has a long-standing publishing deal with Norton.
In the article, Philip Shenon alleged that “the choice of Norton had created consternation among publishing executives whose companies were turned down for the prestigious lucrative assignment.” But Shenon did not identify any of these executives.
The idea that Norton was cashing in on a big-ticket item because Zelikow steered it to them also caused “consternation” at the publishing house. “That’s bogus,” said W. Drake McFeeley, president/chairman of Norton. “We are printing 500,000 paperbacks that we are selling for $10. We have a better-than-even chance of losing money. We’re doing this as a public service.”
The anonymous attack on Zelikow also enraged the 9/11 commission, which is scheduled to publish its final report July 26. “How can we respond to anonymous accusers?” asked Al Felzenberg, a commission spokesman. “I asked Shenon who the publishers were. He said he couldn’t tell me.”
Why didn’t Shenon name anyone? “The publishers told me they were frustrated and angry at the way the process was handled, ” said Shenon in a telephone interview. “They didn’t want to be identified because they didn’t want to appear to be sore losers.”
Fine, but that’s hardly a reason to quote them anonymously.
Perhaps Daniel Okrent, who recently complained in his Public Editor column in the Times about the paper’s continuing reliance on anonymous sources, might question this latest use of unnamed attackers to impugn a person’s integrity. Which is why Zelikow told me he did not want to respond to the New York Times article.
What is this all about? Norton, as the “authorized” distributor of the 9/11 report, will be able to get its $10 paperback into bookstores before anyone else. But those who wish to can download it for free off the Internet on the day it is released.
The article noted that Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt & Co. that “publishes some books in collaboration with The New York Times,” also bid for the contract. But Shenon did not include a quote from Holt & Co., even though he interviewed its president and publisher, John Sterling.
One week later, Elizabeth Shreve, a spokesperson for Holt, told The Sun in Baltimore that the bidding process was a fair one, echoing what other publishers told that paper.
Shenon wrote that St. Martin’s Press and PublicAffairs Books would be publishing unauthorized paperbacks that would include analysis of the commission’s report. But the Times did not disclose that the St. Martin’s Press edition would include a series of analytical articles by New York Times writers, including several by Shenon, or that St. Martin’s regularly publishes New York Times-branded titles.
The more one looked, the more it looked like the Times was publishing a story about itself. The behavior of sore losers, so to speak. But Sean Desmond, a St. Martin’s editor, is not one of them. He sees his edition as providing context to the official report.
Peter Osnos, chief executive of PublicAffairs Books ? the runner-up in the competition that already has published a volume based on the preliminary 9/11 staff report ? told me Norton got the contract “because they had the lowest bid,” a variation of what he told Shenon.
Still, the 9/11 commission earned the scrutiny. It asked for proposals only from publishers who contacted them. And it still hasn’t announced who the bidders were. “When you are dealing with something that is so much in the public interest, there must be total transparency,” said Martin Garbus, a noted copyright and First Amendment attorney who reminded me with a laugh that he had a book published by the Times.