Small publisher, big controversy If you print James Earl Ray's claim of innocence, you'd better be ready to defend your methods

February 03, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Bethesda -- HARDLY ANYONE noticed when National Press Books came out with its first book, "Employees' Rights in Plain English," in 1985. The same was true for most of the other approximately 40 books put out since by the Bethesda-based publisher: "The Glove Compartment Book," say, or "The Bank-Hater's Handbook."

But give the world James Earl Ray, and the world will beat a path to your door.

Ever since Ray's memoir, "Who Killed Martin Luther King?" was published last November by National Press, more and more people have heard of the small, independent publishing house that mostly specialized in self-help books before branching out the past few years to national-interest books. But in the process, Joel D. Joseph, the Washington-area attorney who became a publisher because he wanted to bring out "books that make a difference," has found that with the long-awaited national attention has come some uncomfortable and potentially damaging controversy.

When "Who Killed Martin Luther King?" was published, the calls started coming in to the modest second-floor offices of National Press Books. "Geraldo," "Inside Edition," "Hard Copy," CNN -- even the "Today Show" -- all wanted to talk to the man who was convicted of killing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

If you turned on the TV set and were startled to find James Earl Ray in your living room, you can thank -- or blame -- Joel D. Joseph. Convinced that Ray is innocent, Mr. Joseph has helped Ray state his case by not only printing 30,000 copies of "Who Killed Martin Luther King?" but also making Ray available to the press around the country.

Mr. Joseph calls himself an admirer of the slain civil rights leader, and notes that as a public-interest and First Amendment attorney in the Washington area in the 1970s and early '80s, he frequently handled civil rights cases. Nonetheless, he's

convinced of Ray's innocence.

"I cross-examined him, and I think he held up pretty well," said Mr. Joseph, 43, a tall, unassuming man. "I was with him for two hours the first time, and then I talked to him a dozen times on the phone. I believe him. I think he's telling the truth."

In the book, Ray asserts his innocence and asks for the naming of a special prosecutor "to investigate the FBI's involvement in the case."

Though initial sales figures for "Who Killed Martin Luther King?" are incomplete, Mr. Joseph is hopeful it will become his first best seller. But if the world has finally taken notice of National Press Books, the new visibility has come at a price.

Columnist Carl Rowan, former King associate Andrew Young and Martin Luther King III protested when statements of theirs concerning the King assassination and investigation were printed on the dust jacket of "Who Killed Martin Luther King" without their permission or knowledge. (Mr. Rowan's name also was misspelled.)

Mr. Rowan told the Washington Post he thought Mr. Joseph was "unscrupulous" for quoting him without permission.

"The bottom line is this: They should have called him and asked him about using a quote of his about a book by his father's convicted murderer," said Ralph Daniels, administrative assistant to Mr. King, now a county commissioner in Georgia, whose blurb reads, "In my opinion it had to be a conspiracy. . . . It's probably a fact that the intelligence community played a role."

"They took something that he said five years ago and stuck it in there," Mr. Daniels said. "To us, it's misrepresentative because too many people could see the book. The comment says nothing about Ray's involvement."

Mr. Joseph maintains today that "it's perfectly legitimate to quote public figures on matters of national importance, just like you would in a newspaper," but said he wrote to the three and promised that their statements would be removed from the dust jacket in future printings.

He conceded: "While I don't think we did anything illegal, it was a tactical mistake probably because it distracted people from the true focus of the book. Publishers Weekly gave us an excellent review, and other newspapers did, too. We'll put the actual reviews on the next printing."

"In hindsight, it would have been handled differently," said Alan Sultan, 26, the vice president of National Press Books. "When you're doing a book like this, you've got to do it 100 percent perfect and not give any type of opportunity to be hit upon, as in this case."

Another sticky situation developed in December, when Mr. Joseph agreed to destroy about 10,000 copies of a new book, "The Second Pearl Harbor," which harshly criticizes Japanese trade practices.

He agreed to the highly unusual move after Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca and author Pat Choate threatened legal action, saying that writings of theirs were used without permission.

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