Sometimes a little lie is the best policy -- but not usually

July 19, 1996|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- When a politician is caught by the press in a lie, his credibility nosedives. He has failed to adhere to a simple reliable rule of public life: If you can't tell the truth, say ''no comment.''

Newsweek columnist Joe Klein, in denying repeatedly he was the ''Anonymous'' author of ''Primary Colors,'' the best-selling roman a clef about President Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, failed to observe that same rule, and as a result finds himself in his current compromising position.

Now that he has owned up to his authorship, a torrent of criticism has engulfed him from politicians and members of his own journalistic fraternity. It is not because he wrote the book or chose to market it as an intriguingly anonymous author, but because he lied about writing it, even to his own colleagues.

Politicians are having a field day with the fiasco, unable to resist a golden opportunity to take a shot at the news business that has not always treated them kindly. Clinton adviser James Carville was quick to observe that ''reporters lie all the time.''

The remark underscores how Mr. Klein's denial of authorship and subsequent admission undercuts not only his own credibility but also that of a business that needs the assumption of truthfulness to function and thrive.

Mr. Klein's excuse -- ''None of this has been really terrible'' -- suggests that he still doesn't grasp what the furor is about, especially within the press community. He told the assembled reporters: ''Joe Klein has never lied in a column and will never. My credibility as a journalist has never been questioned.''

Well, it's being questioned now, as well as that of the news reporting and analyzing business in general. The standing of reporters in polls on trustworthiness isn't likely to climb above confidence in used-car salesmen as a result.

Mr. Klein kids himself too in attributing the criticism by other journalists to envy of the reported $6 million he has already made on the book. Considering the professional abuse the author is taking, there probably aren't many journalists in good standing who would swap with him right now.

Compounding the problem is the acknowledgment of Newsweek editor Maynard Parker that he knew all along that Mr. Klein was the author of the book but let other Newsweek reporters speculate in print in the newsmagazine on other suspected authors of the book.

A difficult thing

Mr. Klein, while brushing off the criticism, did indicate that the ethical questions had not eluded him entirely. He said his continued denial of authorship was ''one of the most difficult things I've ever done in my life.''

His defense -- that ''I really felt I had a prior commitment'' to the publisher to protect the anonymity that intensified interest in the book -- indicated that his priorities as a journalist were a bit out of whack.

What about his commitment to his colleagues and readers to tell the truth when confronted with the question, or at least dodge with that old standby, ''No comment?''

Politicians since Richard Nixon in the Watergate cover-up, feeling that this simple noncommittal evasion would be insufficient to quell suspicions, have chosen lying as the better course.

But, as politicians have so often learned, once a lie is told, it more often than not has to be supported with more lies, and the hole gets deeper. It's a lesson that Mr. Klein as a political writer certainly knew, but didn't apply in this context.

Perhaps it was because he saw himself wearing different hats. ''I'm not a politician, I'm a journalist,'' he explained. ''We're dealing with a form of entertainment [with the book],'' and he asked: ''Who has been hurt by this?''

Beyond his own reputation, at least in the short term, what has been hurt is the general credibility of all who ply the trade of collecting and commenting on the news. If Mr. Carville can seize on what ordinarily would be an insignificant little fib once told and forgotten, can Rush Limbaugh and other press-haters be far behind?

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 7/19/96

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