The shame of publishing: Truth is of no concern Neither factual accuracy nor overall truthfulness is taken seriously by many book publishers.


August 02, 1998|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,Special to the sun

Twenty years ago, David Rorvik wrote a book that he swore was true, about a wealthy industrialist who copied himself biologically. Rorvik found a publisher, J.B. Lippincott, to market "In His Image: The Cloning of a Man" as nonfiction.

Lippincott warned readers in a Publisher's Note, "The account ,, that follows is an astonishing one. The author assures us it is true. We do not know. We believe simply that he has written a book which will stimulate interest and debate on issues of the utmost significance for our immediate future."

Lippincott was acknowledging what many publishers never discuss: They assume no responsibility for the truthfulness of books that they represent as non-fiction. Last year, Avon Books moved from lack of responsibility to nihilism with this notice in "Flying Blind, Flying Safe," an expose of the airline industry by Mary Schiavo.

"All of the information in this book has been compiled from the most reliable sources, and every effort has been made to eliminate mistakes and questionable data," says the notice on the copyright page. "Nevertheless, the possibility of error always exists. Neither the authors nor the publisher will be held responsible for any errors or omissions contained herein."

Such a disclaimer is legally meaningless. If somebody mentioned in the book is defamed, has her privacy invaded or is otherwise violated by words, any sensible judge or jury will see the disclaimer for what it is - a cop-out, not a defense.

Teen-agers using books to research term papers, professors citing hundreds of books in bibliographies of scholarly monographs, book group members discussing a best-selling memoir - all of them assume publishers warranty what they place in stores and libraries. Books, after all, are permanent, and therefore the ultimate repository of accurate information. Aren't they?

The answer is too often no. Publishers who share complicity with authors and agents in bringing inaccurate books to market ought to be ashamed for placing a crack in the bedrock of truth necessary for a civilized society.

The standard book contract - written by publishing house lawyers - says the responsibility for accuracy is the author's alone. That should not absolve publishers of their moral and intellectual responsibilities, but many publishers do little to ensure either factual accuracy or overall truthfulness. Those publishers have decided they can afford to dispense with worrying about brand loyalty - how many bookbuyers, they figure, go to Barnes & Noble or a public library to look for a Simon and Schuster?

There are far too many instances of publishers marketing books as nonfiction with no consumer advisory, when warning signs of untruthfulness are evident before shipment to stores and libraries. Bantam copped out by publishing "In God's Name: An Investigation into the Murder of Pope John Paul I" by David Yallop. Doubleday did that with "The Underground Empire: Where Crime and Government Embrace" by James Mills. Ballantine did that with "Sleepers," Lorenzo Carcaterra's memoir an abusive adolescence. Random House did that with John Berendt's all-time best seller, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."

Questions of publisher responsibility become even more urgent when an entire allegedly nonfiction genre sells millions of copies without convincing evidence. That is the current situation with .. books about alien abductions and other activities of extraterrestrial beings.

Consider the new book "Confirmation: The Hard Evidence of Aliens Among Us" written by Whitley Strieber and published by St. Martin's Press. The author of wildly imaginative novels, Strieber achieved fame only after producing what he claimed to be nonfiction.

Strieber's 1987 best seller "Communion: A True Story," published by William Morrow, is an account of aliens entering his bedroom in his locked home, then

implanting mysterious devices below his skin - while his wife slept soundly in the same bed. Despite its passion, it lacks a scintilla of evidence.

I looked painstakingly for "hard evidence" in the 290 pages of "Confirmation." I wonder if Strieber's editors really find his "evidence" convincing: Implants by aliens of small items inside the bodies of earthlings; amateur video recordings of unusual objects in the sky, especially near Mexico City; and the sheer number of people who testify to encounters with aliens.

Despite my dismay at Strieber's book being marketed as nonfiction, I found redeeming passages. Strieber pays lip service to the skeptics, and occasionally pokes fun at himself. I found no redeeming passages in other recent books about alien encounters. The most disturbing of all: "The Day After Roswell" by retired Army Colonel Philip J. Corso. Pocket Books, part of Simon & Schuster, published a hardcover version in 1997 and a paperback version this year.

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