Gingerly handling Kelley's Bush book

Writer's sources a bit of a muddle

Media

September 14, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

According to Kitty Kelley, George W. Bush abused drugs while his father was president and George H.W. Bush was a philanderer.

These are among the claims made in The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty (Doubleday, 2004). It's the newest book by Kelley, an author known more for the best-seller status of her celebrity biographies than the precision of her reporting. Though the book is being released today, it already has been denounced by the White House. And it's already reached second place on Amazon.com's best-seller list.

Major television news programs, far from recoiling in disdain, have competed to snag Kelley for their shows. The resulting coverage resembles a smoke-and-mirror act in which the author's sensational charges materialize through mainstream media outlets without the news organizations themselves having to take responsibility for the reporting.

Yesterday, the most-watched morning show, NBC's Today, broadcast the first of three scheduled interviews with Kelley. And you can find her other places, too. She is supposed to appear on sister cable station MSNBC tonight and Sept. 20. CNN's NewsNight is also scheduled to feature her tonight. Newsweek, however, turned down a proposal to publish an excerpt from the book.

Max Frankel knows the dance all too well. He was executive editor of The New York Times in 1991, when the newspaper gave front-page advance treatment to Kelley's unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan. The book portrayed the former first lady and Hollywood actress as duplicitous, scheming and unfaithful. The article reflected the thrust of the book - which relied extensively on anonymous sources. "I was very unhappy with that article," said Frankel, who said he had no role in the decision to run it. "I didn't see the evidence or the reliability of her sources in our story."

Want evidence? Watch Court TV. For second- or third-hand gossip with breathless dish about surpassing celebs - Liz Taylor, the Reagans, the British Royals, Jackie O - Kelley's the one. Kelley's publisher, Doubleday, insisted the new book could not circulate until today because it was "so explosive and re[v]ealing." But parts of it were leaked - first on Sept. 5 to a London tabloid, the Mail. Its slender account was soon picked up online by the Drudge Report and quickly relayed in other outlets, including the Boston Herald, The New York Times and The Washington Post. The Times, which looked at the Republican response, had obtained a copy of the book. The Post, which looked at the likely media coverage, had not.

"It may be some things that Kitty Kelley says about Bush will turn out to be true," said James Fallows, a former editor of U.S. News & World Report who is now a Washington-based correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. But he said publishers often abdicate their presumed responsibility to verify that what they are publishing is true: "For better or worse, the difference between books and blogs" - the often ideological Web sites that traffic in rumor and speculation - "are disappearing."

For journalists, Fallows offered this advice: "Follow the leads that seem verifiable - then publish those."

In the book, Kelley does list literally hundreds of sources, but it is still difficult to determine the precise origins of her richly detailed anecdotes and allegations.

Kelley's publisher stands behind her reporting. "The book was vetted by four different lawyers. The legal review is comprehensive," said David Drake, a spokesman for Doubleday. "Fact-checking was certainly part of the editorial process, as well."

NBC's Matt Lauer yesterday challenged Kelley on her political leanings, her sources and her motives - though he didn't mention her multimillion dollar book contract. And he pinned her down on what has emerged as the most charged accusation - that President Bush snorted cocaine at Camp David while his father was president.

Kelley cites both Sharon Bush, the former wife of George W. Bush's younger brother Neil, as a source, as well as a second, unnamed person. Sharon Bush has denied recounting any such behavior, though her former publicist, who attended the interview, has confirmed the gist of her remarks. (NBC had an "exclusive" interview with Sharon Bush yesterday; CNN's Paula Zahn had one, too.) Kelley replied that her editor spoke with Sharon Bush and verified those remarks. But Lauer seemed skeptical that Kelley had not taped such a pivotal interview, as many of her interviews were taped.

"My standards are my standards," Kelley told Lauer. "I write the books the same way every good reporter writes books, and that is to abide by the laws of libel and the laws of invasion of privacy."

Not every reporter. Some journalists take exception to the way she translates what she gathers during interviews - recollections, suggestions, even gossip - into seeming fact on the page.

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