This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

New York, NY, October 14, 2001 — Given the number of articles about Renata Adler and her book, "Gone," that appeared last year — led by the twelve in the New York Times — calling for her to provide evidence backing up the book's claim that Watergate Judge John J. Sirica was a "corrupt, incompetent, and dishonest figure" with "clear ties to organized crime," you'd think that the bombshell evidence about Sirica that appears in her new book would have generated one more article.

However, on the day I met Adler to talk about that revelation, and some of the other things in "Canaries in the Mineshaft" (St. Martin's, $26.95), a collection of her writings for the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the Times, and others, the Times Sunday Book Review's assessment of the book came out. And although reviewer Bill Kovach ignored 15 of the 16 essays in the book and instead focussed entirely on the introduction and one essay in which he says "Adler continues the dispute" about the Sirica comment, the review includes no mention of the evidence Adler reveals in that essay — a sealed criminal indictment from 1927 against Sirica by the IRS for fixing a prize fight and income tax evasion.

And when we met at her apartment on Manhattan's upper West Side, she started things off with another surprise, telling me that the Times had contacted her publisher with some investigatory questions about the book. Investigatory questions for a book review? I asked her to start from the beginning.

DJ: Let's pick up where we left off in the Salon interview last year. It's a year after your contretemps with the Times, and I'm wondering, looking back over it all, what you make of it? Is it concluded?

RA: No. No, it doesn't feel concluded, but I still don't understand it.

DJ: You worked at the Times, know people there. Have you been in contact with anyone since this happened?

RA: I went to — I don't think this counts, but — I went to Vincent Canby's memorial service and . . . we all greeted each other in a very cordial way.

DJ: Have you talked to [then–Times executive editor] Joe Llelyveld?

RA: We talked at the memorial service, but not about that.

DJ: Well, for someone at the Times, perhaps, it doesn't feel concluded either — what did you hear about someone from the paper calling your publisher?

RA: That someone calling on behalf of the Times Book Review had called and asked three questions. When did I sign the contract for the book? How long had I worked on the book? And did I come to St. Martin's Press or did they come to me? Those are peculiar questions, and I think the answers were not what they sought. That is, the contract for the book existed since 1986. And it seemed that anybody who looked at the book would know how long I worked on it because it covered a lifespan of years, if you call that working on the book. So I think that there may have been a misapprehension that I had come to St. Martin's Press after getting criticized by the Times and that I had said, "Oh dear, please help me out, will you publish this?" and they said, "Fine." But as it happened, this pre–dated, by a lot, "Gone."

DJ: So, ultimately you think, the reason behind the call was — ?

RA: You can just see it in the text of the review — in so far as the review discusses anything, it discusses what you call the "contretemps" with the Times, and raises rather dismissively the question of accuracy, and questions my accuracy.

DJ: The stuff about the history of bylines? I wanted to ask you about that — that's where the reviewer, Bill Kovach, seems most critical of you for issues of accuracy. He says: "She dates newspaper bylines to the 'early seventies,' as a reaction by print reporters to the growing celebrity of television journalists. Newspaper bylines were standard practice at The Times when Adler worked there in 1963." He says "The way Adler handles" this "is puzzling and raises troubling questions about the care exercised in getting 'Canaries in the Mineshaft' into print" and that "readers have a right to expect more — more verification, more transparency, more evidence."

RA: Right. It's comical that the review says I should know that there were always bylines in the New York Times because I had worked there in 1963. I worked there, in fact, in 1968 and 69. You would think that the writer might have checked that; readers have a right to expect more verification, indeed. But if anybody had reason to know that, it would have been the New York Times. And someone who particularly knows this is the editor of the New York Times Book Review, Chip McGrath, because, after all, we had been at the New Yorker together — he was an editor there after I took a leave of absence in 1968 and 69 to go over to the Times. [Note: The Times has corrected the date in the online version of the review. However, as this New York Post story details, the editor of Adler's book takes issue with a correction run in the newspaper.]
      Also, I never said there weren't bylines in the Times. [She grabs a copy of "Canaries in the Mineshaft" off her desk.] The book begins, in fact, with an excerpt from my own fiction, "Pitch Dark," which says, "There had always been bylines, of course, but only on rare stories and those of the highest importance. Sometime in the seventies the paper began to put bylines on nearly all stories, by everyone." I quite obviously didn't mean the introduction of the first byline since the beginning of history. What I was saying was that there came a moment when it became common to put bylines on all stories. And that the moment of the reporter's becoming a celebrity himself, or herself, is not unrelated to that moment.

DJ: In addition to having been the ombudsman for Brill's magazine, and the chairman of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, Bill Kovach worked for the New York Times for 18 years, including a stint as Washington Bureau chief. Do you think it was a conflict of interest for him to review your book?

RA: Well, I don't know about that, because in a way everybody's written for the Times, including me. Actually, one of the pieces in "Canaries" is a review I wrote for the Times. So, it wouldn't necessarily be a conflict of interest. But I think John Leonard put it very well in a piece that I read some years ago in which he said that when he was editor of the Times Book Review, he chose his reviewers without exception based on whether they shared his views or not. So, there it is.

DJ: But having someone from an institution that's criticized in your book be the person to review your book — ?

RA: Well, I just think that as far as Bill Kovach is concerned, he's just obviously, I think, not at his best here; whatever his best might be, this isn't it. I mean, another superb inaccuracy is when he refers in his review to my "four lines about Sirica" in "Gone" as being what started the dispute with the Times. Well, I mean if just you look at it, it's one sentence. It takes up four lines of text in the book, but it's one sentence. Lord knows the Times quoted it often enough.

Part 2 — ADLER ON KAEL: Well, I didn't want her dead, you know.


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