End Of The Game

IT STARTED AS SOMETHING OF A LARK. Early last year NEWSWEEK columnist Joe Klein confided to Editor Maynard Parker that he was writing a novel -- which turned out to be a roman a clef about the Clintons -- and wanted Parker's permission. There was a slight catch: Klein told Parker he would remain anonymous because, he said, he didn't want the book to be judged as the work of ""Joe Klein, the journalist.'' Besides, Klein said, he would consider himself lucky if it even got reviewed. Parker, the only person in on the secret besides Klein's family and agent, quickly agreed. ""At the time I thought it was a perfectly legitimate thing to do,'' Parker said, pointing out that NEWSWEEK generally approves outside writing assignments for staffers.

This turned into a good deal more than a lark. By last week, when Klein was outed by The Washington Post as the anonymous author of ""Primary Colors,'' the political satire had grown into a best seller, in large part on the back of the frenzied and highly publicized search for the mystery author. Klein was immediately called the $6 Million Man -- for his anticipated take from book royalties and movie rights (Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson were already lined up to star in it).

But after the revelation, it became something altogether different and not so amusing: an embarrassing black eye for Klein and NEWSWEEK, at least in journalistic circles. Critics called Klein a liar who had damaged his and journalism's credibility by repeatedly and vigorously denying authorship of the book -- in part, they said, for his own commercial gain. And they criticized Parker and NEWSWEEK for going along, and for violating a tenet of journalism: never to print a falsehood knowingly. In February Parker allowed a one-paragraph PERISCOPE item to run that pointed the Anonymous finger at someone else. The Philadelphia Inquirer called for Klein and Parker to be fired. The New York Times wrote in an editorial that if journalists lie, readers will ""ever after'' ask this most damaging question: ""How do I know you are telling me the whole truth as best you can determine it this time?''

""What started out harmlessly and honorably on all sides got out of hand,'' said NEWSWEEK Editor-in-Chief and President Richard M. Smith, who learned about Klein's authorship only last week. ""When the speculation about the book escalated from a lively parlor game and began to prompt Joe's repeated and emphatic denials, he should have called the game off. I regret, and Maynard regrets, that NEWSWEEK continued as even a minor player. We've resolved never to let anything like this happen again.''

As the criticism mounted last week, Klein offered a mildly contrite defense, writing in NEWSWEEK (page 76) that his colleagues and friends ""have a case'' and that he had said ""some things I'll probably always regret.'' But Klein added: ""I made the decision I made -- also justifiable, I believe -- and will have to live with the consequences.'' Earlier, at a press conference where he was hammered by reporters, he said his commitment to his family and Random House, his publisher, to remain anonymous required him to deny authorship. And in an interview last week Klein, invoking the arguments of many politicians, blasted his fellow journalists: ""This is the kind of overzealous, bloodthirsty, witless pursuit, over a very trivial matter, that does far more damage to journalists than anything I've done.''

Parker defended Klein and NEWSWEEK, saying that the controversy involved not a matter of state but a piece of fiction. But he later acknowledged in a note to staffers that the issues were graver. ""I should have done more to separate NEWSWEEK from his novel. I feel bad that my mistake has brought us under criticism. Above all, we have to protect our credibility [with the readers] and in retrospect, I misjudged the impact of this story.''

Most of Klein's critics said they saw nothing wrong with his writing the book anonymously, or even coyly denying his authorship in the beginning. But as reporters grew increasingly intrigued by the identity of Anonymous, Klein issued increasingly categorical denials. ""For God's sake, definitely I didn't write it,'' he said to The New York Times in February. He also said in a television interview for CBS, where he airs political commentary: ""It's not me. I didn't do it. This is silly.'' (CBS said it was disturbed that Klein ""didn't level with us,'' and executives were said to be considering whether to keep him. Klein has said he wasn't required to inform CBS of outside assignments.)

Klein kept up the faade even after New York Magazine published an article on Feb. 19 in which Vassar professor Donald Foster, using computer analysis to compare the book's language to that of Klein's columns, concluded that Klein was Anonymous. This prompted a whole new flurry of inquiries from the press. Shortly afterward, Klein put in a call to The Washington Post's Style editor, David Von Drehle, and denied he was the author. Von Drehle, according to the Post, told him that this was not a matter on which he could be deceptive; his reputation as a journalist was at stake. Klein replied, according to the paper, ""I'm telling you, I didn't write it.''

Some journalists argued Klein should have given up the game when the New York Magazine article ran, and would have drawn no penalties for his earlier denials. Said Edward Kosner, editor in chief of Esquire magazine (and former editor of NEWSWEEK), ""When New York Magazine provides the opportunity to say, "OK, you got me,' I think everyone would've been fine with that.''

Around the time of that article, Parker said, he grew upset by Klein's blanket denials, so he counseled him repeatedly either to come clean or at least be coy in his responses: ""I said, if I were in your shoes I would not be as categorical'' in your denials. But, said Klein: ""Once I made the very difficult decision to remain anonymous, the only way to do it was to do it.'' Parker said he now regrets he didn't enlist Editor-in-Chief Smith to try to persuade Klein to do otherwise. Smith, too, said he regretted that Parker had not sought him out.

The most immediate impact on NEWSWEEK involved the false PERISCOPE item -- and Parker conceded he had made a mistake. He said he regrets not spiking the piece, in which NEWSWEEK's Jonathan Alter speculated that Luciano Siracusano, a former speechwriter to former New York governor Mario Cuomo, was Anonymous. ""I let it go because I didn't want to give the game away, and that was a mistake,'' Parker said. Smith offered similar sentiments: ""We shouldn't have run it.'' Parker apologized to Alter last week for allowing the item to run, and Alter said he accepted the apology.

Some staffers were angered that in the effort to protect Klein's secret, the magazine's reputation had been put in harm's way. ""We let ourselves be sucked in and be a party to this,'' said one. Alter's item wasn't the only mention of ""Primary Colors'' in NEWSWEEK. The magazine ran a review of the book by staffer Mark Miller, who himself had been one of the Anonymous suspects. The PERSPECTIVES page quoted one of Klein's denials, and a second PERISCOPE item, as well as Conventional Wisdom Watch, reported on the guessing game.

As the issue was debated last week, for many it came down to whether a journalist can lie in one part of his life and be trusted in the other. Critics suggested such a journalist can't attempt to hold public officials to high standards of veracity. ""You cannot set yourself up as a seeker of truth and then behave as a purveyor of lies,'' said Suzanne Braun Levine, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. ""It will appear that he compromised his ethics in order to maximize his profits.'' Howard Kurtz, media reporter for The Washington Post, argued that ""people who dismiss this as a harmless prank are missing the point that journalists rely on trust. And lying erodes that trust.''

But Klein argued he could indeed maintain two personas. He said -- and no one disagreed -- that as a journalist, if not as a novelist, he has been ""rock solid'' and truthful on all counts. Klein also dismissed suggestions that writing the novel now barred him from writing columns on national politics. ""Some readers may view Joe's columns in a different light because of all this,'' Smith acknowledged. ""But he's an excellent columnist, and I hope that most people will judge him on the basis of the quality of his insight and analysis.'' Others felt that all the professional outrage amounted to holier-than-thou hand-wringing over a matter of little import. Columnist Russell Baker wrote about ""the spectacle of people who work for some of the world's nastiest conglomerates stoning Klein with pieties.'' While he was strongly critical of Klein and NEWSWEEK, Sanford Ungar, dean of the School of Communication at American University, said, ""We should all lighten up a bit. I don't think the future of the republic hangs on whether Joe Klein covers politics.'' Of course not, but among journalists that wasn't likely to stop the debate over what they saw as a matter of truth and consequences.

* Nineteen printings totaling 1.2 million copies. (First printing was only 62,000.)

* Was on The New York Times best-seller list 20 weeks, nine weeks at No. 1.

* Rights sold to 21 foreign publishers. Translations into German and Dutch already on sale.

* Rights sold to Warner Books for $1.5 million.

* On sale Sept. 20, 1996.

* Initial printing of 1.5 million.

* Rights sold to Mike Nichols for more than $1.5 million.

* Nichols will produce and direct. Elaine May is writing the screenplay. Tom Hanks has been cast as Gov. Jack Stanton, and Emma Thompson as his wife. Jack Nicholson and John Malkovich have supporting roles.

* Shooting scheduled to begin in January 1997.

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