“David Brooks and I are very friendly,” said New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus. Last week, such a profession might have struck Times -watchers as unnecessary: Why wouldn’t Mr. Tanenhaus, the scholar of Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley Jr., get along with the new conservative star of the paper’s Op-Ed page? Weren’t they in the same cabal?
But then came the May 23 edition of the Book Review . “Sociology or Shtick?” the cover asked. “Michael Kinsley dissects ‘On Paradise Drive,’ by David Brooks.”
“Dissects” was, if anything, an understatement. Presented with Mr. Brooks’ new book, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense , what Mr. Kinsley performed was more of a vivisection: slashing Mr. Brooks’ tendons so he couldn’t run away (“There is a prize for being the liberals’ favorite conservative, and Brooks has claimed it: a column in The New York Times”), disassembling him piece by piece over a page and two-thirds (“[H]e wields a mean shoehorn when he needs the theory to fit the joke”), and ending by taking gleeful bite out of his naked, beating heart (“David Brooks is not merely a liberal. He’s French. J’accuse “).
“I think the book engaged him,” Mr. Tanenhaus said.
Mr. Tanenhaus notes that “Mike’s reputation is for not writing long”; as editor of The New Republic , Mr. Tanenhaus said, Mr. Kinsley was known for squeezing anything he could into a single page. But the Book Review urged him to go big, and he more than obliged-in size and in forcefulness.
Mr. Tanenhaus said he’s proud of the close reading that Mr. Kinsley, soon to be opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times , performed on Mr. Brooks’ arguments. “I think Kinsley really is Buckley’s great heir in that sense,” Mr. Tanenhaus said. “He takes the argument itself and employs it.”
Mr. Tanenhaus’ own job, he said, is an “exercise in matchups.” And the Kinsley-Brooks bout was exactly what he wants from his Book Review . “You will see pieces like that, and they will come from all points on the political spectrum,” he said.
It’s not as if the Book Review is turning into The New York Review of Books -witness, Mr. Tanenhaus pointed out, the same issue’s pair of reviews about Israel that “some have found more conservative than they’d like.” Next issue’s big event will be the return, after a layoff of a decade, of the front-of-the- Review review format: Instead of an illustration or teaser, Page 1 will carry the text of a review of Tony Hendra’s Father Joe , written by Andrew Sullivan.
Mr. Tanenhaus said he hasn’t talked to Mr. Brooks since the Kinsley piece came out, but that he doesn’t anticipate any intramural bad blood. (Mr. Brooks didn’t return a phone message seeking comment.) Rather than a showdown between the Op-Ed page and the Book Review , Mr. Tanenhaus said, it’s “more a matter of pundit on pundit.”
Whoever signs the paychecks for Mr. Brooks and Mr. Kinsley, he added, “intellectually, they’re both free operators.”
What happens when you dump wet slurry into a blazing coal-mine fire?
“[I]t created like a volcano,” a retired Pennsylvania state inspector told reporter David DeKok in the 1980′s. “And oh boy, when that busted, did that shake things and make a noise. It was red hot mad!”
Mr. DeKok, who now covers business for the Harrisburg Patriot-News , is something of an expert on subterranean fire-fighting technique. As a cub reporter for the Shamokin, Penn., News-Item , he said, he was at the tail end of a dull community meeting in nearby Centralia in 1976 when he first heard complaints about a coal fire underneath that town.
At the time, the Centralia fire had been burning underground and in relative obscurity since 1962. Mr. DeKok, who hails from Michigan and to whom coal country was new territory, was intrigued, and added the fire to his general-assignment beat.
During the years he covered it, the spreading fire undermined Centralia, forcing it to be largely abandoned and demolished. Along the way, it grew from a local nuisance into a minor national sensation. So in the early 80′s, Mr. DeKok set about researching the history of the fire. The results, including the volcanic quote, were published in 1986, as the book Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire .
The fire received plenty of other attention. Centralia’s plight was featured on network television and in The New York Times . By Mr. DeKok’s count, there have been at least three novels and a rock opera written about Centralia.
But Mr. DeKok maintains that Unseen Danger is the main nuts-and-bolts account of what happened. “My book is the only one that puts the entire history of the fire together,” he said.
Then, earlier this year, Mr. DeKok got an e-mail from a high-school friend telling him that Harper’s had just done a big piece about the coal fire. “How did you miss this one?” the friend asked-meaning, Mr. DeKok said, how did someone other than Mr. DeKok get the assignment?
That afternoon, Mr. DeKok went to the library and had a look at the February Harper’s . The piece, by Jeff Tietz, was billed as a “Letter from Pennsylvania” and ran nearly 9,000 words.
On the third page of it, Mr. Tietz discussed early efforts to fight the fire by pouring wet slurry down boreholes. “Many were drilled right into the fire,” Mr. Tietz wrote, “an action that, according to a [Department of Mines and Mineral Industries] inspector, ‘created, like, a volcano. And oh boy, when that busted, did that shake things and make a noise! It was red hot mad!’”
Reading that, Mr. DeKok got a little red-hot mad himself. There was no further citation to explain when and where-or to whom-the inspector had uttered those words. And the entire surrounding section of the article, in Mr. DeKok’s estimation, appeared to be a condensed version of the story he’d researched and told in Unseen Danger .
So Mr. DeKok asked lawyer Nina Graybill to send a complaint to Harper’s , accompanied by a side-by-side comparison of the texts. The February letter accused Mr. Tietz of describing the fire’s beginnings “virtually exclusively” through the use of Unseen Danger , “closely tracking its literary development and ideas even while lightly rewriting and shortening the text.”
Ms. Graybill went on to demand “a written apology from Mr. Tietz, and an acknowledgment in the next issue of Harper’s, and in any electronic or other publication of the original article, that his work was used in Mr. Tietz’s article,” along with legal fees and a $5,000 payment to Mr. DeKok.
In March, Harper’s senior editor Roger Hodge wrote back to Ms. Graybill, conceding that Unseen Danger “was one of many, many sources used by Tietz” and that the book “was the source for a handful of details.” Mr. Hodge then told Ms. Graybill and Mr. DeKok they could go stuff themselves down a borehole.
“[F]acts are not subject to copyright,” Mr. Hodge wrote. “Your client does not hold intellectual property rights to the general idea of telling the story of the Centralia coal fire.”
That was just the warm-up. Mr. Hodge went on to accuse Mr. DeKok of having “an unreasonable proprietary interest” in the mine-fire story. “His expectations are symptomatic of an unhappy trend in contemporary culture whereby ownership rights are increasingly asserted in circumstances that have no basis in our legal tradition …. No one ‘owns’ history. Were the logic of your demand sound, historical culture would simply grind to a halt and we would be left with nothing but the inane blatherings of the nightly television news.”
Mr. Hodge concluded by advising Ms. Graybill that Mr. DeKok could try writing a letter to the editor. “Please be advised, however, that our letters section is carefully edited for length and accuracy,” he added.
The facts-are-facts defense is an eternal standby for major publications that go reporting in the hinterlands. Word of a good story makes its way to the big city, and a big-city writer gets sent off to re-report the facts previously gathered by other, less illustrious writers.
It’s not always easy to draw the line between that practice-known as “bigfooting,” “parachuting” or “national reporting,” depending on one’s point of view-and outright theft. Often, if a story has already been retold enough, sources will repeat their earlier quotations (or something similar) for whomever comes along with a notepad.
That’s not the case with Harper’s , Mr. DeKok said. It’s true his side-by-side comparisons of Mr. Tietz’s text with his own are not-apart from the verbatim quote from the inspector-glaringly identical. Mr. DeKok, for example, quoted a crew member who’d fought the fire describing what happened when the effort ran out of money at a critical time: “‘He cried,’ Lewis said. ‘Johnny Rosella cried. And we had the fire [in our grasp]. There’s no question about it.’”
Mr. Tietz simply wrote, “The trench project ran out of money just as it drew abreast of the fire, causing a young BOM engineer named John Rosella to cry.”
But the news of Mr. Rosella’s tears, Mr. DeKok said, came exclusively from his interview with Daniel Lewis. And Mr. Lewis is dead. Another source of key narrative detail, Mr. DeKok said, now has Alzheimer’s.
“There’s no way that he could have gotten that description other than from my book,” Mr. DeKok said.
Harper’s spokeswoman Giulia Melucci said that Mr. DeKok is “resorting to gossip because his accusations were baseless.” Fact-checkers reinterviewed all of Mr. Tietz’s sources, Ms. Melucci said.
She added that she didn’t know the provenance of the “red hot” quote, but that if it had come from Mr. DeKok’s book, Harper’s had no obligation to say so. “I think quotes are quotes,” she said. “You could credit it, but there’s no legal requirement.”
“He might have a case to feel slighted,” Ms. Melucci said.
Mr. Tietz could not be reached by telephone to discuss his reporting.
The historical section that Mr. DeKok objects to is written in a writerly, omniscient voice, with no sourcing to obtrude on its alliteration (“the coal fire finally, fitfully sidled up to Centralia”).
There’s a difference, however, between sounding all-knowing and being all-knowing. Mr. DeKok, the beat reporter, has flagged a half-dozen errors of fact in the visiting belletrist’s work, including misspelled names and the assertion that the town, pre-demolition, consisted of “two-story brick row houses.”
The now-vanished houses were wood, Mr. DeKok said: “A brick house was a step up the economic ladder beyond where the typical miner was.”
(Mr. Tietz also, in a section not marked by Mr. DeKok, asserted that the abandoned town had been overrun by wildlife including skunks, porcupines and “black-footed ferrets.” Black-footed ferrets, which hover near the brink of extinction, are found only in isolated pockets on the Great Plains.)
Ms. Melucci said that the magazine has no plans to do anything about the piece, and that “we had forgotten it.”
Mr. DeKok said his lawyers have told him there’s not much hope for a legal remedy. Still, he said, “It’s not something that reputable publications should be condoning in their writers.”
Even if it’s one unattributed quotation, Mr. DeKok maintains that’s one unattributed quotation too many.
“Let me close,” he wrote in an e-mail, “with what Judge Learned Hand once wrote (quoted in the book, ‘Stolen Words,’ p. 118, by Thomas Mallon), ‘No plagiarist can excuse the wrong by showing how much of his work he did not pirate.’”
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