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The Press: Freedom From, as well as Of

In an address at Montclair State College (N.J.) on May 29, the president and publisher of The New York Times remarked that “there is nothing wrong with anyone…speaking out vigorously when they [sic] think our facts are wrong or our opinions wrongheaded.” But where, Mr. Sulzberger, can he, or they, speak out? For the Times is virtually without competition. Nor is it noted for its hospitality to those who “think [its] facts are wrong.” Mr. Sulzberger went on to defend our “unfettered press” to the extent of rejecting “various proposals within the journalistic community” that “press councils” “monitor” and “correct” its “performance.” But why? Should the press be above correction when in error? Does the correcting of the press’s facts necessarily “fetter” it?

Mr. Sulzberger is talking about the Pentagon Papers, of course. But his account of how the Times acts in such cases is anything but reassuring. He asks, fairly enough, “Who are [we] to decide what ought to be secret and not secret, to put [our] own judgment over a properly elected government…?” But his answer is alarming in the extreme. “Either we, acting as responsibly as we know how, had to decide, or the government had to decide.” As responsibly as we know how? But what principles, what dictates determine the Times‘s “responsibility” and form its “know how”? And do they amount to any more than one person’s “inner voice” versus another’s? Isn’t it, in fact, Kierkegaard’s question of rival governments? “While insisting that the process of government ought to be public, the press sets the seal of secrecy on its own purposes, this in order to secure the powers of government for itself…for which it also attempts to secure for itself the secrecy without which it is impossible to govern.”

What concerns me here are the press’s “powers of government,” especially its immunity and its disregard for privacy. Not, of course, on the level of “national security” (to which the greatest threat, it seems to me, is the Pentagon itself; and about which the Times acted in the public interest). My experience is specialized and limited. Not long ago I ventured to correct the Times for what I termed an irresponsible article. I did so in these columns by exposing a large number of errors and improbabilities. But the Times does not accept correction. And as it could find no means of defending the errors I exposed, but still had to save face, it resorted to that favorite tactic of political campaigners, the excavation of the possibly discrediting “story.”

To accomplish this, the newspaper employed the very reporter whose first article had been demolished. But surely The New York Times could have put together a more “sophisticated weapon” than Mr. Henahan. To begin with, he should have been able to unearth a better tale than the one on which he wasted his Sunday sermon of May 7. Especially since it took him so long to do; for Henahan passes Karl Kraus’s acid test for journalists: they write even worse when they have more time. (And not only in this instance. Henahan’s Sunday causeries are inferior even to his daily notices which, in addition to the obligatory clout for the performer, contain a remarkable number of statements both bereft of point and non-probative. Recent item:”…the more complex a new piece of music is, the faster it has to be played to make sense.”)

But from the outset Henahan is all thumbs. He begins with a gaffe, describing my edifications in The New York Review as a “counter-attack,” thereby acknowledging that his original article was not an “investigation in the interests of truth” or “fact-finding inquiry,” but an attack, pure simple, and self-confessed. Then, too, he likens my verbal fabric to “gauze,” that most sanitary and permeable of materials. (In his place I would have picked something like “purple flannel,” but I can hardly be expected to devote myself to refining Henahan’s journalese.) Finally, in desperation, he tries to fall back on the reputation of the Times itself, as if that old dowager had any spare capital of integrity it could afford to lend to the likes of Henahan.

But Timesmanship is my subject, Shenahanigans merely an example. And having mentioned Kraus, I am reminded that, unlike New York in 1972, the backward, repressive Austria of a half-century ago ensured full redress in cases of journalistic abuse. Section 23 of the Austrian Code obliged newspapers to provide equal space in which to counter journalistic assault and battery of the Henahan type. The Times, by comparison, can publish Henahan on the front page and relegate recantations and corrections to wherever it pleases. For recourse it offers a “Music Mailbag” which is about as effective as a dead-letter office. Nor does it tolerate appeals to higher courts—upper-echelon editors—for the organization is more military than judiciary: insubordination is its most heinous crime.

Secrecy is another technique of Timesmanship. Henahan, for example, did not reveal that a special cordiality existed between his informant, Lillian Libman, and a Times editor; or reveal the old-girl network that obtains between Miss Libman and himself—even though the only other institution that operates by this kind of omertà, at least locally and in Sicily, is a criminal one. Nor did the newspaper, now behaving so self-righteously about one of the two articles it commissioned from me, see fit to print the fact that the other one was largely rewritten by Times “ghosts.” But why all the cant from the Times about the dating of my second article anyway, when writing the background parts of reviews and other pieces in advance is a well-known journalistic practice? (Anyone still remember a certain newspaper headline DEWEY WINS?) That, after all, is what Henahan did with Stravinsky’s obituary.

But in Henahan’s case secrecy became dishonesty when he failed to reveal (Times, March 3) that he was in possession of another book on Stravinsky—other than Miss Libman’s draft, that is—and that, unlike Miss Libman’s, this book was by a writer of established reputation, Paul Horgan. Henahan concealed the fact because Horgan’s Encounters with Stravinsky did not corroborate Miss Libman’s fabrications but openly contradicted them. And though Henahan’s unprofessional bias was evident from the first, an honest reporter, even one with a large personal parti pris, should at the very least have informed his readers of the existence of such a book. Thus Henahan is guilty of suppressing evidence—or of fiddling with it, let’s say, in an effort to relate his activities to music.

But his dishonesty was also apparent when he tried to make a show of pretending that Miss Libman’s “revelations,” as publicized by himself, surprised nobody. If he believed that, why did he borrow such a large portion of the material for his obituary of the composer from the Stravinsky-Craft books? Not that I begrudge him its use, even unacknowledged, for it comprises almost the only correct information in his inexcusably bungled account of the composer’s world. (He invents a niche in history for me as “Arnold Schoenberg’s secretary,” and the photo caption accompanying his obituary restores the error, expunged from elementary music appreciation books of fifty years ago, that Le Sacre du printemps is “atonal.”) And if that is what he believed then, why does he pretend to be astonished by it now? Moreover, why now, some months post-Libman, does he continue to use those books (still unacknowledged)? For the story of Stravinsky and the Mozart Mass, in his Times review of May 20, has no other source.

I have already shown Henahan to be an irresponsible reporter (The New York Review, April 6), misinforming Times readers even about the contents of Stravinsky’s will, which information was available to him for the price of a telephone call. So, too, his obituary of the composer is crammed with misinformation. The “news” part of it is quoted from Miss Libman, however, and Miss Libman, of course, is reliably wrong. Item: “Two and a half months ago Stravinsky was playing the piano and orchestrating two Bach Preludes.” But these orchestrations of four fugues and four—not two—preludes were completed two years—not two months—before his death, and the piano playing continued until two days before. Item: Miss Libman reported that it had been Stravinsky’s “wish” to be buried in Venice. But if he had ever indicated any clear preference in the matter it would have been to be buried in as inconspicuous a place and manner as possible.

Henahan also prints Libman’s loosest prattle about the medical facts: “Since 1967 Stravinsky suffered several arterial strokes.” Stravinsky never had an “arterial stroke.” (Has anybody ever? Does she mean a heart attack?) He did have two cerebral thromboses, in 1956 and 1959; and, since 1967, was afflicted with embolisms, though probably not during the last year of his life, when his blood disease gave up on him. But only a very slipshod journalist would have failed to verify this with the composer’s physician (named in the obituary), so as to get his professional word, even if it was at odds with Dr. Libman’s.

And now, into this world of goonsquad journalism, enter Mrs. Stravinsky, touchingly out-of-date in her notions of veracity and etiquette, suggesting that she might have been consulted, as the only fully knowledgeable source, and not seeing that the last thing Henahan wanted was the truth; nor understanding, even after her previous experience of him, that if she had been consulted her words would have been as mutilated as they were once before. But then, Mrs. Stravinsky has still not adjusted to the change (brought about by a one-time-pet-but-well-fed piranha) by which her private affairs have now become everybody’s public affair. In other words, Mrs. Stravinsky is only just learning what her husband always knew: that to be a “public figure” is to be placed outside the ordinary interpretation of the laws of libel, slander, and invasion of privacy.

I would regret the demise of the Times. And it is obviously in failing health. Quite apart from the contents, the Sunday edition is under fire both as an ecological menace and as overburdening garbage collection facilities (unnecessary, since about 98 percent of it is hauled away unread). Not that the quality of the music page will hasten the terminal illness. The pity is that it wouldn’t even be missed. (As Edmund Wilson wrote at the time of the printers’ strike, “The disappearance of the Times Sunday book section only made us aware that it had never existed.”) For neither of its first-string reviewers—Henahan, hacking among the superficies of the art; Schonberg, promoting revivals of Gottschalk and César Cui—is musician or scholar enough even to attempt criticism.

* * *

Passions in this publicizing complot had risen so high a while ago that when it became known that the author of Encounters with Stravinsky was aboard the bomb-threatened Elizabeth II, the FBI was rumored to be investigating publishers. (Incidentally, Mr. Horgan’s book, published a month and a half ago and reviewed throughout the country, has been ignored by the Times. Because the professional fictionalist comes very near the truth, while the professional advertising copywriter cannot recognize the fiction of her press releases? Because Mr. Horgan wrote it all on his sleeve, out of love for the Stravs—“Horgan’s Heroes” you might call them—and what could any career journalist do to exploit that?)

As for my own future as a reviewer of books about the composer, I might say that I anticipate a faithful portrait from Christopher Isherwood, as valuable for the California years as Mr. Horgan’s is for the summers in Santa Fe. But if Miss Libman wishes to escape further correction, I suggest she reword her title to The Stravinsky Nobody Knew.

Letters

Stravinsky’s Obituary July 20, 1972

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