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The Silkwood Case

In response to:

How Not to Crack the Silkwood Case from the January 21, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

This letter is an apology to both John Crewdson and Howard Kohn. In his review of Mr. Kohn’s fictionalized account of Karen Silkwood [NYR, January 21], Mr. Crewdson accurately paraphrased my statement to him that Mr. Kohn had not interviewed me about my very small role in the Silkwood affair.

Though I still have absolutely no recollection of the event, from details recalled by Mr. Kohn, I now believe he did in fact talk with me about the matter in early 1975.

A second point. Mr. Kohn did send me galleys of his book a few months before it was published. Partly because I was fully engaged in another subject, I did not read the galleys. Some months later, at a chance social meeting, embarrassed because I had not read his book, I made what I felt was a non-committal comment to Mr. Kohn to the effect that his book was interesting. Mr. Kohn, however, took what I had meant to be a neutral pleasantry as a statement of approval. I regret both confusions.

David Burnham

Washington, DC

To the Editors:

Regarding John Crewdson’s review of my book, Who Killed Karen Silkwood?, it must be said that Mr. Crewdson was reasonably straightforward in his summary of the Silkwood case, and he did acknowledge that the book had given him “serious cause for concern if not outright alarm” about the role of both the nuclear industry and the federal government in the case.

At the same time Mr. Crewdson, a New York Times reporter, went to some lengths to try to discredit aspects of my investigation. Given that your space is limited, I will address those points to which Mr. Crewdson gave the most emphasis.

Mr. Crewdson wrote that what he found “most disturbing” were the quotes I attributed to A.O. Pipkin, the private investigator who reconstructed the events that led to the car crash in which Karen Silkwood was killed in 1974. It is a well-known fact, available to anyone who reads The New York Times, that Mr. Pipkin discovered dents in the rear of Ms. Silkwood’s car, raising the possibility she had been forced from the road. What Mr. Pipkin said at the time likewise is a matter of record. He reported his findings to Tony Mazzocchi, an official of Ms. Silkwood’s union, who sent the following telegram to the Justice Department: “[Mr. Pipkin] has told me there is evidence to suggest that Ms. Silkwood’s car was hit from behind by another vehicle which caused her to leave the road and hit the concrete culvert.” Mr. Pipkin subsequently prepared a 50-page report in support of his conclusions, and I talked to him shortly after he completed the report. When Mr. Crewdson came along, seven years after the fact, you might suppose he would have first read the report. In a phone conversation following the publication of his review, however, Mr. Crewdson admitted he had not read it. Instead he had called Mr. Pipkin, who alledgedly said the car “had been struck from behind by some kind of metal object—not necessarily another car.” I quote Mr. Pipkin in my book as saying in 1974 that the dents were made “by some sort of blunt object, maybe the knobby point of a bumper.” There may or may not be a contradiction here, but even if there is, it can be explained easily by the passage of time, and in no way does it make Mr. Pipkin’s quotes of 1974 any less accurate.

Mr. Crewdson alleged that I “never spoke” to David Burnham, the Times reporter who was waiting to meet Ms. Silkwood the night she was killed. Mr. Crewdson is wrong. I interviewed Mr. Burnham at his office in January of 1975, and that interview was the basis for my comments about him, which take up only a few short paragraphs in a book of 462 pages. In July 1981 I gave Mr. Burnham a pre-publication copy of my manuscript to be checked for accuracy. I understand that when Mr. Crewdson talked to him in November 1981, Mr. Burnham remembered receiving the manuscript but did not remember our earlier interview. Mr. Burnham’s poor memory was doubtless an honest mistake. Presumably, so was Mr. Crewdson’s sloppy job of reporting. Still, it was sloppy, and I mention it because Mr. Crewdson huffed and puffed so much in his review, drawing the inference that I had not “met even the journalist’s basic obligation to speak to the people he writes about.” In our subsequent phone conversation, which I initiated, I suggested to Mr. Crewdson that he might have saved all of us some time and embarrassment if he had simply followed his own advice and talked to me before writing his review. (While it is true that reviewers do not ordinarily interview authors, in this situation Mr. Crewdson was wearing a journalist’s hat more than a reviewer’s.)

Mr. Crewdson suggested in his review that I used my book to make a charge of premeditated murder in the Silkwood case without backing it up. Actually, I say explicitly on page 139 that Ms. Silkwood’s “death couldn’t have been intentional,” and I repeat several times that the best evidence indicates someone set out to scare Ms. Silkwood, not kill her, which would still constitute a murder, but of a lesser category.

Mr. Crewdson also wrote that “where there are small errors, the possibility of larger ones cannot be dismissed.” Mr. Crewdson might better have paid attention to his own exposition. For instance, he stated that Kerr-McGee Corporation, which was sued for negligence in the plutonium contamination of Ms. Silkwood, had “never disputed that the plutonium was its own.” In fact, Kerr-McGee’s lawyers took just the opposite position during a two-year effort to get the suit dismissed. Another example: Mr. Crewdson described Jacque Srouji as a “naval reserve officer.” Ms. Srouji was enlisted in the Naval Reserve: she was not a commissioned officer. Small errors, to be sure, but they unequivocably are errors.

I could go on, but few things get as quickly boring as the trading of allegations between journalists. There is one final point, nonetheless, which I believe should be addressed, namely Mr. Crewdson’s own involvement in the case, a matter he chose not to mention in his review.

On May 13, 1976, John Seigenthaler, editor of the Nashville Tennessean, filed a complaint with the Justice Department about the FBI and furthermore agreed to give congressional testimony critical of the Bureau. On that very same day, Homer Boynton, a top-ranking FBI official, made it a point to tell Mr. Crewdson that Mr. Seigenthaler was “not entirely pure.” This was an obvious attempt to smear Mr. Seigenthaler’s name, as Mr. Crewdson now agrees. (“What else could it have been?” he said during our phone conversation.) Yet, when Mr. Crewdson wrote about the incident in the Times of May 19, 1976, he was most reluctant to include Mr. Boynton’s name. (“Homer was a pretty good friend of mine…that was a really agonizing period.”) Certainly one can sympathize with Mr. Crewdson, who did not want to offend his friend in the FBI. But what about Mr. Seigenthaler, whose reputation was being called publicly into question? At no point in Mr. Crewdson’s reportage in the Times did he make it absolutely clear that the FBI was engaged in character assassination against Mr. Seigenthaler, and it was left to Mr. Seigenthaler himself to restore his good name, for which he later was awarded the Sidney Hillman Award for Courage in Journalism.

As far as I know, Mr. Crewdson was guilty only of muddled writing and incomplete reporting in the case of Mr. Seigenthaler, and it was merely an unhappy circumstance that led the FBI to believe Mr. Crewdson could be manipulated for its purposes. However, since there is a discussion in my book about this incident, and about Mr. Crewdson’s role, I think it would have been appropriate for him to disclose that he was not reviewing the book as an entirely neutral observer.

Howard Kohn

Silver Spring, Maryland

John M Crewdson replies:

I am sorry that Howard Kohn chooses to ignore what to me are the more important questions raised by my review of his book, such as his extensive use of direct quotations he was never privy to and his description of scenes he could not possibly have witnessed. The pitfalls that await writers who apply the techniques of the novel to the reporting of real events and real people are apparent in Mr. Kohn’s treatment of Mr. Pipkin, the accident reconstruction specialist: the question to be answered there is not what Mr. Pipkin’s findings may have suggested to Mr. Pipkin. Mr. Kohn will not find the contradiction he is searching for in the quote he cites but rather in the following paragraph of his book, where he has Mr. Pipkin declaring—not to him but to someone else—that the automobile crash that killed Miss Silkwood “wasn’t no accident,” precisely the conclusion Mr. Pipkin told me he never reached.

If, as it now appears, David Burnham and Mr. Kohn did discuss the Silkwood case seven years ago, one wonders even more how Mr. Burnham’s recollection of his actions, reactions, and thoughts on the night Miss Silkwood was killed can differ so visibly from those described in Mr. Kohn’s book—and how Mr. Kohn can say flatly that Mr. Burnham had been “ordered back” to The New York Times’s Washington bureau from Oklahoma “over his objections” when that was not the case.

Despite Mr. Kohn’s effort to demonstrate his even handedness, his book still dismisses, too readily for my taste anyway, the possibility that the Silkwood crash was no more than an accident. The phrase he plucks from page 139 of his book, which devotes most of its 461 other pages to the search for a murderous conspiracy it never finds, simply makes my point again. At any rate, I am not sure how much weight can be accorded such a caveat when it appears in the middle of a book entitled Who Killed Karen Silkwood? and behind a dust-jacket picture of a piece of graffiti reading “Karen Silkwood Was Murdered.”

Finally, I am frankly puzzled as to what Mr. Kohn means by “my own involvement” in the Silkwood case, since the incident he describes has nothing to do with Karen Silkwood’s life or death—which is why I “chose not to mention” it in my review. Briefly, the facts are these: Homer Boynton’s suggestion that Mr. Seigenthaler was “not entirely pure” made to me in Washington, DC, was attributed to Mr. Boynton in an article I wrote for The Times five days later from Nashville, where Mr. Seigenthaler lives. As for my having been “most reluctant to include Mr. Boynton’s name” in the article, he was mentioned there six times. The article also contains a five-paragraph statement from Mr. Seigenthaler recording his dismay at having learned that Mr. Boynton “was leaking to news sources information that I was not a decent member of society.”

Far from calling Mr. Seigenthaler’s reputation “publicly into question,” the article makes the point that Mr. Boynton’s remark followed Mr. Seigenthaler’s criticism of the FBI for its use of Mrs. Srouji as an informant while she was employed as a copy editor by his newspaper, and that despite what the FBI in Washington was saying federal agents in Nashville made no similar “assertion that the publisher was involved in any wrongdoing.”

It was, however, not until the following year that Mr. Seigenthaler finally obtained an expurgated copy of his FBI file, including the document that apparently served as the basis for Mr. Boynton’s remark: a telex message from the FBI’s Memphis office to its Washington headquarters that contained “allegations of Seigenthaler having illicit relations with young girls, which information source obtained from an unnamed source.” The telex was dated May 6, 1976, the day after Mr. Seigenthaler dismissed Mrs. Srouji on the ground that her FBI relationship was an inappropriate one for a journalist.

If Mr. Kohn thinks I was reluctant to offend anyone in the FBI or that the FBI believed I “could be manipulated for its purposes” he would do well to review my reporting on the FBI in The Times during 1975 and 1976. Whatever agonizing I underwent over the Boynton-Seigenthaler incident involved my decision to break the reporter’s compact with his sources by reporting a confidential, off-the-record remark from a senior government official. In this case, I decided that the nature of the remark overrode its confidentiality.

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