Newsroom Enthusiasm and Harper Lee's Long-Lost Manuscript

Finding genuine but previously unknown or long-lost manuscripts can be a publisher’s dream. Narratives by early American writers — as diverse as pioneer midwives or former slaves — still create minor sensations and career-enhancing moments for scholars.

Remember “Hitler’s Diaries"?

Thirty-two years ago, the popular and respected German magazine Stern announced its star reporter had found Hitler’s diaries. The diaries had been missing since 1945. It was a sensation. News media rushed to get a piece of the action. Syndication deals soared. As The New York Times reported, “Well-respected historians, including [Britain’s] Hugh Trevor-Roper, were sent by the syndicating papers to Switzerland, where the diaries were locked in a Swiss bank. They declared the books authentic.”

Proof that the so-called diaries were fakes followed quickly; only the publishing scandal was authentic.

Finding genuine but previously unknown or long-lost manuscripts can be a publisher’s dream. Narratives by early American writers — as diverse as pioneer midwives or former slaves — still create minor sensations and career-enhancing moments for scholars.

Given the potential for a quick buck, literary frauds are nothing new. I hate to say it, but stories behind some manuscript frauds often are more fun than the buzz over the contents. When what appears to be a major “lost,” “hidden” or “unknown” manuscript by a famous author is “found,” newsroom enthusiasms are hard to contain. Skepticism usually follows.

Breathless enthusiasm and sour skepticism erupted recently with news that a sequel to Harper Lee’s best-selling To Kill A Mockingbird is being printed. Called Go Set A Watchman, it is what the boosterish New York Times said “may be one of the most monumental discoveries in contemporary American literature . . . The new novel will no doubt be another commercial juggernaut.”

Then the Times joined other news media exulting in a newly “found” manuscript by one of the 20th century’s most famous, if reclusive, American novelists. The Times added, “Shortly after the title was announced, a surge in preorders pushed it to No. 1 on Amazon. HarperCollins is planning a first printing of two million copies.”

And the Times isn’t above selling ad space in its paper and book review magazine. Reporters said Lee’s lawyer and link to the publisher, Tonja B. Carter, claims she found the manuscript while she was leafing through some of her client’s papers. When she asked Lee about it, Carter added, Lee called it the “parent” of “Mockingbird.” The Times was so enthusiastic that it quoted Lee in a statement “through her lawyer that she was ‘happy as hell with the reactions to ‘Watchman’ ”.

Note the absence of skepticism about the origin of that second-hand statement. The credulous Times clearly attributes it to author Lee whose mental state at age 88 is a matter of speculation in the news media and in Monroeville, Ala., her home town.

News media also reported that no one gets past Lee’s lawyer to talk to the aged author and that fuels further speculation about the manuscript and Lee’s response to its discovery and publication.

For decades, Lee has shunned the news media or further publication of any writings after To Kill a Mockingbird. The Times says, “Go Set a Watchman would have been Ms. Lee’s literary debut if her editor had not rejected it. She finished the novel, which takes place 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird in the mid-1950s.

“But her editor, Tay Hohoff, told her to write a new version from Scout’s perspective as a young girl. She cast aside the original book. She said in a statement last week that she thought it was lost.”

Note, again, that the Times did not talk to Lee or say who provided the statement.

In a recent New Yorker article, Lee Siegel was more sanguine. “(N)ews that a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird will be published has provoked outrage, anger, and concern. The outcry, from people who have not even set eyes on the sequel, seems wildly out of proportion to the impending event.

“It’s understandable, of course, to feel protective toward the author of a book that has cherished status in the imaginations of so many people,” Siegel continued. “Appearing in 1960, in the roiling dawn of the civil-rights movement, Mockingbird was the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of its day.

"And if it’s not as good as Mockingbird," he added, “the worst that could happen would be . . . a mediocre Watchman ".

Last week, public radio’s Diane Rehm spent on hour with reporters and others talking about Lee and Go Set A Watchman. Near the end of the broadcast, Rehm addressed the elephant in the room: What if it’s a fraud? And the discussion took off again.

USA Today also showed some skepticism. It said the Pulitzer-winning novelist has been described as being deaf and blind and living in a nursing home.

“In other words, how could Lee, who said she'd never write another book after Mockingbird, have given her blessing to this?” USA Today said.

Attorney Carter, “answering questions on Saturday through emails and text messages told The New York Times that Lee is ‘extremely hurt and humiliated’ at the suggestion that she has been duped in any way.

"She is a very strong, independent and wise woman who should be enjoying the discovery of her long lost novel," Carter said. "Instead, she is having to defend her own credibility and decision making.”

Still, USA Today said, “That’s not Lee talking. It's her lawyer.”

At least, if Watchman is the real thing, we probably will be spared endless redundant author interviews with Lee on public radio — unless lawyer Carter does the shows for her.

CURMUDGEON NOTES:

• Years ago, a Cincinnati morning radio host used to belittle the Cincinnati Enquirer as the “Tower of Typos.” Similar quality control problems still bedevil our Sole Surviving Daily.

For those unfamiliar with the Enquirer, jimromenesko.com offered this memo by editor Carolyn Washburn from Feb. 9:

“Subject: getting slammed by readers on sloppy copy.

“Just a reminder that clean and accurate copy starts with each reporter and photographer sending clean and accurate copy along to their producer or coach… then that producer or coach reviewing to make sure it’s all good before sending it along to digital publication or the Studio.

“I’ve been communicating one/one as I see things, especially things that can still be fixed. I know we aren’t at full staff. I know our workflow is different.

“But I need to share these examples with you now and ask each of you to take full ownership of your own clean copy. I know none of you want this either. So the only way to fix it is for each one of us — me included — to pay special attention to our own work. (I even made myself spell check this email.)

“Choose a system that consistently works for you. And ask your editor if there is something that can help you do that. Let’s keep readers focused on our high-end work, not distracted by this. I appreciate it."

Then, in boldface type, Washburn listed “Complaints from readers today about yesterday’s paper:

*the caption on the front page picture of the More Local section cited “Olyer School” (not Oyler)
*the bar graph at the top of p.A6 for the cover story twice read “…delinquint” (not delinquent)
*a headline for a letter to the editor said 'Get all that that traffic out of Downtown' (rather than just one 'that')
*the headline of the Business section read, 'What you waiting for, entrepreneurs?'
*Page A10 – Kasich Jobs – Col. 4, Para. 4:  '...wholistically'
*A14 – Driver Training – Col 4, Para. 5:  '...some outstanding very committed people' – comma or ‘and’ missing after ‘outstanding’
*A21 – Carol Motsinger – Col. 3, Para. 1: 'I overuse explanation points'– I think she means ‘exclamation points’
* A22 – Cincinnati Bell – Col. 2, Para. 5: '....giving the complaint' – should be ‘given the complaint’
* B3 – On Politics – Kitzhaber – Col. 4, Para. 5:  '...Democratto resign' – missing space after 'Democrat'
* C1 – Paul Daugherty – Xavier – Col. 1, Para. 1:  '...awe-ful and awful' – should be awesome; awe-ful means filled with awe; pitiful pun, Paul
* C2 – Reds -Col. 2, Para. 3:  '...admit he too expensive'; writer – you very careless, include the 'is' after ‘he’
* same article: Col. 4, Para. 5:  '...Aroldis Chapman over $2 million apart.' – apart from what? Error repeated in same sentence
* C5 – Bearcats – Col. 1, Para. 1,2: 1st 2 sentences directly and completely contradict each other. Totally confusing.

• Why don’t people have problems any more? They seem to have “issues.” As an Enquirer story last week said of Bengal cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones, he was “involved in an issue at Holywood Casino..." What was the issue? If editor Carolyn Washburn is correct, her understaffed newsroom might add back some copy editors who’d help avoid the problems cited above as well as the increasingly common misuse of “issue".

• On the other hand, kudos to the author of this headline in last week’s Enquirer: “Doctor losing license for fingering patients’ G-spots”.

It’s gone viral on jimromenesko.com, the journalism aggregation blog. I sent it to a friend who’s a former Cincinnati newsman and editor at the Enquirer. “Another wonder of the digital age,” he responded.

• Our trade lost two of its best last week but more attention was focused on the departures of two entertainers. CBS News veteran Bob Simon survived war reporting and captivity by Saddam Hussein’s military during the Gulf War. Simon, 73, died in New York traffic. He knew his trade and practiced it in the field rather than renting a bush jacket and parachuting in for live standups.

David Carr, 59, was one of two NYTimes columnists I read as soon as I brewed my tea and retrieved the daily paper (the other is Cincinnati’s Gail Collins). Carr wrote eloquently about culture and the news media with deep passion and fine reporting. He died after collapsing in the Times newsroom, too late for the Friday national edition deadline.

The others were Brian Williams and Jon Stewart. NBC furloughed presenter Brian Williams for six months without pay after someone caught him telling ever-bigger fibs about his adventures.

The true loss is Stewart’s announced retirement from the satirical Daily Show. He turned it into a destination for news junkies and others who wanted to know what the news really meant. I forget who said it, but since Fox News viewers enjoy faux news, at least they were better informed by Stewart.

• The GOP didn’t listen when Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said they had to stop being the “stupid party.” In addition to denying climate change or rejecting any human contribution to acknowledged climate change, now some prominent brethren are joining the anti-vaccine crowd.

Forget the measles outbreak spreading from Disneyland. Potential Republican presidential candidates New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have decided they know better than pediatricians and the CDC when it comes to the value and safety of measles vaccination for toddlers.

"I think vaccines are one of the greatest medical breakthroughs that we have. I'm a big fan," Paul told CNBC, but then he trashed government vaccination requirements. "I've heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines. I think the parents should have some input. The state doesn't own your children. Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom.”

Paul is an ophthalmologist, not a pediatrician or infectious medicine specialist.

Christie says parents should have a “choice” on vaccination. They do. How and why they exercise that choice is the public policy issue.

The LATimes reported that Christie said his four children were vaccinated. "That’s the best expression I can give you of my opinion. But I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.

"It depends on what the vaccine is, what the disease type is and all the rest. You have to have that balance in considering parental concerns because no parent cares about anything more than they care about protecting their own child’s health. Not every vaccine is created equal and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others.”

Christie wasn’t clear which vaccines he was referring to. New Jersey has more stringent vaccination requirements than many other states. It is one of only a handful of states, for example, that require children to get the flu vaccine in order to attend preschools.

Attempting a Reaganesque repair job after Christie spoke, aides said, "The governor believes vaccines are an important public health protection and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated. At the same time different states require different degrees of vaccination, which is why he was calling for balance in which ones government should mandate."

In 2009, the LATimes said, “When Christie first ran for governor, he questioned the flu requirement and also wrote a letter in which he pledged to ‘stand with’ parents who had ‘expressed their concern over New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation vaccine mandates'". The Democratic National Committee accused Christie of pandering to the "radical, conspiracy theory base" of the Republican Party.

• Remember Rachel Corrie? The young woman from Washington State was killed in 2003 by an Israeli Defense Force bulldozer while demonstrating against the demolition of Arab homes in Gaza. She was a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement.

Her death — an international furor at the time — was in the news again last week. London’s Guardian reported that Israel’s supreme court rejected her family’s effort to hold Israel liable for her death.

“The court upheld the decision of a lower court which invoked the ‘combat activities exception’ that the Israeli military cannot be held responsible for damages in a war zone.” A lower court called Corrie’s death a “regrettable accident” although she was wearing a fluorescent jacket. The driver said he did not see her. Her family said the IDF should have suspended demolition until Corrie and other protesters were removed from the area.

• Were the three young adults shot to death in North Carolina “Muslims” or “students” or “victims of a parking dispute” or what? Were the four customers killed in the Parisian kosher market “Frenchmen” or “Jews” or “French Jews"? Was the New York choke-hold victim “black” or “illegal cigaret seller” in first mention? Are young men shot by American police “African-Americans” or “teenagers” or “unarmed”?

Some of this is fact-dependent and initially, we rarely know more than the fact of homicide. Implying a “hate crime” often is the easiest choice when we report attacks on members of minorities. It’s easier to back off in today’s hypersensitive 24/7 news environment than to explain why we didn’t immediately label a homicide a hate crime.

• An increasingly important factor in news judgment is nationalism. A young American prisoner is killed after being kidnapped by ISIL terrorists and it’s big news. So was the Islamist kidnapping of almost 300 Nigerian school girls, but what happened to “Bring Back Our Girls”? At least three Americans are beheaded by Islamist terrorists and there are calls for war, but who remembers or cares about the dozens of Mexicans beheaded by drug gangs just across our border? In the newsroom, when decisions are made, it’s always “us” or “them.”

A story I’ve told before involved a cable from a UPI correspondent in Indonesia where a volcano erupted. He reported that “one American” and thousands of others died in the blast. Why? UPI was an American news service. Or when an airliner crashes, the first thing editors want to know is how many of their nationals were killed among the larger total.

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