Between the Covers The Talk of the Town: How The New Yorker Was in Bed with Lawrence Wright’s Conflict of Interest
“The New Yorker has devoted itself for 59 years not only to facts and literal accuracy but to truth. And truth begins, journalistically, with the facts.” —William Shawn, legendary editor of The New Yorker
The late, respected editor of The New Yorker wouldn’t recognize the literary and journalistic magazine of integrity he and his colleagues took decades to build.
He would find a magazine staffed by journalistic cowboys like Lawrence Wright cynically using the once-great magazine as a marketing tool to hype their next book or film project.
How else does one explain why Wright was given a pass to secretly create a conflict of interest by fast-tracking a “collaborative” book deal about his New Yorker profile subject—director Paul Haggis (which was, in fact, an inaccurate diatribe against the Church of Scientology)—at least four months before it was published in the magazine?
How else does one explain that The New Yorker looked the other way as Wright disingenuously misled both the Church and Associated Press by claiming he was only “thinking” of writing a book about the Church and Haggis, when in fact he was already under contract to write one?
It seems as though the new millennium New Yorker is run not by editors but self-promoting writers who answer only to agents, their vacation realtors in the Hamptons and their own inflated egos. Their financial selfishness scatters land mines of conflicts that threaten to blow up what people of integrity such as William Shawn a generation earlier worked so hard to establish.
While many journalists turn their magazine and newspaper stories into books, screenplays and film deals, the ethical norm is to do it after they appear in print. Otherwise, how can editors, sources and subjects know if the reporting and writing is free from influence from the financial benefits those deals will earn the writer?
Wright’s ethical deception began to unravel when he sent an email on October 6, 2010, to a Church spokesperson. Until that point, Wright had represented to the Church and its counsel that he was interviewing parishioners and requesting information solely for a magazine piece.
Suddenly Wright acted as if the idea for a book had just popped into his head that very afternoon:
“…You’ve given me so much to work on, I do think I will turn it into a book. I’m not entirely sure of the shape of it yet; I’ll know better after I finish the article,” his email reads.
The following day, October 7, he tells AP’s Lauri Neff:
“I’m working on a long article for The New Yorker about Paul Haggis, the writer-director who dropped out of Scientology and I may be doing a book about that.”
Could it be Wright and The New Yorker were more concerned about sweeping ethical concerns under the rug so others wouldn’t discover them and raise questions about them?
Not so coincidentally, Wright timed those comments just as the Frankfurt Book Fair was opening in Germany. His agents at the Wylie Agency were distributing a preprinted catalog featuring a full-page ad promoting his upcoming book, The Heretic of Hollywood: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology. Could it be he sent the email to the Church because he knew his secret book deal would be found out?
In a January 17 interview with Publisher’s Lunch, Knopf editor Ann Close released a statement to “set the record straight.” Close said that numerous media reports had created a “wave of confusion” regarding Wright’s book, adding that Knopf purchased the North American rights to the book from agent Andrew Wylie at the Wylie Agency in early October, prior to the Frankfurt event—a full four months before Wright’s article appeared in The New Yorker.
Translation: Wright’s statements to the Church spokesperson and the Associated Press implying he was only “thinking’’ of writing a book or “may” be doing one were subterfuge at best. Why try to keep the “collaborative” book a secret, or soft-pedal it as a “maybe” rather than a “done deal”? Could it be Wright and The New Yorker were more concerned about sweeping ethical concerns under the rug so others wouldn’t discover them and raise questions about them?
How can the subjects of a story involving a contentious issue be assured that the writer isn’t hyping the magazine story to sell more books, or giving credence to an anecdote that isn’t true, to make the story seem more exciting? Or giving credibility to a discredited source because it makes the story read better and thus sells more books?
How can any subject of a story be assured the writer is free from the influence of these marketing temptations once they sign the book contract?
The reality is they can’t be.
Regardless, some publications, unlike The New Yorker, at least try. The New York Times Policy on Ethics in Journalism—of which New Yorker General Counsel Lynn Oberlander stated in a letter to Church lawyers, “while laudable, has nothing to do with The New Yorker”—would not allow a Lawrence Wright to so thoroughly intertwine his roles as reporter and book author with his profile personality, and then use the entire process to promote his book. Those policies say “staff members and others on assignment for us may not collaborate in ventures with individuals or organizations that are likely to figure in their coverage. Among other things, this prohibition applies to writing books, pamphlets, reports, scripts, scores or any other material and to making photographs or creating artwork of any sort.”
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics says reporters should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity and damage credibility.”
The New York Times Policy on Ethics in Journalism would not allow a Lawrence Wright to so thoroughly intertwine his roles as reporter and book author with his profile personality, and then use the entire process to promote his book.
Never was The New Yorker’s indifference to ethics more apparent than after website Gawker published news of the book on January 5, saying it would be “told through the eyes of director and apostate Paul Haggis” and that it stemmed from a New Yorker article that had not run yet.
A Haggis spokesperson was quoted in the Los Angeles Times and Hollywood Reporter as saying that the director was “collaborating” with Wright, presumably to make it clear he wasn’t the coauthor. Then, a week later, that same spokesperson reversed field and said the director had “absolutely no involvement” in the book. The Los Angeles Times headline summed up the flip-flop: “Paul Haggis Now Says He Isn’t Cooperating on Scientology Book.” So, either Haggis’s spokesperson was lying to protect Haggis or TheNew Yorker was dictating what he tells the media to protect itself and Wright.
Meanwhile, Church attorneys found that The New Yorker practically yawned at the obvious conflicts Wright raised by jumping the gun and signing his early book deal months before the article on his subject appeared.
The New Yorker at one point asserted the writer had given the Church a “heads up” about the book in the first meeting Wright had with a Church spokesperson in May 2010. However, as the meeting had been recorded by Wright, when the Church had The New Yorker check the record General Counsel Oberlander came back saying Wright now claims he must have “misremembered.”
But no one could “misremember” that the story needs to please Haggis because Wright needs his ongoing cooperation for the book to make money. Also, there is no assurance Wright didn’t use discredited anecdotes and sources in his profile article to make his future book more marketable.
The Church and its lawyers repeatedly asked The New Yorker for a courtesy copy of its code of conduct or ethics code, which the magazine refused to provide. The New Yorker essentially responded: “Thank you. We’re done.”
Ironically, the Church did dig up a section from Condé Nast’s 16-page “What Governs Us” document. It reads: “The integrity of Condé Nast and its employees depends greatly on avoiding conflicts of interest or appearances of such in editorial and business conduct.”
David Remnick and Lawrence Wright might want to read that one someday.
Given the mounds of press Wright’s “book deal” brouhaha generated and the clear conflicts it raises within media circles alone, one last item remains enormously salient—nowhere in Wright’s 24,605-word article that eventually appeared or in the author biography at the front of the magazine does it mention Wright has cut a book deal with Knopf.