UPDATE: 12 p.m., July 4
I am informed that the Huff Post piece has now removed the reference to my having been fired. Instead, apparently, my revenge was had upon editors who spiked one of my articles because my writing wasn’t “Dickensian” enough. They never said anything of the sort to me or anyone else, and that is not actually the reason that particular article was spiked. I carefully related the actual sequence of events to Dr. Williams in my April memo as a discussion of that particular article and its fate features throughout her manuscript, but no matter. With regard to the Huff Post essay at least, I am libeled no more and I thank the author for her apology at the bottom of the essay.
A brief word on the non-performance of the Huffington Post in this matter, on their publishing ethic, and on the manner in which this institution conducts its business:
The abdication of editorial responsibility in the case of aggregated sites such as Wikipedia or barely-edited copy dumps such as the Huffington Post is one of the sad retrenchments in news distribution and commentary. The ethos of such entities — hey, we don’t write the stuff; we’re just the blackboard it’s scrawled upon — sounds at first to be an ennobled argument for an open and unfettered marketplace of ideas, where some unseen hand of libertarian idealism ensures that better notions triumph over bad ones, and the lies are all, in the end, run down and brutalized by more powerful truths before much harm is done. Demagogues from Huey Long to Joseph Goebbels have an answer to that naivete; shit, John Kerry will sell you a used Swift Boat if you’re credulous enough to believe such tripe. These policies are not ennobled. They are craven. They allow web entities to profit off the slanders, provocations and irresponsible claims in the real-time battles that make their sites central and profitable to every argument. Lies and cheap provocations become as essential to the dynamic as the truth, and accuracy and falsehood are accorded equal honor. It’s yellow stuff indeed.
Some of the best and most courageous journalism that I’ve witnessed involved the decision by good and careful editors NOT to publishing something incomplete, or inaccurate, or ethically impaired. Such things seldom happen with our present internet. Instead, the editors of the Huffington Post are not only untroubled at the thought of unknowingly participating in a libel, they prove comfortable with maintaining that libel even when its falsehood is known. They throw up their hands, cry that we shouldn’t shoot the piano player, who’s merely playing the music of others. As if carrying a lie about another citizen to a mass of people isn’t still the tort of libel and a thoroughly scumsucking thing with which to be engaged.
UPDATE: 2 p.m., July 3
Today, I spoke with the director of Duke University Press. He informs me that Dr. Williams’ book, which had been sent to the printer without any changes since I viewed the manuscript three months ago, is now on hold while the publisher consults with its author and with legal counsel. Given that this gentleman was coming to this issue suddenly and without prior knowledge, and, too, that some time is required to reach people, gather information and address complicated matters, I’m inclined to leave it here and keep the details of my conversation private. At present, I am content to believe that Duke University Press is trying to address the issue. More to come. Or not. Hard to know.
ORIGINAL TEXT: July 2
The permanent churn of the internet is such that if you allow a dishonesty to stand for more than a moment, it will be endlessly repeated as fact for as long as there are humans left to link to it. We all sense this. And even so, for some falsehoods, we have to laugh and let it ride; the stakes just aren’t that high.
But every now and then comes a moment when — as someone who counted himself as a professional reporter for some certain years — I find myself stunned, like a cow with a sledgehammer, to see just how indifferent another practitioner is to any basic responsibility and ethics.
In this instance, the practitioner is an academic author, Linda Williams, who has published a book of themes and arguments relating to a television show I once wrote and produced, “The Wire.” Her book, published by Duke University Press, is currently being hawked as new books always are, and Ms. Williams has written a piece for the Huffington Post, which appears on that site today as part of that publicity campaign. For obvious reasons, I will not link to it because of the libel contained therein.
Understand, it is not merely an error. Everyone makes mistakes.
The reason that I can attest that this is no mere error is that a few months ago, Duke University Press sent me a galley of the book and asked that I look at it. As I explained to them, I am without public opinion as to Dr. Williams’ thoughts and theories regarding “The Wire.” She is welcome to all of them. I do, however, find myself capable of opinion on any narrative that suggests I was at any point unethical as a newspaperman. Those years matter to me to a much greater degree than how anyone might view my later performance in the entertainment industry.
And indeed, embedded in the original manuscript was a theme, conjured from god knows where by the author, that I had been fired from the newspaper after a falling out with editors that involved an ethical breach on my part.
I don’t know how else to say this: There was no ethical breach. No lapse in any ethical standard of journalism was ever suggested or referenced in any of my work, even by those editors with whom I had deep and fundamental disagreements over the direction and priorities of the newspaper. No ethical question was ever raised by those editors with me, nor with any of my immediate supervisors. Nothing of the sort was ever discussed or brought to my attention in any way, ever. It. Just. Did. Not. Happen.
I was not fired at all. In fact, because of more philosophical disagreements, I elected to leave the Sun voluntarily in November 1995, taking a buyout with about 120 other newsroom employees who were offered a year’s salary and benefits to leave the newspaper. Further, when it became clear to the editors in question that I was determined to depart the paper, one of them, Mr. Marimow by name, came to me in the last hours of the buyout window and put a slip of paper in my hand. It promised a $5,000 raise immediately if I would withdraw my buyout papers, and a second raise in the subsequent fiscal year. I thanked him, but noted that my differences with him and with Mr. Carroll were not really about money, and I left the paper.
And yet, here I am in the Huffington Post today under the byline of Dr. Williams, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley: “Thus did David Simon have his sweet revenge on the bosses who once fired him from the Baltimore Sun…”
Again, I conveyed all of the above corrective facts to Dr. Williams and her publisher both, in writing, by early April. I wrote that they should look at the material and endeavor to do the proper and responsible thing. I did not hear back from them. I do not know if substantive changes have been made to the book manuscript. I only know that I am nonetheless, in today’s published essay, someone who needed to be fired from his newspaper.
Being fired from any job certainly implies cause. It is defamatory on its face. And when a writer is informed in advance of the facts and chooses to publish such a claim regardless, it meets the definition for libel, and actionable libel even of a public person.
Today, I’ve written to my original contacts at Duke University Press, asking, in effect, what the fuck. I also attempted to correct the record using the disembodied and bureaucratic uselessness that is the Huffington Post’s corrections and legal inquiry forms. Nada. No replies. No follow through at all. As of a few moments ago, the lie stands, comfortably, amid the warm breezes of a web where truth is always late to the picnic.
There is a presumption that the academy — with its research standards and its intellectual rigor — is ever superior to the slapdash, first-draft-of-history half-assedness that is daily journalism. We made mistakes in print all the time. Yes, we did. But if someone sent me corrective material months in advance of publication and I still managed to print a libel without regard to that material, I would have been, well, fired. And I would not have complained.