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The Kitty Kelley Caper

AT a time when Kurdish children are dying by the thousands, and other important problems around the world demand our attention, it is disconcerting that so much of our attention is being diverted by the Kitty Kelley affair. Ms. Kelley has written a purported biography of Nancy Reagan. It is a runaway best-seller for Kelley and her publishers, Simon and Schuster.

It is making far more money for the publishers than two other, less salacious Reagan books being simultaneously marketed by Simon and Schuster, one written by President Reagan himself, and another by Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon.

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I call Kelley's book a "purported" biography, because in the light of critical examination large chunks of it appear to be fiction, based on shaky surmise and innuendo.

Unfortunately, this critical examination has come a little late. It post-dates the first, breathless accounts of the book's contents, published without questioning or checking by many otherwise responsible news organizations.

In one respect, the book's publishers engineered this by going to extraordinary lengths to keep its contents secret until publication day. But a gullible press fell for it anyway, and rushed stories into print trumpeting the book's meanest allegations without waiting to check them out.

All this raises a couple of intriguing issues.

One is the extent to which the private lives of public figures are fair game for the would-be biographer.

Some biographers argue that in the interests of history, everything should be on the table.

Others say that good taste may require skirting areas that have no bearing whatsoever on the public figure's public performance.

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At the very least, it seems to me, the biographer who comes down on the side of being intrusive had better get it right when he, or she, offers up material that is damaging and hurtful.

Perhaps one test should be the public figure's position. A president's peccadilloes may have an impact on the way he conducts the nation's business; but the vices of a president's wife may be nothing more than grist for the gossip columnist's pen.

News versus gossip. Information that is clearly in the public interest versus snippets intended to titillate. How to define them? When to publish them?

Which brings us to the second issue here.

What is the responsibility of news organizations to substantiate second-hand allegations, sometimes of a scurrilous nature, before further publicizing them? To spread, for instance, a rumor that the president's wife had an extra-marital affair with a Hollywood crooner is a serious charge.

Once upon a time it was a given that an editor did not knowingly publish false information. But times seem to be changing.

"Who knows if it's true?" Newsweek magazine quotes Newsday editor Don Forst as saying about Kitty Kelley excerpts published in his paper.

Editors at Simon and Schuster skate around the question of the Kelley book's accuracy.

Then there is Harvard law professor and celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz advising newspaper editors that it is all right to be wrong.

Despite questions about the Kelley book's veracity, he told them at their annual convention in Boston, it deserved publication even if it turns out to be wrong.

"If you must always be right, you won't publish a great deal of what in the end turns out to be right," said Dershowitz, arguing that newspapers have a constitutional right to be wrong - to publish what is later found to be wrong. In the grand sweep of history, Kitty Kelley's book on Nancy Reagan is unlikely to rate even a footnote, however much ink and air time it is currently monopolizing.

But its handling raises questions once again about the manner in which those whose profession is to publish the truth are carrying out their mission.

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