Twenty years ago, David Rorvik wrote a book that he swore was true, about a wealthy industrialist who copied himself biologically. Rorvik found a publisher, J.B. Lippincott, to market "In His Image: The Cloning of a Man" as nonfiction.
Lippincott warned readers in a Publisher's Note, "The account ,, that follows is an astonishing one. The author assures us it is true. We do not know. We believe simply that he has written a book which will stimulate interest and debate on issues of the utmost significance for our immediate future."
Lippincott was acknowledging what many publishers never discuss: They assume no responsibility for the truthfulness of books that they represent as non-fiction. Last year, Avon Books moved from lack of responsibility to nihilism with this notice in "Flying Blind, Flying Safe," an expose of the airline industry by Mary Schiavo.
"All of the information in this book has been compiled from the most reliable sources, and every effort has been made to eliminate mistakes and questionable data," says the notice on the copyright page. "Nevertheless, the possibility of error always exists. Neither the authors nor the publisher will be held responsible for any errors or omissions contained herein."
Such a disclaimer is legally meaningless. If somebody mentioned in the book is defamed, has her privacy invaded or is otherwise violated by words, any sensible judge or jury will see the disclaimer for what it is - a cop-out, not a defense.
Teen-agers using books to research term papers, professors citing hundreds of books in bibliographies of scholarly monographs, book group members discussing a best-selling memoir - all of them assume publishers warranty what they place in stores and libraries. Books, after all, are permanent, and therefore the ultimate repository of accurate information. Aren't they?
The answer is too often no. Publishers who share complicity with authors and agents in bringing inaccurate books to market ought to be ashamed for placing a crack in the bedrock of truth necessary for a civilized society.
The standard book contract - written by publishing house lawyers - says the responsibility for accuracy is the author's alone. That should not absolve publishers of their moral and intellectual responsibilities, but many publishers do little to ensure either factual accuracy or overall truthfulness. Those publishers have decided they can afford to dispense with worrying about brand loyalty - how many bookbuyers, they figure, go to Barnes & Noble or a public library to look for a Simon and Schuster?
There are far too many instances of publishers marketing books as nonfiction with no consumer advisory, when warning signs of untruthfulness are evident before shipment to stores and libraries. Bantam copped out by publishing "In God's Name: An Investigation into the Murder of Pope John Paul I" by David Yallop. Doubleday did that with "The Underground Empire: Where Crime and Government Embrace" by James Mills. Ballantine did that with "Sleepers," Lorenzo Carcaterra's memoir an abusive adolescence. Random House did that with John Berendt's all-time best seller, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
Questions of publisher responsibility become even more urgent when an entire allegedly nonfiction genre sells millions of copies without convincing evidence. That is the current situation with .. books about alien abductions and other activities of extraterrestrial beings.
Consider the new book "Confirmation: The Hard Evidence of Aliens Among Us" written by Whitley Strieber and published by St. Martin's Press. The author of wildly imaginative novels, Strieber achieved fame only after producing what he claimed to be nonfiction.
Strieber's 1987 best seller "Communion: A True Story," published by William Morrow, is an account of aliens entering his bedroom in his locked home, then
implanting mysterious devices below his skin - while his wife slept soundly in the same bed. Despite its passion, it lacks a scintilla of evidence.
I looked painstakingly for "hard evidence" in the 290 pages of "Confirmation." I wonder if Strieber's editors really find his "evidence" convincing: Implants by aliens of small items inside the bodies of earthlings; amateur video recordings of unusual objects in the sky, especially near Mexico City; and the sheer number of people who testify to encounters with aliens.
Despite my dismay at Strieber's book being marketed as nonfiction, I found redeeming passages. Strieber pays lip service to the skeptics, and occasionally pokes fun at himself. I found no redeeming passages in other recent books about alien encounters. The most disturbing of all: "The Day After Roswell" by retired Army Colonel Philip J. Corso. Pocket Books, part of Simon & Schuster, published a hardcover version in 1997 and a paperback version this year.
The folks at Pocket Books could not restrain themselves while designing the dust jacket: "The Truth Exposed After Fifty Years!" and "A Former Pentagon Official Reveals the U.S. Government's Shocking UFO Cover-up."
Well, I have spent many years exposing government cover-ups. I looked forward to evaluating Corso's evidence about debris falling from the sky near a New Mexico town during 1947, especially after he said, "Buried deep inside my job at the Pentagon was a single file cabinet that I had inherited because of my intelligence background. That file held the Army's deepest and most closely guarded secret - the Roswell files, the cache of debris and information an Army retrieval team ... pulled out of the wreckage of a flying disk that had crashed outside the town of Roswell."
Wow, I thought, a file cabinet. That means documents filled with verifiable information. I should have known better. There is not a single document that demonstrates any extraterrestial connection to what happened at Roswell.
Early this year, Simon and Schuster published another book, one that makes even Corso's seem credible by comparison. It is "The Threat: The Secret Alien Agenda," by David M. Jacobs, a Temple University history professor. He says that behind the countless number of alien missions to abduct Earthlings is a plot to control the planet by breeding the citizenry to become a different kind of species.
Why Strieber, Corso, Jacobs and many other educated people believe that what they present rises to the level of evidence is beyond the scope of this essay. For a plausible explanation, I refer readers to Michael Shermer's book "Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience,
Superstition and Other Confusions of Our Time" (Freeman, 1997), especially Chapter Six, "Abducted!: Encounters With Aliens."
In the Acknowledgments section of "The Threat," Jacobs thanks Simon and Schuster editors Fred Hills and Burton Beals: "Once the reader understands how strange the material is, one can understand how open-minded and intellectually honest Hills and Beals are. They embody the true meaning of professionalism."
I have never met Hills or Beals, but I know they edited a superb expose of hospitals by a professional acquaintance of mine. Furthermore, they edited what appears to be a responsibly reported book about purported aliens, "Out There: The Government's Secret Quest for Extraterrestrials" by Howard Blum, a former New York Times reporter.
So, when looking at the alien phenomenon from a publisher's vantage point, my question is this: Do the editors of Strieber at St. Martin's, Corso at Avon, Jacobs at Simon and Schuster and at dozens of other houses believe the books about alien activities deserve the term nonfiction, without any caveats?
If so, I wish they would provide explanations for all readers about why they find the "evidence" offered by their authors to be so convincing. If not, I wish they would temper their sensationalism in the pursuit of profit by, at minimum, including the type of consumer advisory that Lippincott provided in Rorvik's book.
Steve Weinberg is editor of a bimonthly magazine o information-gathering published by Investigative Reporters & Editors, based at the University of Missouri Journalism School. He is the author of seven nonfiction books.
Pub Date: 8/02/98