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Joe, we hardly knew you

Thank goodness that Edward R. Murrow, the legendary CBS newsman, is dead. Because otherwise, the way his former employer reacted to the news that CBS commentator-Newsweek columnist Joe Klein, even though he repeatedly and publicly denied the truth for six months, actually wrote the best-selling political novel Primary Colors would have killed him.

A personal note: I have known and liked Joe Klein for more than a quarter-century. At the Sheraton Wayfarer Hotel in Manchester, N.H., just before this year's presidential primary, with just the two of us there, Joe Klein looked me in the eye and assured me I was wrong, that he had not written Primary Colors. Much more important, Joe Klein went on CBS News, which paid him for his candid insights, and told CBS correspondent Martha Teichner and several million Americans, "It's not me. I didn't do it."

How did the proud inheritors of the Ed Murrow legacy at CBS handle the news? According to the New York Times, "CBS executives said that no decision would be made about Mr. Klein's status until after the return of their vacationing president, Andrew Heyward. (CBS executives) said they were also waiting to determine whether a backlash develops against Mr. Klein."

Who are these people? "Waiting to determine whether a backlash develops against Mr. Klein"? What are they planning? A series of focus groups to probe whether lying on the air might tarnish the pristine, unsullied reputation of CBS News? What is being suggested here by "CBS executives" is nothing less than the subcontracting of conscience, the surrender of individual moral judgment to the fleeting whimsy of public opinion.

This is not about right and wrong. It's about ratings. According to the Los Angeles Times, "All the attention Klein is receiving could in the end make him a bigger celebrity, both for Newsweek and CBS, noted (one CBS executive)." But the worldly wise and the world-weary refuse to be unnerved by revelations about six months of public lies, condoned and defended by Klein's bosses at Newsweek. "Lighten up," they counsel. It's time for a chill pill.

True, this is not exactly World War III on color television. But before Klein began lying so emphatically and dramatically, he should have thought first about the work he has done to feed his family for 25 years. He should have thought about journalism and the men and women who get up every day and go to work, who try to get it straight, who seek to tell the truth.

Journalism, like so many American institutions, has lost both public respect and confidence. Most polls rank journalists just behind nuclear-arms merchants and just ahead of defense attorneys for child pornographers. Sadly, Joe Klein's most memorable statement at the New York news conference hosted by his delighted publishers was: Lying on camera was "one of the most difficult things I had to do."

Every reporter who legitimately accused President George Bush of fibbing when he denied that he had never considered Clarence Thomas' race in nominating him to the Supreme Court, every reporter who remembers candidate Bill Clinton unconvincingly insisting that he had "forgotten" that he had received a draft notice while at Oxford, and every reporter who rightly disbelieved Ross Perot when he said the Reform Party "is not about me" has to ask herself how those of us in journalism, if we fail to censure the lying of one of our own, can continue to find fault with a politician who doesn't tell the truth.

Klein, a hard-working and superb political reporter, wrote a blockbuster political novel. With paperback sales and movie rights, he has probably made $6-million. That's good for Klein and his family, for whom he cares deeply.

But what he has also made is our public and political life a little more cynical and a little more sour _ and his colleagues' job more than a little tougher to do.

Creators Syndicate