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Interview With Two Writers About New JFK Jr. Book

Aired July 1, 2003 - 20:23   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. Glamorous princess and shining prince, or is it hot tempered coke head and jealous mama's boy, as the new book suggests. The book by "Vanity Fair" contributing editor Edward Klein is called "The Kennedy Curse" and it paints a sordid picture of JFK Jr. and his wife Carolyn Bissett. Not even on shelves yet it has some asking when is journalism exploitation, plain and simple. Joining me now in the studio, Jay Mulvaney the author of several Kennedy books and Duke University President of Journalism Susan Tift. Welcome.
First of all, have you had a chance to read any of the experts that appear -- I guess you can get -- in New York tomorrow in next month's "Vanity Fair"?

JAY MULVANEY, AUTHOR: Of course, you just eat those up. People eat them up. They were all over the New York tabloids this morning.

ZAHN: And what's your reaction to what you read?

MULVANEY: I was a little dismayed. You know, I think it's a little bit of grave robbing to go, grave picking to go after them like that because you don't have -- you don't really have any idea whether or not these things are true. There is so much speculation. There are so many unnamed sources. It's just a little discombobulating.

ZAHN: So what is the line you would draw between something that is tawdry and something that really is part of the historical record?

SUSAN TIFT, DUKE UNIVERSITY: I think there are two ways of looking at it. One is that you have to look at the seriousness of purpose of the book. And with all due respect to John F. Kennedy Jr., he was the son of a slain president but he wasn't exactly Ronald Reagan or John Adams or some of these other topics of -- of biography.

And so you have to ask, well why is he being written about in this kind of way. And so when you look at something like, say his father, John Kennedy, the president, there was a book recently that came out about his private medical problems, and that kind of thing. Well that enlightens the public. I think something that peeks behind the curtain like this book apparently does. And I haven't read it, I've only read what's in the papers today, probably crosses the line.

ZAHN: So you would write this off based on what you've read so far as tabloid fiction?

TIFT: Well, I don't know. I haven't read it. But I do think that there's also a question about how it's done. I mean, as Jay was saying, the question of accuracy of sources, the kind of observation of journalistic standards. That kind of thing is something you have to look at.

ZAHN: You've quoted anonymous source in books you've written before.

MULVANEY: I have. I have.

ZAHN: So why is it okay for you to do and not for Ed Klein to do?

MULVANEY: Oh, you have to filter what you use. And you have to try and figure out if people have a specific agenda. You know, John Kennedy Sr., the president, once told Ben Bradley what makes history so fascinating and journalism interesting is a struggle to answer that question what's he like. And when you have these people that tap into the emotional zeitgeist, Diana, Jackie, JFK Jr., even Frank Sinatra, you know, there's this never ending quest to find out what they're like so these questions will always be asked. The books will always be written.

The world did not need another word written about the Kennedy family. I've written three books about them. They keep coming out. They keep up because of this endless quest.

ZAHN: After the family members have died.

MULVANEY: Indeed after they have died.

ZAHN: So why is that not grave robbery? Because it's a more sympathetic portrayal of these people?

MULVANEY: An author can choose the prism through which he tells the story and I like to take the high road. Other people like to take the high bank account road because sex sells, scandal sells.

ZAHN: But the bottom line is, anyone who write books, write books to make money right, Susan?

TIFT: Well of course. There's been a long history of profiting from celebrity, I mean, books about Marilyn Monroe, and Frank Sinatra and all that kind of thing. I think it's one of those kinds of things I guess what Potter Stuart said about obscenity, you know it when you see it. And you know something that is sort of tabloid biography when you see it. I don't know whether that's the case here because we haven't read it, but it certainly has all of the hallmarks.

ZAHN: So what you're saying, maybe in your past writing of books, when you stumbled upon negative information about whether it was Jackie O. or Diana, that you made the concerted effort not to include it in the book?

MULVANEY: Or I tried, I really struggled to put it into a context where it made sense. If Jackie was accused of being very a greedy, you know , you remind people that she grew up as a Depression child and when her father lost all his money it destroyed the marriage. It broke up the family. So there was an emotional basis in which she entertained her activities later in life.

ZAHN: Susan, would you buy this book?

TIFT: No, I would not. But I have to say I greedily looked at the stories today in the "Daily News" and some of the other newspapers. I mean, I'm a human being like anybody else.

ZAHN: Which would explains why "Vanity Fair" would expert this book.

MULVANEY: I'll be readings "Vanity Fair", that's for sure.

ZAHN: Final word of caution for a reader there. From a journalism professor's point of view?

TIFT: I just think you have to be, it's like Caveat (ph) on tour. This is a buyer beware. You really have to know what it is you're getting. And when you're getting the "New York Times", you getting one thing, Jason Blair aside. And when you're reading the "New York Post" you get something else. And as long as you know what you're getting, then you're safe.

ZAHN: Thank you for both of your perspectives this morning. Susan Tift, Jay Mulvaney.

MULVANEY: Thank you.

ZAHN: Continued good writing to you.


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