February 22, 2010

Talk about fraud


James Corliss receiving a medal for his participation in the Hiroshima mission

James Corliss receiving a medal for his participation in the Hiroshima mission

It’s a publisher’s worst nightmare: A new book from Holt about the atom bomb attack on Hiroshima, Japan, The Last Train from Hiroshima by Charles Pellegrino, has gotten off to an amazing start, winning critical acclaim for “its heartbreaking portrayals of the bomb’s survivors,” landing on the New York Times bestseller list, and being selected by Avatar director James Cameron as his next film project. One reason for the book’s huge launch: a startling revelation of “a secret accident with the atom bomb that killed one American and irradiated others and greatly reduced the weapon’s destructive power.”

Here comes the nightmare part: That startling revelation has proven to be a lie made up by an impostor who was one of the author’s key sources for the book, leading to a “national outcry,’ according to a New York Times report by William J. Broad.

Joseph Fuoco described himself to author Pellegrino as “a last-minute substitute on one of the two observation planes that escorted the Enola Gay,” the infamous bomber on the run, says the Times. Fuoco, who died in 2008, said he replaced flight engineer James R. Corliss when he took sick just before take-off.

All of which was quickly proven false by Corliss’ family, surviving flight crew members, other historians and numerous government photographs and documents.

“I’m stunned,” Pellegrino tells the Times. “I liked and admired the guy.”

Charles Pelligrino

Charles Pelligrino

More stunning: Pellegrino obviously didn’t cross check Fuoco’s story with the aforementioned abundant evidence—didn’t run it by the other flight crew members, or check it against military documents such as flight manifests about what and who was on the plane … documents, by the way, signed by James Corliss.

But Pellegrino has the protective sheen of Hollywood about him—he is, apparently, the pet historian of James Cameron, who based Titanic on books by Pellegrino, who also worked on Avatar—and the Times does not confront him with tough questions about his research failures.

Instead, guess who’s fault it is?

“This book is a Toyota,” the Times quotes another author, Robert S. Norris (Racing for the Bomb) as saying. “The publisher should recall it, issue an apology and fix the parts that endanger the historical record.” Bizarrely, however, the Times fails to quote the publisher’s response to any of this, which is another example of failing at the rudiments of ethical reportage.

And in fact, the Times has a long historyof castigating the publishing industry for not employing fact-checkers—a particularly galling charge given that it comes from an institution that has never employed a fact-checker itself, and has had its own embarrassing history of fraudulent reporting.

It’s hard to believe Holt will not withdraw the book—Pelligrino says he’ll fix things in later editions, but of course the publisher is the one who will have to enact that, not to mention pay for it, making it all the weirder that the Times doesn’t quote anyone from Holt. And isn’t Pellegrino a little, you know, discredited?

It’s obvious that publishers should indeed ride close herd on books making such surprising “revelations,” and Holt is not without guilt here. But is it really the publisher that bears the ultimate responsibility? Couldn’t the same logic be extended to ask why the Times didn’t fact-check the book itself before giving it its own ringing endorsement, in this glowing review?

Hiroshima, August, 1945

Hiroshima, August, 1945

Of course not. Because no system is flawless, and at some point, the publisher must make the same leap of faith in an author that a book critic makes in deciding to review a book. In this instance, that leap was based partly on the track record of the author (Pellegrino has published 12 books). And after all, who would suspect a fairly reputable historian of failing to undertake the most rudimentary research on such a sensitive story? Who would suspect that he wouldn’t more ethically consider the damage that would cobweb out from such laziness—the damage and dishonor to the reputations of the editors and publishers and critics, yes, but more importantly to the Corliss family and other survivors, to the 70,000 killed in HIroshima, and to the historic record itself?

Mis-directing responsibility of this only compounds, and perpetuates, the damage.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives