Sometimes in their zeal to make a point, newscasters use an historic event to make a point about a current story. And sometimes, when they do so, they distort the facts about that prior event beyond all recognition. That's what happened on the Rachel Maddow show on December 19. And as someone who is the victim of that distortion, I have to say it hurts.
Ms. Maddow was discussing the decision by Sony Pictures to cancel the movie The Interview in the face of terrorist threats. But the focus of her piece was the decision by movie theaters not to show the movie. In order to make her point, she compared the actions of movie theaters in this instance to that of bookstores in 1989 that, she claimed, refused to carry Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses in the face of similar threats. She used the generic term "bookstores" throughout her reporting, implying that booksellers as a group only relented and started carrying the book when the public demanded it.
This is simply not true as an historical fact. Many, if not most, independent bookstores carried Mr. Rushdie's book at that time, and they didn't need any special urging by anyone to do so. Although some of the chain bookstores shied away from carrying the book, the producers of the Maddow Show made a huge mistake in equating their actions with that of the entire retail book business. Our bookstore carried the book right from the beginning, and we later hosted Mr. Rushdie for an author appearance while he was still under the Fatwah that had been issued against him. Another store, Cody's Books in Berkeley, continued to carry the book even though the store was firebombed because of their decision to do so.
But don't take my word for it. You should read what Mr. Rushdie himself said in a widely distributed letter to independent booksellers a year ago. It's a shame that Ms. Maddow's producers didn't take the time to read it. Here's part of what Salman Rushdie said about the role of independent booksellers during that period:
.... The independent booksellers of America put the book in windows, mounted special displays, and courageously stood up for freedom against censorship, refusing to allow the choices of American readers to be limited by the threats of an angry despotic cleric far away. The bravery of independent booksellers influenced other stores to follow their lead, and in the end a key battle for free expression was won--not by politicians who, as usual, arrived cautiously and tardily at the battlefield, but by the determination of ordinary people that it not be lost. I have never ceased to be grateful for what the independent booksellers of America did in 1989 and, now that I have finally been able to tell the full story of that battle, I'm glad to be able to honor your courage and give you all your due, both in the pages of my book and in what I will say about it when it is published. This is just to thank you personally. It was a privilege to be defended by you, and I have been trying, and will continue to try, to be worthy of that defense.
Will the truth ever be told about the courage exhibited by independent booksellers during that period? We can only hope so. In the meantime, Rachel Maddow and her producers owe a lot of booksellers -- and Salman Rushdie -- an apology.