Michael Moore, librarians and a free speech win

BY GEOFF GAGNON
G-ology
Published February 12, 2002

The last few years, it seems, have been uncharacteristically quiet for provocateur filmmaker-turned-author Michael Moore the Flint native who gained fame for his 1989 documentary "Roger and Me." Sure, several years of economic security may have dulled the passions of Moore"s anti-corporate army or dampened the interests of readers who catapulted Moore"s last book, "Downsize This!" to bestseller status. But if our current economic slowdown is nothing else, at least it"s a chance for Moore to get back to work after all, what"s a recession without Michael Moore blasting government and attacking corporate America?

Paul Wong
Geoff Gagnon<br><br>G-ology

This time around he"ll do so with a new book called "Stupid White Men," due in stores a week from today, where Moore takes aim at the White House ("a ne"er-do-well rich boy and his elderly henchmen"), and laments the bygone good-old days of the 1990s ("When the government was running at a surplus, pollution was disappearing, peace was breaking out in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, and the Bridge to the Twenty-First Century was strung with high-speed Internet cable and paved with 401K gold").

Except this time Moore"s humor and wit nearly failed to see the light of day after sensitive publishing executives at HaperCollins threatened to axe Moore"s new book in the wake of the September tragedies. The same flag-waving disregard for expression and dissent that prompted White House spinster Ari Fleischer to warn Americans to "watch what they say and do" cast a shadow over the book when the brass at HarperCollins decided to take Ari"s advice. After 50,000 copies had been printed, Moore"s book, scheduled to hit stores on Oct. 2, was yanked from the presses and put on hold because of concern over the timing of its political humor. This decision was not without justification given the uncertainty of the moments after the attack a point even Moore will concede.

However, few can defend what HaperCollins is alleged to have done next. Frightened over the anti-Bush tones the book contained, (Moore reportedly suggests that the Texas baseball buff turned president is, among other things, a functional illiterate) HaperCollins told Moore to change nearly 50 percent of the text or risk seeing the book shelved for good. What"s more, the publishing house also demanded that Moore change the title, the book"s cover art and kick in $100,000 from his royalty check to cover the costs of reprinting. Moore told fans on his website that his publishers cited changes in the "political climate" and suggested that the book would be "intellectually dishonest" if it didn"t admit that George Jr. had done a decent job since September when they threatened to kill the book.

Moore"s breakthrough came in December when his battle with the publishing powers-that-be was taken up by an unlikely army. Armed with her own sense of social justice and access to several email groups, Ann Sparanese, a librarian at Englewood Library in New Jersey, took Moore"s cause to the people.

After hearing Moore speak at an event where the author mentioned that his embattled book was collecting cobwebs in a HaperCollins warehouse, Sparanese fired off messages to several groups of active librarians including the Progressive Librarians Guild.

Formed to fight library status quo, the idea of a progressive group of librarians doesn"t exactly conjure up images of freedom-fighting activists. But, in the hearts and minds of publishers who rely on librarians and the libraries they stock for some $2 billion of annual revenue, socially minded librarians are a force to be reckoned with.

So as Sparenese"s message started to bounce across librarian e-mail groups it wasn"t long before industry observers like Publisher"s Weekly and Library Journal jumped on the story. A posting on Drudge Report and a pair of stories in the New York Post and on Salon.com quickly followed and suddenly HaperCollins execs were willing to tone down their demands. Moore told Salon.com that in the days after the story was first posted on librarian-related websites, an official with HaperCollins admitted that the publishing house had been barraged with angry messages from irate librarians.

With the word of next week"s release of a completely unchanged and unaltered book, Moore"s battle appears to have been won in a way the muckraking author and filmmaker couldn"t have scripted better himself. In a season of un-American, flag-flying censorship, where free speech and thoughtful debate became the sacrifice dejour, it"s nice to see the triumph of freedom of expression a patriotic notion that merits a bit of flag-waving. If the timid publishers at HarperCollins were wary of a public outcry, that"s exactly what they got in the form of a true patriotic defense of American ideals from a group of angry librarians.

Geoffrey Gagnon will be at the Michigan Theater on March 12 when Michael Moore rolls into town and can be reached at ggagnon@umich.edu.