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Friday, March 13, 2009

Jean Seberg, the Los Angeles Times, and the FBI

The Los Angeles Times Opinion page today carries a must-read piece by former Times staffer Allan Jalon about a smear the paper printed back in 1970 that was concocted by the FBI. Jalon's piece is prompted by the death of Times editor Jim Bellows last week, and points out that the paper's obituary of Bellows neglected to discuss what Bellows considered the worst mistake of his career: Allowing gossip columnist Joyce Haber to write a piece alleging that Seberg was pregnant not by her husband, French novelist and diplomat Romain Gary, but a member of the Black Panthers. After Seberg lost the baby, she went into a psychological tailspin that ended in her death from an overdose of barbituates.

The rumor, as we have known since the 1970s, was planted by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI as a way of getting back at Seberg for her political activities. Jalon points out that the anonymous tip was given to one of the Times' other editors, Bill Thomas, who passed it to Bellows who then passed it to Haber--who reported it without checking it out.

While a staff writer at the Times, Jalon worked on two stories in 2002 about the affair, and the Times of course deserves credit for printing them, as well as Jalon's new piece. But the paper obviously suffered a journalistic lapse when it failed to mention the episode in Bellows' obituary. As Jalon now says:

I find it ironic that The Times, after going to such lengths to explore the record of an egregious journalistic event that shadowed it for decades, should now turn around and act as if it never happened.

PS--Be sure to read the Time magazine story I link to above, which includes the following passage:

Haber insisted last week that her source for the column was not the FBI but "a journalist" whom she would not name. Said Haber: "I am beginning to wonder who my best friends are. Obviously, if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have printed the item. It's absolutely shocking and appalling. I can now have no trust in anybody."

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