Assume Nothing: Edward Jay Epstein speaks

In my comments on his new book I expressed my regard for the incomparable Edward Jay Epstein and his autobiography Assume Nothing, just published by Encounter Books. I wanted to follow up with Ed to bring the book to your attention again and perhaps to spark your interest in reading it. Below is my written interview with Ed geared to the publication of the book on March 7:

Power Line: I loved Assume Nothing. You have lived an incredibly interesting life. Why did you wait so long to tell your own story?

EJE: For sixty years I cast my investigative light on complex mysteries such as the JFK assassination, the diamond cartel, and KGB deception. Since an investigator is part of an investigation, I decided it was time to turn my light on myself. I kept a daily journal since I entered college in 1953, so I didn’t wait in writing about my experiences, just in publishing them.

Power Line: You got your undergraduate and master’s degrees in government from Cornell at the same time in 1966 and then went on to earn a Ph.D. under James Q. Wilson at Harvard. You even taught government after you earned your Ph.D. How did you become interested in a career in journalism?

EJE: I had no ambitions to be a journalist. It came by default when my master’s thesis on the Warren Commission became a best seller.

Power Line: You wrote your Ph.D. thesis on television journalism and published it as News From Nowhere. What did you learn once you got inside the business of television news? How do you think the business has changed since you wrote about it?

EJE: I learned that what is presented as reality is only a selection of reality by a group of people attuned to the economic and political requisites of their news organizations. I can’t believe the naiveté of people criticizing Tucker Carlson for his selection of pictures from the January 6 riot. Don’t they realize that is the way all television news — left, right and center — works?

Power Line: You tell the story of falling in love with the beautiful Susan Brockman while you were a student at Cornell, getting suspended, and going on an odyssey pursuing her in Greece while you did your best to film The Iliad. How did you let her get away?

EJE: She had the good sense, unlike me, to realize my talents were not in the movie business.

Power Line: What did you learn about show business in trying to make the movie?

EJE: I learned a movie was a group effort and I did not have the temperament or social skills to orchestrate a group.

Power Line: You turned your master’s thesis on the Warren Commission report on the Kennedy assassination into Inquest in 1966 and it became a huge best-seller. What was it like to start at the top as an author?

EJE: Starting at the top is not easy at a young age. I didn’t realize that all the requests for my appearance on big TV shows were based on the subject of the JFK assassination and the future, in this regard, would be all downhill.

Power Line: You went on to write two more assassination related books — Counterplot and Legend. Your work on Legend brought you into contact with the “controversial” CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton. Angleton was a huge influence on your life and work. Can you say what you learned from him?

EJE: Angleton was an extraordinary intellectual who mapped out the concept of deception between nations for me. He explained the vulnerability of intelligence services to deception, including self-deception, and the institutionalized conceit in the CIA of presuming it knew answers with certainty

Power Line: The first thing I read by you was the classic 1975 Commentary essay “Did the press uncover Watergate?” You actually identified Mark Felt as Deep Throat. In the concluding paragraph of that essay, you describe the collaborative relationship of the press and the government and decry journalists’ “professional blind spot to the inner conflicts and workings of the institutions of government[.]” We seem to have gone well beyond that — toward the active and knowing promotion of ulterior agendas by journalists working as willing tools of government agencies. Will you comment on that?

EJE: I would say officials in government agencies are valuable sources for Beltway journalists. Their careers often depend on a cooperative relationship with them. I would not call them tools but they use each other.

Power Line: You know that the gist of the Oliver Stone film JFK is garbage. You worked with Jim Garrison and know he was no hero. You even debated Oliver Stone on the assassination. What do you make of history — documentary, “based on a true story,” alternative, or fictional — Hollywood style?

EJE: The movie JFK is fiction. When you mix real events with fictional characters, as Stone did, you get fiction. Garrison was a con man who Stone made a hero because a fictional movie needs a singular hero.

Power Line: You have written books on Hollywood as well. What have you learned? What has changed?

EJE: Everything has changed in Hollywood — and for the worse. The substitution of streaming for movie theaters, as I describe in the 2023 preface of my book The Hollywood Economist, has killed Hollywood’s genius for creative and original movies. Simply put, the money is no longer there for movies for adult audiences.

Power Line:I am struck by the breadth of your friendships. You seem to be friends with everyone and have published in newspapers and magazines across the political spectrum. What can you say about that?

EJE: Age helps, as does living in New York City. I have always been open to meeting people, no matter what their politics.

Power Line: I would like to ask you how to win friends and influence people. I think you might have another book in you on that subject. Can you say anything about that?

EJE: There is a difference between knowing many people and having friends. With friends, I keep them by not imposing my views on them.

Power Line: You tell the story of your life in a classic fashion. What are the lessons you learned from living the story?

EJE: The most important lesson is not to dwell on the past. Obsession with the past is the enemy of discovery. Only by learning to end my obsession with The Iliad could I move on to a journalistic career.

Power Line: You devote four chapters of Assume Nothing to “Reversing received wisdom.” You seem inspired to be a contrarian. Can you comment on that?

EJE: I’ve always believed that, unlike an article of faith, any statement presented as an established fact can be questioned, tested, and possibly controverted. I therefore believe it to be my calling to challenge conventional. Sometimes I am successful, as happened with my New Yorker investigation of the Black Panthers, and sometimes I fail to find strong enough evidence to change the established narrative, as happened in my investigation of the secret-stealer Edward Snowden, How America Lost Its Secrets. I have never found it of interest to advance an ongoing story. My motto — Assume Nothing — dictated how I begin any investigation.

Power Line: I took it somewhat personally when Hollywood made the perpetrators of Rathergate the heroes of the story in the movie Truth (2015). You told me at the time that “Everything Hollywood does is fiction, including documentaries.” Will you elaborate?

EJE: What is called a “documentary” is nothing more than a carefully curated selection of opinions and images that are chosen to advance the documentarian’s narrative. In this regard, they are the equivalent of an opinion piece in a newspaper. Just an an author of fiction tries to control and guide the read, so does the documentarian. I prefer to read a good John le Carré or Graham Greene novel than watch concoctions that call themselves documentaries.

Power Line: When we spoke last week, you condemned the phenomenon of woke censorship. Will you comment on that?

EJE: The spreading virus of wokeness has transformed not only publishing but the entire information economy. At every level of it from school lectures to movies to Substack blogs, participants are vulnerable to having their careers ruined by a woke criticism. Everyone I know in publishing is aware of this danger and must reckon on the consequences. As a result, we now have self-censorship. It is far worse than the McCarthyism of the 1950’s because its enforcers among the woke have the ability to create instant twitters storms for which there are few effective defenses.

Power Line: Anything else you would like to tell our readers about Assume Nothing?

EJE: In interviewing the members of the Warren Commission and its staff, and obtaining the commission files, I did what no journalist did before or after. I did this not through any connections but by writing a short one-page letter to each of the commissioners. Even though they were among the most powerful men in America, they all answered me, and with the exception of one [Chief Justice Earl Warren], they saw me. From that moment on, I learned that one did not have to go to journalism school or follow the rules they follow. Instead, if one assumes nothing, and asks a simple question, he might get the answers he seeks. I followed this modus operandi in investigating such diverse subjects as the diamond cartel, the murder of the Vatican’s banker, the assassination of the President of Pakistan, and Nixon’s war on drugs. To understand how this works, please read Assume Nothing.

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