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Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Publishers and the Bergdahl book blockade

Six veterans who were deployed to Afghanistan with Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl are peddling a memoir surrounding their experiences connected to the disappearance and subsequent capture by Taliban forces of their former colleague.

We’ve seen them with Megyn Kelly. We know the gist of the stories. Bergdahl deserted his post. He betrayed his oath. He jeopardized his platoon-mates’ safety. He compromised their mission. Heard it. Know it. Sympathize with much of it.

Still, the six are eager to commit to print the texture and details of their harrowing experiences and heartfelt anger over Bergdahl’s desertion, possible cooperation with the enemy and eventual high-priced release. It’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t be at least as large an audience for those books as for, say, the high-toned ramblings of a former U.S. secretary of state.

But if you think publishers are keen to reap that financial windfall (and, in the process, recoup some of their losses from Hillary Clinton’s “Hard Choices” – here’s a hard choice: how soon does it go in the remainders pile?), you don’t know the first thing about publishing.

Reporting for Yahoo! News, Michael Isikoff notes an unsettling chill with which publishers have greeted the would-be authors.

Agents for the soldiers say that some publishers have balked, in at least one case out of fear that the project would bolster conservative criticism of the Obama administration.

“I’m not sure we can publish this book without the Right using it to their ends,” Sarah Durand, a senior editor at Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, wrote in an email to one of the soldiers’ agents.

“[T]he Conservatives are all over Bergdahl and using it against Obama,” Durand wrote, “and my concern is that this book will have to become a kind of ‘Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’” — a reference to the group behind a controversial book that raised questions about John Kerry’s Vietnam War record in the midst of his 2004 presidential campaign.

The six are fired up, to be sure, especially after President Obama appeared with Bergdahl’s parents in a Rose Garden ceremony announcing his release in May.

“There was no way we were going to sit down and be quiet while Obama was calling him a war hero,” said Evan Buetow, Bergdahl’s former team leader, in an interview with Yahoo News. “We’re just trying to tell the truth. It’s not my fault this would make Obama look bad.”

In his “Best of the Web Today” column Thursday, the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto frames nicely the larger picture of what’s unfolding here.

Of course a publisher has no moral or legal obligation to enter a contract with any prospective author, and Simon & Schuster has every right to make editorial decisions on a partisan or ideological basis. In doing so, the company is simply engaging in political speech, which, thanks to the 2010 Citizens United case, is protected by the First Amendment.

To be sure, even had Citizens United gone the other way, Simon & Schuster would still be free to engage in political speech. As a “media corporation,” it enjoyed an exemption from the censorship regime Citizens United struck down.

Nonetheless, the story illustrates why the protections of Citizens United are so important. If free speech is a privilege belonging to certain classes of politically favored entities, politicians have the power to deny it to entities that disfavor them.

For those with the capacity to grasp why Americans don’t sacrifice their First Amendment protections when they assemble under a corporate umbrella, Taranto’s spot-on observation will make absolute sense. What’ll you bet the rest aren’t excited about seeing the veterans’ recollections published in the first place?