Not very long ago, the spiritual leader of Iran proclaimed a death sentence against the novelist Salman Rushdie. Because the Ayatollah Khomeini had already been freighted with anti-American significance, this story played naturally in the U.S. media as a regressive attack on freedom of expression--which in fact it was--and elicited from writers, politicians, government officials, and managers of media businesses dutiful yet luminous recitals of traditional liberal formulations of free-press theory. Suddenly, after a presidential campaign in 1988 that had stooped to moral terrorism over whether school children should be compelled to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, it was again proper to be a liberal. Liberals were now the courageous targets of Khomeini, not the godless bureaucrats who wanted to jail praying students.
Still more recently, Basic Books decided not to publish a book on the Rushdie affair by Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes that it had contracted for some months earlier. In the meantime, Khomeini had died, an event that threatened eventually to take him out of the headlines but did not produce the hoped-for revocation of Rushdie's death sentence. Did the publisher fear Khomeini's disciples? No, not according to George Craig, chief editor of (then) Harper and Row, the parent company of Basic Books, and itself a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. Coincidentally, another News Corporation subsidiary, William Collins (which has since been merged with Harper), had recently canceled another completed book, titled "The Rushdie File," in England, in the wake of a series of bookstore bombings aimed at Satanic Verses. Craig was anxious to put to rest rumors that his company had a terror-inspired prohibition against books that might offend Muslims. On the contrary, he insisted, the cancellations were business as usual; both sprang from marketing, not political, reasons. Neither book would have turned a profit. 1
Ironically, the death threats against Rushdie had catapulted his Satanic Verses to the top of the best-seller lists, putting the subtle Indian magic realist in the company of Robert Ludlum and Judith Krantz. The threat of assassination gave a