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But the senior critic has no problem with Strauss writing further news stories about Manson. Pareles notes that Times TV critic Bill Carter wrote a successful book about Jay Leno and David Letterman called The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for Late Night, and Carter continues to cover the talk-show hosts.
The comparison doesn't wash, though. Carter's book was an independent work of reporting, and he was not involved in a financial relationship with his subjects. Strauss' role in Road was essentially editing and re-writing Manson's anecdotes with more compelling language. In doing so -- and in joining with Manson as coauthor (and cobenefactor) -- he abdicates all objectivity about his subject. Given all that, it would seem that news stories should be doubly off-limits for Strauss, since they ostensibly require a reporter's neutrality on his topic.
But Strauss has continued to write about Manson in The New York Times since receiving his book contract. Exactly how many times he has done so depends on whose version of the contract's timetable you believe. Attempts to get Strauss' side of the story were mostly unsuccessful. When an interview with him was first requested through Regan Books, the publicist said that he "doesn't want to be a spokesman for Marilyn Manson," but that he could be reached at The New York Times' L.A. bureau office for questions about his role as coauthor. Strauss called back the next day, sounding frantic. "Have you called my publicist?" he asked.
"Yes. Do you want to do the interview now?"
"No, I have to call my publicist, then I'll call you right back," he said. He never did.
The publicist later requested that the questions be sent via fax so she could forward them to Strauss. Two pages of detailed queries about Strauss' role as Manson's coauthor were sent; a two-paragraph fax was the response.
"As for your conflict of interest accusations, the book was first mentioned to me in August 1997, and a contract was first presented to me in October," Strauss wrote. "In the time since August, I haven't written any articles, reviews or otherwise on Marilyn Manson in any publication whatsoever. Regarding any other pieces written for The New York Times that touched on or involved Manson, upon submitting each story I reminded my editors about the book, and they checked with their superiors for potential conflict of interest. Every instance was approved."
A source familiar with the book deal contradicts Strauss, saying that it was in the works as early as March 1997. That date appears more realistic: Strauss took several weeks off from the Times in August and went on the road with Manson to do interviews for the book (according to transcripts in Road, he had already made seven tapes by August 9), so it's likely that there were discussions about him being coauthor well before then. But even by Strauss' own chronology, he wrote two significant Manson-related news stories for the Times well after he signed the book contract.
A November 17 "Pop Life" column addressed Sen. Sam Brownback's hearings on rock lyrics, focusing on testimony from a father who blamed his son's suicide on Manson's music. The father wasn't quoted, but Manson was. "I think it's bad that they exploit parents who say that their kids have been injured because of music," Manson said in the piece. "That's far more despicable than anything I could do." And in a December 1 news story (headlined "R-Rated Rock Concerts? Marilyn Manson and Mom?") Strauss reported that "in an attempt to save their businesses from complaining parents, restrictive legislation and increased police scrutiny, concert hall operators are considering a rating system for performances similar to those used for movies, television shows and recordings." He went on to write that this "consideration" stemmed from reaction to Manson's last tour.
In the weeks since the piece ran, no one has taken concrete steps to institute a rating system, and major players in the industry do not believe it will ever happen. The legislation is essentially the pipe dream of two conservative state representatives, one from Michigan and one from South Carolina. But because the story ran in the venerable New York Times, it (and thus Manson's involvement) was given considerable weight, with Rolling Stone and daily newspapers across the country following up on it.
Pareles says that the Times has tough standards for avoiding conflict of interest, and that Strauss always met them.
"Basically, Neil did pretty much everything by the book," the senior critic says. "He didn't do anything endors-ing Manson, really. He wrote about Manson in news stories because Manson was a newsmaker.
"Whenever Neil covered Manson, he asked [the paper] not to put a picture in, which would sort of pop Manson out of the story as the most important part," he says. "The concert ratings story did have a Manson picture, but he asked them not to, and they overruled him."
All of which continues to bolster Manson's controversial public image -- which, in turn, bolsters the appeal of his autobiography. Pareles confesses that he hasn't read the Strauss-Manson book. It's unlikely that higher-ranking editors at the Old Gray Lady have read it either, but it would be interesting to hear what they think of the behavior that Strauss chronicles, including sexual escapades that can be politely described as psychopathic.