New York Times public editor Byron Calame wrote about accusations of favoritism and personal bias in the New York Times Book Review this Sunday. I thought I read the piece thoroughly this weekend, but it wasn’t until I read several emphatic blogger reactions (including separate pieces from both writers at GalleyCat) that I realized I’d missed the article’s surprising conclusion: Calame is recommending that the Book Review adopt a new policy of not reviewing books by authors who write for the Times.
I think it would be a mistake for the NYTBR to adopt this policy, and here are the two reasons why:
1) The most vivid example of perceived reviewer bias is the case of Kathryn Harrison’s pan of a new book by Maureen Dowd, a New York Times columnist who had years before harshly criticized a book of Harrison’s. This certainly was a mistake on the part of Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, and Calame cites this as if this problem supports his conclusion. However, the fact that Maureen Dowd wrote for the New York Times is completely unrelated to the mistake that was made, which would have been just as serious if Dowd had originally earned Harrison’s wrath while writing for the Washington Post or any other paper. Connectivity to the New York Times is not even a factor in the Harrison/Dowd problem, and I’m really puzzled why Calame presents this case as if it supports his suggestion that the Book Review adopt a strict new policy. It doesn’t add up. Adopting the policy Calame suggests would not make this type of incident any less likely to happen.
2) The other problem Calame cites — the fact that six of the sixty-one nonfiction books listed as among Notable Books of 2005 were written by Times staffers — is relevant to his conclusion, but the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Six out of sixty-one written by Times staffers? Well, considering that the Times stands at the pinnacle of modern journalism and journalists write books, this ratio seems about right to me. To deny Times writers the right to be reviewed in the New York Times Book Review (and to deny readers the ability to enjoy and learn from these reviews) seems like an extreme over-reaction.
I joked in my review of the Book Review this weekend that I’m not worried about favoritism among friends in the journalism business because journalists in New York don’t have friends. If anybody is seriously arguing that the NYTBR should adopt a restrictive new policy to address this problem, then I need to clarify my joke. I have several friends who work or worked for the New York Times, and I’ve been inside the Times building on 43rd Street several times. I was never employed by the Times, but I was an employee of Time Inc. (seven blocks up the street) for five years in the late 90’s, and I know the personalities in the field well. In fact, I know journalists do have friends, but I also know that there is no automatic camaraderie among two employees of the same newspaper. They’ll smile at each other and do the “hi” thing and maybe even learn the names of each other’s kids, but if you’re sitting in a cube at the New York Times (any section of the Times) you’re looking out for yourself.
It is possible, though regrettable, that an editor at the Book Review might carry out a grudge or deliver a favor by assigning a book to a reviewer who holds a bias for or against the author of a book. But the editor will not make this decision based on the fact that the author of the book is or was a fellow employee of the same newspaper. That is not where loyalty lies.
I once observed a painful moment when a favorite writing teacher of mine — a novelist who occasionally wrote articles for the Book Review — published a book that got sniffed at and slapped away by the assigned critic in that publication. My teacher was livid, furious, depressed. I called him and he could barely speak. I remember him saying “I don’t think I can ever write for the Book Review again.” In fact, as far as I know, he never did. This writer was very much a member of the New York City literati dinner-party circuit, and I believe he thought he had many friends at the Book Review. It didn’t help him, and according to what I know of primal human nature, it won’t help many others either.
Sam Tanenhaus made a big mistake in the Dowd/Harrison affair, but Calame’s conclusion is too far-reaching, and I would be very disturbed if the Book Review acted on his recommendation. A simple re-clarification of basic journalistic principles would suffice instead.