Reviewing the Review: November 18 2007

Last week we considered some evidence that New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus’s apparent sympathy to neo-conservative viewpoints might color the Book Review’s coverage of political books. This week’s publication offers reviews of eight explicitly topical books, God and Gold: Britian, America and the Making of the Modern World by Russell Mead, Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy by Charlie Savage, The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country — and Why it Can Again by Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes, Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance — and Why They Fall by Amy Chua, For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years by Sally Bedell Smith, Curveball: Spies, Lies and the Con Man Who Caused a War by Bob Drogin, The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Right Made Political History by Donald T. Chritchlow, and America’s Three Regimes: A New Political History by Morton Keller. This is a good opportunity to see how the charges of editorial bias hold up.

First, let’s make it clear (at the risk of stating the obvious) that it is no violation of journalistic ethics for a book review editor to personally hold a particular political point of view. My own feelings of outrage at the impeachment-worthy crimes of the Bush/Cheney administration aside, I have to admit that it’s not even a violation of journalistic ethics for an editor to support this current administration, though it would be strange for the relatively liberal/progressive New York Times to choose such an editor for the Book Review. What would amount to an ethical violation, then? Well, a pattern of assigning controversial books to critics who are not likely to give the books a fair and open-minded reading would be an example. A pattern of ignoring review-worthy books would be another. Any attempt to actively or passively deceive the NYTBR’s readership about the nature of the political thinking behind review assignments would be another. Assigning Christopher Hitchens to slam a liberal book is not a violation of anything, since Hitchens’ background is well known and there is no attempt at deception. But to issue assignments like this repeatedly and not allow the opposition’s well-known critics equal time would be a violation, because the average reader would not be likely to notice the pattern and would thus be implicitly deceived.

So, let’s inventory today’s opinions. Johann Hari is an Amnesty International award winner whose review of God and Gold takes author Mead to task for failing to represent the less sunny side of Western imperialism. Emily Bazelon of Slate reviews Takeover and The Genius of America and generally agrees with both books about the toxic nature of the Bush/Cheney administration. Chalk up two articles (or three books, depending on how you’re counting) for the liberal team.

Lance Morrow writes for (historically conservative) Time Magazine and is writing a biography of Time’s notably right-wing founder Henry Luce, and his review of Day of Empire skews towards the right as well. He suggests that the invasion of Iraq would have been a good idea if only Hussein had had weapons of mass destruction as he’d promised, and wonders what will happen “when — as will undoubtedly happen — some monster-autocrat or some gang of theological throwbacks come along who really do have nuclear or chemical or biological weapons?” Are we so sure that Dick Cheney is not that monster-autocrat, and that George W. Bush isn’t part of his gang of theological throwbacks? I’m not. Score one for the conservative team.

No, score two, because Lloyd Grove (New York Magazine, Washington Post) serves up a big stale plate of anti-Clinton rhetoric in his review of For Love of Politics. But Christopher Dickey (of Newsweek, and the son of poet/novelist James Dickey) evens it up with his angry review of Curveball, a title that refers to the code name of the sole Iraqi defector who fabricated the weak evidence of weapons of mass destruction that the Bush/Cheney administration was so eager to lap up in 2002 and 2003.

A history professor named Michael Kimmage provides a non-intrusive score for the conservative side with his tame and generally non-critical review of The Conservative Ascendancy. Another professor, Fred Siegel, turns up on neither side with his historically-minded review of America’s Three Regimes (which turns out to be the only book on this list that I’d like to actually read, based on Siegel’s favorable description of its original thesis about American electoral history).

To sum up, today’s politics-heavy issue does not turn up a smoking gun in the form of a journalistic cloud, or any smoking gun at all. I do wonder why a book of middling interest like The Conservative Ascendancy gets such cushy treatment, but I have to look within and realize that I consider this book of middling interest because I think of America-first conservatism as a cultural dead end, and others like Sam Tanenhaus fairly may not. I do wonder, also, why the NYTBR so rarely dips into America’s pool of good liberal critics, and why the editors choose to regularly tap David Brooks from the NY Times Op-Ed page but not, say, Maureen Dowd.

Bias? Maybe. A pattern of deception? We don’t have a strong case yet, Jim Sleeper’s well-argued articles notwithstanding. Let’s see what evidence rolls in next, now that we are finally only a year away from choosing the successor to the worst president in American history. I will sure as hell be paying attention, and reporting my findings here.

Enough of all that! Let’s head back to the literary realms, if we can.

David Kamp’s cover article is about Woody Allen, subject of a new book of interviews by Eric Lax and author of an archive collection (Mere Anarchy) and a new collection (The Insanity Defense). Kamp does a fine job, but I have to point out that I wrote my own review of the two collections here on LitKicks recently, and that the similarities between Kamp’s articles and mine are remarkable. We both praise the older work as exceptional and weigh the newer work as less so, both call attention to the overlooked great film Husbands and Wives, both emphasize the importance of Allen’s debt to the lesser-known humorist S. J. Perelman. Please note that I am not suggesting that David Kamp plagiarized his article from mine. I am suggesting, though, that if David Kamp writes virtually the same piece for the esteemed New York Times Book Review that some poor sap from Terre Haute Rego Park already wrote for his blog, then maybe there is not so vast a difference between the NYTBR and the litblogosphere as some snobby book critics have recently alluded to.

(I’m also being slightly kind by saying David Kamp wrote the same exact piece. The truth is, after careful consideration, I think both pieces are strong but mine is slightly better. You be the judge.)

David Leavitt’s review of The Fall of Troy by Peter Ackroyd is interesting enough, though despite my interest in the archeological career of Heinrich Schliemann I don’t find myself compelled to read this fictionalization of his life (I would like to read a fresh and well-researched biography of Schliemann, however, and I hope one is published soon).

Joe Klein’s review of Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour’s Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson is fairly predictable and also fails to capture my i
nterest. I’ve already been amused by Mafia: The Government’s Secret File on Organized Crime, a photo/data archive released by the US Bureau of Narcotics that I recently browsed in a store. But Rich Cohen’s review of the book reveals that he knows little about the history of the Mafia, since he refers to Joseph Bonanno as one of several “exotic” and obscure gangsters found in odd locations (in Bonanno’s case, Tuscon, Arizona). In fact, Bonanno is one of the most famous Mafia leaders in recent history and the author of a well-known autobiography, and Bonanno’s exodus to the safety of Tuscon is a familiar tale in the annals of American organized crime.

Finally, I’ll give the Book Review credit for an excellent endpaper by Jane Perlez about an Australian Aboriginial writer named Alexis Wright whose novel Carpenteria has exposed a significant cultural rift halfway across the world. It’s a strong piece that stretches our literary boundaries, which is exactly what a publication like the NYTBR should always try to do. And, as far as I can remember, I didn’t write the same exact piece for LitKicks this summer.

4 Responses

  1. Restrictivism-Only!As far as

    As far as I’m concerned, all biases in Canadian and American publications (as well as on television) these days function not along the lines of ‘Is-it-Left -or-is-it-Right?’, but rather ‘Is-it-restricting -someone’s-behaviour -and-personal-space -or-is-it-not?’ If an opinion of a reviewer, editor, etc. is demanding how another human being should–and “must”!–behave, it will be published (or broadcasted). If not, it is considered the output of mentally deranged mutants who should be institutionalised and/or ignored. There is no time for the social libertarian in today’s mainstream media. (So what else is new…?)

  2. PerelmanOn what planet is

    On what planet is S.J. Perelman “lesser known”? The planet of ignorant young people?

  3. One other thing. You should
    One other thing. You should tag all of your “Reviewing the Review” clips for easy access. I do know that you’re busy with the transition, but categories are a blogger’s best friend!

  4. On what planet is S. J.
    On what planet is S. J. Perelman lesser-known than Woody Allen? Uh, that would be this one, Earth. I don’t think that was any kind of value judgment, but rather a statement of a fairly indisputable fact.

    Then again, I know that we ignorant young people just can’t stop harping on about Woody Allen…

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