Monday, August 08, 2005

Why did the Times let Thomas Powers review a book he was a source on?

Rob e-mails to note an "Editor's Note" from the Washington Post:

John Irving, author of Until I Find You , has called our attention to his previous associations with Book World's reviewer of that book, Marianne Wiggins (July 10). That contact, which we have now corroborated, should have disqualified her as a reviewer; our signed agreements with reviewers spell out our conflict-of-interest rules carefully ("if you have had any contact, friendly or otherwise, with the author of this book . . . or if there is any possibility of an appearance of a conflict of interest in the assignment of this review to you, please let Book World know immediately"). Had we known that Irving had dedicated one of his earlier novels to Marianne Wiggins's ex-husband, Salman Rushdie, and had we known that Irving and Wiggins had socialized with each other in the past, we would not have made the assignment. We apologize to our readers for this misstep.

Rob brings it up for a reason that older members will be quite aware of, a New York Times book review.

Thomas Powers' "Underground Woman" reviews Susan Braudy's Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left. As with her other books, Braudy's Family Circle is all about her and all about how every issue has its roots in childhood. (Very Freudian of her, if dismissive of transformative experiences later in life.) The closest Powers gets to the truth of the book may be in this statement:

Susan Braudy was also one of Kathy Boudin's classmates, but her life followed a different pattern -- marriage, divorce, a professional life as an editor and writer with a side trip into the movie business. Braudy's first book was a memoir, and ''Family Circle'' also represents a kind of self-examination.

Translation, as usual, a Braudy book is all about Braudy.

But here's the problem that has bothered Rob (among others) about this review:

But Braudy doesn't argue her case; she tells it with a novelist's progression of incident and detail, gathered from scores of interviews (including one with me) and other sources, from books to the transcripts of F.B.I. wiretaps.

Powers reviews the book. He praises is. He was a source for the book.

Repeat, he was a source for the book.

Is there a reason for Powers to be reviewing the book? If this was a "set the record" straight review, maybe it would have belonged in the Times. If Powers felt he was distorted, maybe.

But to praise a book you assisted with?

Rob's brought this up before. We've addressed it in passing. Only in passing because we don't focus on the book reviews and we also don't have time to go backwards to things that happened before The Common Ills started.

Rob found the Washington Post "Editor's Note" and e-mailed about that. That's how I'm justifying addressing this issue. The Times would argue, "Powers admits he cooperated in his review!" That's not the issue. The issue is readers should be able to get an independent critique. Someone who's cooperated with the book (and is happy with it) isn't independent.

The Times never should have selected [Powers] to do the review. His noting that he collaborated on the review (in passing and in the seventh paragraph of a ten paragraph review) doesn't cut it. It shouldn't have happened.

The Times should have acknowledged this as poor judgement on their part. They can't, however, claim (as the Washington Post does) that they were unaware of a connection. They read the review before they printed it. If they were unaware of a connection prior to Powers submitting the piece, they should have paid him a kill fee and shelved the review.

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[Note: Post corrected by Shirley at C.I.'s request. "[Powers]" was added to the paragraph beginning "The Times never should have selected . . ."]