THE BLOG

UPDATED: Top Authors, and Editor, in NYT Book Review Ethics Dispute

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's nothing new for aggrieved authors to write letters to the highly influential New York Times Book Review, protesting a negative review, or one rife with errors. Sometimes the protest relates to the unfair choice of reviewer. What's unusual about Mark Danner's letter to the Times concerning the Oct. 18 review of his current book, Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War, is that the Times publishes it this coming Sunday at full 1400-word length -- carrying over to a second page.

This is rare these days, to say the least. One has to wonder why in this case. Among other things, Danner charges that the choice of George Packer as reviewer violated "journalistic fairness." Does running the letter at such length constitute an admission of wrongdoing on the part of the Times? Or is it just an especially good letter likely to spark intellectual debate?

Danner told me that he knows of no pressure brought on the Times from his publisher or anyone else:

The only direct information I had from the Book Review was letting me know that my letter would appear as written. I wrote to the editor [Sam Tanenhaus] pointing out what seemed to be obvious departures from the Times' editorial policy relating to selection of reviewers and I have received no answer.

He adds that Packer's response also "did not answer it."

I'm very glad the Times gave me space to respond. The problem is that the reviewer made no attempt to answer those questions. Simply to provide space for the reviewer to respond does not constitute an answer and I think that's a pity.

Danner and Packer were staff writers at The New Yorker for a short spell. Danner describes Packer as a "friend" while Packer in his reply denies any "friendship."

Asked about the unusual prominence of the Danner letter, Tanenhaus, editor of the Book Review, told E&P Wednesday:

I don't know if it's TBR's longest letter, and it's all but impossible to find out. We ran it at length because Mark Danner raised important and complicated issues of ethics and fairness, which go to the very center of our enterprise here at TBR. It seemed appropriate that he be given the room to make his case. We imposed no space restrictions on George Packer when we asked him to reply. As a result, both letters were published at full length.

He added:

In our view--and in that of the paper's standards editor--the decision needed no defending. Since Danner raised the issue we thought he should have his say and Packer have his as well. Readers can then draw their own conclusions.

Most of the Danner letter focuses on Packer allegedly taking quotes "painfully" out of context and the "corrosive tendentiousness at work." But Danner also points out that he and Packer argued heatedly about the U.S. invasion of Iraq (Danner against, Packer for) both in private and at several public forums.

"That the war is the critical event looming over the book will be obvious to any reader," Danner writes in the letter.

That your reviewer had a direct disagreement about the war with the book's author will not be obvious, for your editors, and the reviewer himself, chose not to disclose it. Whatever this may say about eccentric attitudes toward journalistic fairness or personal integrity, it certainly shows contempt for Times readers, who might have found themselves puzzled by the oddly personal and defensive tone of the review and many of the gratuitously nasty and distinctly strange observations.

In his published reply, Packer argues that his views on the Iraq war "weren't relevant to my judgments about Mark Danner's book." He says there has not been any "acrimony" in their disputes, adding,

[N]one of it raises any ethical conflicts. The conflict is between Danner's wish to have an argument about Iraq, and a reviewer's job to review his book. ... If I weren't capable of critical analysis independent of a writer's position, I would recuse myself from any reviewing at all.

Oddly, Packer in his letter declares that in his review he wrote "that history proved Danner's position on the war right." Yet no such statement actually appears in the review.

The Times' ethics guide book -- a link appears on the public editor's Web page -- does not include any sections on assigning book reviews. But in a column on Book Review policies on Dec. 18, 2005, Byron Calame, then the Times' public editor, revealed that a key moment in deciding to assign reviews comes at what Senior Editor Dwight Garner, called "my Kenneth Starr questions," a reference to the Whitewater prosecutor: "Do you know the author? Have you written about this person, or vice versa? Are there any other potential conflicts of interest?"

Calame advised:

Generally, there appears to be substantial reliance on the potential reviewer's answers to the 'Kenneth Starr questions' and the assumption that they will be truthful to preserve their own credibility and their relationship with the Book Review section. The editors say they regularly use major databases and Google to independently check on how friendly or adversarial a reviewer and author may be.

NOTE: Eleven years ago, before he became editor of the Book Review, Tanenhaus wrote a generally unfavorable review of my book on the 1950 Nixon-Douglas campaign, Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady. Tanenhaus had recently written a biography of Whittaker Chambers--and his views of the postwar anti-Communist crusades differed significantly from mine, yet he was chosen to review the book.

UPDATE: George Packer has written to me about all of this. Here is the portion of his letter that relates to the Danner exchange:

"You're right: my review of "Stripping Bare the Body" didn't say "history > proved Danner's position on the war right." That was a loose (maybe too loose) paraphrase of what I did say: "[His] point of view has served Danner well in his far-reaching criticisms of the foreign policy of George W. Bush, especially on Iraq." The meaning is similar.

"I conveyed to the Times in advance that Danner and I knew each other but had no history of friendship or enmity.

"The length of Danner's letter (1400 words, about the length of my > original review) and my reply (300 words) might say something about > prolixity but not about wrongdoing. I answered Danner's charges as > succinctly as I could, in the belief that readers shouldn't be subjected > to drawn-out quarrels between authors and reviewers."

Greg Mitchell (gmitchell@editorandpublisher.com) is editor of E&P. His latest books are "Why Obama Won" and, on Iraq and the media, "So Wrong for So Long."