Clusterfuck of Corruption at NYT Book Review (Updated)

by Corey Robin on October 1, 2015

Greg Grandin takes to Gawker to report on a clusterfuck of corruption at the New York Times Book Review:

This Sunday, the New York Times Book Review will publish a review of the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s authorized biography of Henry Kissinger, Kissinger: The Idealist. The reviewer is Andrew Roberts.

Roberts brings an unusual level of familiarity to the subject: It was Roberts whom Kissinger first asked, before turning to Ferguson, to write his authorized biography. In other words, the New York Times is having Kissinger’s preferred authorized biographer review Kissinger’s authorized biography.

Oh, and Roberts isn’t just close to the subject of the book he is reviewing. He has also been, for a quarter-century, a friend of the book’s author.

The Times, too, normally checks those things. When I’m approached about reviewing books there, I’m usually asked if I know the author or have a conflict of interest.

Last May, the Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, weighed in on the topic: How close a connection between reviewer and author (and in this case, between author, reviewer, and subject) is too close a connection? “It’s fine if readers disagree with our reviews,” the Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul told Sullivan, “but they should not distrust them.”

…Still, it’s a “tricky challenge,” Paul said, “to get someone informed but not entrenched.”

If Roberts were any more entrenched, he’d be wearing a Brodie helmet and puttees.

A spokesperson for the New York Times offered the following statement to Gawker, on behalf of Pamela Paul:

“We always ask our reviewers about any potential conflict of interest, as we define it, and disclose any possible conflicts in the review if necessary. In this particular case, we asked Andrew Roberts and were satisfied with his assurances that no conflicts of interest existed that would sway his review one way or the other.”

The Times might as well have asked Kissinger to review his own biography. Or, better, Ferguson himself, since, along with Roberts, there’s not a nano-difference between the three men, at least when it comes to controversies about war.

So how is the review itself? Contrary to the bet that an opinionated yet informed expert might turn in an exciting piece, Roberts’s essay is ponderous, and, if possible, even more hagiographic than the authorized biography itself.

“Kissinger’s official biographer,” writes the man Kissinger first asked to be his official biographer, “certainly gives the reader enough evidence to conclude that Henry Kissinger is one of the greatest Americans in the history of the republic, someone who has been repulsively traduced over several decades and who deserved to have a defense of this comprehensiveness published years ago.”

Let me be clear: I think it would be totally legitimate if, say, Ferguson, with his well-known conservative politics, were to review my new, critical book on Kissinger. That might indeed make for an engaging, fun debate; readers would know where author and reviewer stand. However, asking Roberts to review Ferguson, without acknowledging their connections, not to mention Roberts’ history with Kissinger, is a trench too far.

Thus a new genre is born: the authorized review of the authorized biography.

I should admit that I have my own vested interest in the matter. Not only is Greg a friend whose work I have discussed here over the years, but as he reports in his piece:

My friend Corey Robin had a relevant experience. When his book The Reactionary Mind was coming out in 2011, the Times contacted a widely respected intellectual historian to review it. The potential reviewer didn’t know Corey personally or professionally. Although they had never met, Corey had begun blogging that year, and he and the would-be reviewer began exchanging occasional comments on sites like Facebook. Minimal as the relationship was, the Times nixed the reviewer because of their putative entanglement.

The irony of that experience is that the person the Times wound up choosing to review my book—Barnard political scientist Sheri Berman, whose negative review (along with Mark Lilla’s in the New York Review of Books) set off a round of bitter controversy, on this blog and elsewhere, as the Times itself would go onto report—actually does know me personally. She and my wife had done cat rescue work together for years, and on several occasion I had been to her house, where we talked about political science and cats.

In related news, I‘ll be interviewing Greg about his new book on Kissinger—about which I have been blogging over at my site—on Sunday, October 4, at 12:30, at the Brooklyn Public Library. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by.

Update (October 2, 11 am)

Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times public editor, writes a quietly devastating critique of the preferred authorized biographer writing a review of the authorized biography of Kissinger:

In the italic identification line appearing with his review of a new biography of Henry Kissinger, Andrew Roberts is described only as “the Lehrman Institute distinguished fellow at the New-York Historical Society.” And that is true.

But what is also true is that Mr. Roberts had what many reasonable people would consider a conflict of interest as a reviewer: He was Mr. Kissinger’s first choice to write his authorized biography.

The Times Book Review editor, Pamela Paul, told me Thursday that she was unaware of that fact before the publication of a Gawker piece that makes much of that relationship and of Mr. Roberts’s acquaintance with the book’s author, Niall Ferguson.

Gawker’s headline: “Kissinger Biography Is Great, Says Pal of Author and Kissinger in New York Times.” Indeed, the review is kind to Mr. Kissinger and to Mr. Ferguson; it calls the book “comprehensive, well-written and riveting.”

“We rely on our reviewers to disclose conflicts of interest,” Ms. Paul said. Mr. Roberts disclosed no conflict, saying only that he had met Mr. Ferguson a few times but that this wouldn’t affect his review.

She made the point that Book Review editors cannot realistically open full-fledged investigations into their reviewers’ backgrounds. If Mr. Roberts had told editors that he had turned down the chance to write the book himself, Ms. Paul said that it might not have disqualified him as the reviewer but that she would have had him acknowledge that information in the review.

Should he have told editors? If she’d been in Mr. Roberts’s place, she said, “I would have disclosed it.”

Indeed, Mr. Ferguson and Mr. Roberts will share a London stage to discuss Mr. Kissinger and the authorized biography later this month.

My take: Both assignments were considerably less than ideal. Times readers must be able to believe that a review is an impartial assessment of a book’s merits. That assessment shouldn’t be influenced (or appear to be influenced) by deference to a fellow Times employee or by a significant relationship or circumstance — especially one that goes undisclosed to readers.

But, wait, there’s more.

Not only is Roberts, as Greg Grandin reported in his Gawker piece, a quarter-century-long friend of Ferguson’s (contrary to Roberts’s claim that they only met a few times). He also, my friend Jonathan Stein told me, co-wrote an article with Ferguson back in 1997. In a volume of essays edited by Ferguson.

Here’s the cite: Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts, “Hitler’s England: What If Germany had Invaded Britain in May 1940?” in Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, ed. Niall Ferguson (London: Picador, 1997), 281–320.

One last question: How did Roberts come to be chosen as the reviewer of the Ferguson bio in the first place? He’s not exactly a natural choice in that he’s mostly written about British politics and European war in the 19th century and early 20th century; there are lot of experts on Kissinger and American foreign policy. Indeed, it was just such an expert whom the NYTBR chose to review Grandin’s book on Kissinger in the very same issue of the NYTBR that Roberts reviewed Ferguson’s bio. (And, incidentally, one can tell the difference in the choices: where Roberts’s review is a combination of pabulum and hagiography, the review of Grandin’s book is judicious, scholarly, and intelligently critical). So who suggested Roberts as the reviewer and dealt with him on his review?