Clusterfuck of Corruption at NYT Book Review

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, 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, at Crooked Timber and elsewhereas 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 Kissingerabout which I have been blogging here these past weeks—on Sunday, October 4, at 12:30, at the Brooklyn Public Library. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by.



  1. realthog September 30, 2015 at 11:08 pm | #

    Mind you, just about anyone who’s followed Niall Ferguson realizes that his view of history is about as reliable as those of David Barton and David Irving, so I can’t imagine too many people will be misled by the book: despite the best efforts of the NYT, anyone actually intelligent enough to read the book will have better sense than to buy it.

    Of course, the story may be different when, inevitably, the millions of unsold copies hit the remainder bookstores.

    • Joel in Oakland October 1, 2015 at 12:24 am | #

      You beat me to it. Who cares what a shill like Ferguson has to say, except, I guess, for anecdotes that NF can’t spin to please his paymasters?

  2. wetcasements September 30, 2015 at 11:24 pm | #

    Where’s Christopher Hitchens when you need him?

  3. jonnybutter October 1, 2015 at 8:10 am | #

    That is so weird about Berman. Her review was not just negative but oddly hostile, as in, “I’m not going to really read your little book.”

  4. Roquentin October 1, 2015 at 11:22 am | #

    I can’t say this surprises me. News and propaganda are one and the same. Always have been. All this talk of conflicts of interest and objectivity are just surface level obfuscations aimed at masking an agenda. Everyone wants to package their ideology as “fair and balanced,” that’s the nature of the game. Furthermore, I think arguments about corruption are kind of a red herring. The supposed ethical code which is being corrupted was never real to start with.

    I didn’t know the NY Times gave your book a negative review though, or they claimed conflict of interest with the first potential reviewer. That part was news to me. My guess is that “conflict of interest” was just code for “we want a negative review written and this person probably won’t do it.” It’s all planned choreographed, just like the Oscars. A big dog and pony show put on to give off the illusion of autonomy. I’d even argue the readers don’t really want it either. The illusion is there as much for them as anyone else. Tell us what we want to hear and claim it is objective. That is the rallying cry. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point.

  5. Edward October 1, 2015 at 11:24 am | #

    Thankfully there are online outlets where the mainstream press call be called on this malfeasance.

  6. zenner41 October 1, 2015 at 1:50 pm | #

    Book reviews in publications like the NY Times are generally something to be very skeptical about, and sometimes something to laugh yourself silly over, as in this case. They are perhaps a step or two above Amazon “reviews,” but that’s doubtful.

    But most stuff you see about Kissinger in “main-stream” places is pretty useless, anyway. Best not to waste your time on him is my rule. It’s better to keep an eye on the horrors of U.S. foreign policy that are currently unrolling.

    On the reliability of the Times in general, it’s best to handle it with welder’s gloves on, IMHO. To switch sense modalities, if your nose is sensitive enough, you can smell when it’s putting something very suspicious in your face.

  7. ovitt October 1, 2015 at 10:38 pm | #

    Ferguson on Kissinger? Who cares? Two creeps who deserve each other. No better place for them than in the Times Book Review, once a respected voice of literary culture and now an irrelevant rag, like the TImes itself.

  8. BobK October 2, 2015 at 3:11 pm | #

    Tempest in a teapot. While the NYtimes hasn’t the cleanest hands it’ll be up to readers to decide the balance in the Kissinger story. Hitchens certainly had his view of the man and his politics as most of us do.

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