NYT Public Editor Says NYTBR Conflict of Interest Is a Conflict of Interest

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.

Update (11: 15 am)

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?

Update (4:30 pm)

NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has posted the following update to her post:

Corey Robin, an author and political science professor at Brooklyn College and CUNY, pointed out in a post today that Mr. Roberts and Mr. Ferguson co-authored a chapter in a 1999 book edited by Mr. Ferguson. That almost surely would have disqualified Mr. Roberts as a reviewer had it been known.

David Johnson pointed me to this: Four years ago, Roberts told an interviewer, “I stand in awe of friends such as Niall Ferguson.”

Greg Grandin turns the dialectical knife in this nice followup:

This kind of literary kerfuffle is usually presented as “conflicts of interest.” In this case, though, no conflict exists. There is a perfect convergence of interest and ideology. Like Ferguson and Kissinger (who was one of the first in 1990 to compare Saddam Hussein to Adolph Hitler), Roberts has been wrong, catastrophically so, when using history to justify militarism in the present. As was Winston Churchill, Roberts wrote in early 2003, Tony Blair will be vindicated “when Iraq is successfully invaded and hundreds of weapons of mass destruction are unearthed.”

Kissinger, Ferguson, and Roberts are also unique among historians (Kissinger has in the past identified himself as an historian more than a statesman) in that they understand the study of history to be, primarily, a warrant for never, ever, apologizing. For anything. All three predictably respond to any catastrophe the US finds itself in as a result of intervention by arguing the problem wasn’t enough intervention. “He had no stomach for endless war,” Kissinger once said of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under JFK and LBJ—as if endless war was a too spicy Bánh mì.

On second thought, then, scratch any criticism: Roberts is the perfect reviewer for Kissinger’s perfect biographer.

 Update (8 pm)

Pamela Paul, the editor of the Times Book Review, has now responded at length to Margaret Sullivan’s criticisms.

Subsequent to our publication of Andrew Roberts’s review of Niall Ferguson’s new biography of Henry Kissinger, a number of concerns and objections have been raised, not all of them accurate. I am offering this note to Margaret Sullivan’s blog post in order to provide additional clarity.

But first, a backdrop: Henry Kissinger is obviously a controversial figure, and anything written about him tends to generate heightened responses. In part because views on Mr. Kissinger are so strong, we chose to pair our review of Mr. Ferguson’s largely favorable assessment of Kissinger’s early years with the more critical view of Mr. Kissinger in another new book, “Kissinger’s Shadow,” by Greg Grandin (also the author of two recent online posts about Mr. Roberts’s review on The Nation’s website and on Gawker). Mr. Grandin’s book and Mr. Ferguson’s book are reviewed on the same spread in this Sunday’s issue of the Book Review under the headlines “Kissinger the Cynic” and “Kissinger the Idealist.” Readers can figure out which headline goes where.

Four reasonable objections to the assignment have been raised, each of which merits a response. First, relying on reports from two British newspapers, critics have said the two men are longtime friends. We asked Mr. Roberts about any relationship he had with Mr. Ferguson prior to making the assignment. He described their relationship as one of friendly acquaintanceship, and assured us it would not sway his review one way or the other.

The second objection is that because Mr. Roberts was asked by a publisher to write Kissinger’s biography himself, and declined that offer, he should not have reviewed the book. This would not have disqualified Roberts from writing the review, though had we known, we would have disclosed that fact in the review. An editors’ note has been appended to the review stating so, and this note will appear in a later print edition.

The third objection is that Mr. Roberts and Mr. Ferguson are appearing at an event together on October 12th. Mr. Roberts has told us this arrangement was made subsequent to his filing his review. Reviewers are often asked to do such events, panels or Q and A’s with authors, which is not surprising given that shared interests and expertise are often what inform an assignment. The timing of this event conforms to our guidelines, which are that no such events can be agreed to until after a review has been submitted.

The fourth objection is that in 1997 the two men co-authored a chapter of a book together, which Mr. Ferguson edited. We were not aware of this when making the assignment. According to Mr. Roberts, he was asked to contribute an essay to the book, which Mr. Ferguson then heavily edited and revised. Given Mr. Ferguson’s extensive work on the essay, Mr. Roberts asked that Mr. Ferguson add his own name to the byline, which he did. In another edition of the book, Mr. Roberts is credited as the sole author of that chapter. Again, had we known about this collaboration, we would have disclosed it in the review. We have added this disclosure to the editors’ note.

It is worth pointing out that we asked Mr. Roberts to write a review of a biography of Henry Kissinger, not to write a review of Henry Kissinger himself. Nor would we have wanted him to. People can argue over whether they would rather have an assessment of a biography from a reviewer who approves or disapproves of the subject of that biography. And while there can be merits to either approach (or to an assessment by the rare individual who does not have a strong, predetermined view of Mr. Kissinger either way), we are satisfied that in this case, Mr. Roberts reviewed the book fairly.

In addition, the following addendum was posted to Roberts’s review of the Ferguson bio.

Editors’ Note: October 2, 2015

After this review of the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s authorized biography of Henry Kissinger was published, editors learned that the reviewer, Andrew Roberts, had initially been approached by a publisher to write the biography himself; he says he turned the offer down for personal reasons, and Ferguson was eventually enlisted to undertake the task. In addition, Roberts and Ferguson were credited as co-authors of a chapter contributed to a book edited by Ferguson and first published in 1997 (Roberts describes their relationship as professional and friendly, but not close). Had editors been aware of these connections, they would have been disclosed in the review.


  1. Derek Fox (@partialobs) October 2, 2015 at 11:57 am | #

    Guessing it was Ferguson who suggested Roberts to NYTBR. We will be counting on Sullivan to track that down though, I doubt anyone else involved would admit it.

  2. Joel in Oakland October 2, 2015 at 1:23 pm | #

    GOP-istan demanded loyalty over integrity long ago, as it moved further and further into what used to be called the Lunatic Fringe. Integrity is an excommunicate-able offense there, similar to Reality Checking. Apostasy, I guess.

    I assume most readers here are familiar with Bob Altemeyer’s 2006 work on the Authoritarian personality style, which examines the dynamic in detail. If not, it’s free on line at http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

    Is there a phrase for the academic equivalent of crony capitalism?

  3. RickM October 2, 2015 at 1:38 pm | #

    Ah, conflict of interest. In my day job I serve twice a year as co-chair of a national review panel for a major organization that funds basic biomedical and clinical research. No one who has had any professional contact of any kind with an applicant is eligible to review the application. No. One. Moreover, anyone from an applicant’s institution who is on the review panel must leave the room before the application is brought up for discussion. Doesn’t matter if the two people are in different campuses, departments, schools, or divisions, or that they may have never even heard of each other. Which brings up the question: Why do I maintain my Sunday NYT subscription? The most recent two are still in their little plastic bags…Which might be the fate of the October 4th issue, too. I suppose I could get a bird. Or several, each with his own cage.

  4. RickM October 2, 2015 at 1:44 pm | #

    Oh, and one other thing. With some organizations, applicants are asked to recommend reviewers. Everyone knows that these should be experts in the field who may know of the applicant but otherwise have no professional relationships such as previous collaboration or co-authorship. Should an applicant suggest such a reviewer and that reviewer slip through the screen, this will come out in the review panel discussion. At which point the application will be administratively withdrawn or given the unfundable score it deserves under the circumstances…the applicant will then be told why and placed on a watch list.

  5. David V. Johnson (@contrarianp) October 2, 2015 at 4:59 pm | #

    A question I have (and $100 to someone who can prove it): Did Andrew Roberts give one of his birthday commemorative medals to Niall Ferguson? http://www.niallferguson.com/journalism/reviews/churchill-hitler-and-me

  6. louisproyect October 2, 2015 at 10:56 pm | #

    The Sunday NY Times Book Review has always been the domain of neocons. For a long time Mitchel Levitas was the editor and the son of Sol Levitas, the editor of New Leader–a CIA funded journal. My mom was very close to his uncle Irving, a labor Zionist. The Levitases were from Kansas City and like my mom ended up there because Jacob Schiff decided that it was best to send a large number of Jews from Eastern Europe to cities with small Jewish populations so they wouldn’t aggravate the Christians. That’s how Ed Asner and Calvin Trillin ended up from KC themselves. I was born there myself. Mitchel Levitas came out of the same ideological stew as all the neocons–Jewish, Zionist and rightwing social democratic. I liked Irving but couldn’t discuss Israel with him.

    After Levitas left, the review was turned over to Sam Tannenhaus who kept the neocon banner flying. He was terrible as you would expect anybody who wrote a flattering bio of Whittaker Chambers to be. I usually breeze through the Sunday book review in thirty seconds and make sure to put any leftwing book they trash on my list to check out and possibly buy so I guess it does serve some useful purpose.

  7. JohnB October 2, 2015 at 11:09 pm | #

    Just imagine if the subject of a biography to be reviewed in NYTRB were Hillary Clinton and her tenure as Secretary of State.

  8. Andrew C October 3, 2015 at 6:14 am | #

    Corey: unrelated to this post, I came across an article I thought you might like to see. It reminded me of The Reactionary Mind:


    “When we enter the marketplace, ties are formed between people: between employer and employee, between customer and salesperson, between coworkers and suppliers and the sandwich shop next door. These transactions and interactions are the threads that bind individuals together at the most granular level, weaving them into the multi-layered, tight-knit, resilient fabric of civil society. And it is necessity — our reliance on work to provide for our material concerns — that draws us into that essential weave.”

    (I’d have sent this in a private email but I can’t find your address on your site.)

  9. gstally October 4, 2015 at 1:26 am | #

    Here’s the thing, Sadam was more stylish, and cooler, than Stalin. Kissinger was way more stylish, and cooler, than Dick I and Neo-Dick II. That’s all there is to it.

  10. gstally October 4, 2015 at 1:26 am | #


  11. wetcasements October 4, 2015 at 10:36 pm | #

    Even Harvard makes mistakes.

    • I'm with stupid October 14, 2015 at 3:48 am | #

      As does the Nobel Peace Prize committee, as their 2009 award affirmed with a vengeance.

  12. decollins1969 October 5, 2015 at 8:43 am | #

    Folks at NYTBR have been getting dumber by the year. Pamela Paul is no exception. With so many disclaimers, if it were a car, the federal government would be launching an investigation by now.

  13. George Durkee October 13, 2015 at 5:53 pm | #

    For a recent Amazon review review of a friend’s book, I clearly disclosed we were friends and that I’d helped him with research. And this was a mere public, unpaid review on Amazon, not the NYTRB… . You’d think their reviewer would think to disclose his relationship. Sure makes for a suspect review which ought to be withdrawn.

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