December 19, 2018

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How The Times Avoids Conflicts of Interest in Book Reviews

How The Times Avoids Conflicts of Interest in Book Reviews
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In an effort to shed more light on how we work, The Times is running a series of short posts explaining some of our journalistic practices. Read more of this series here.

In our fraught political times, it’s increasingly difficult to find writers without an agenda to review books written from either side of the aisle.

In a recent interview, Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review; Gregory Cowles, The Book Review’s senior editor; and Barry Gewen, an editor who has been with The Book Review for 29 years and has assigned many of its political book reviews, discussed how they choose which political books to cover and which writers to review them. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.

Of the many books with political subjects published every year, how do you decide which to assign for review?

Barry Gewen: There’s no one criterion. If a book makes an interesting argument that we haven’t heard before, that would be a consideration. If the subject has a special timeliness, that would be a consideration. If the author is an expert and prominent figure, that would also be a consideration. There are a number of factors that go into it.

Do you approach books by politicians any differently from other political works?

Gewen: Usually they’re terrible. Books by politicians are almost invariably self-congratulatory and self-justifying, and we often don’t review them. But there are no hard-and-fast rules. Sometimes there’s a book by a politician that is important and we will review it.

How much does the current political climate in the United States influence your decisions?

Pamela Paul: The Book Review reflects what is being published. Right now there are a lot of books with political subjects. I think that has skewed us a little bit more toward increased coverage of political books, but at the same time we have to keep in mind that people are looking at The Book Review for all genres and subjects.

How do reviewers’ political opinions factor into the assignments?

Gewen: We desperately try not to set up books. We try to avoid going to a writer driven by a political agenda and who may have formed an opinion about the book without even having read it. That probably distinguishes us from a lot of the magazines, like National Review and The Nation. They have readerships that expect a certain political agenda. We pride ourselves on not having a political agenda.

In my mind there’s an almost platonic notion of what the center is, and we try to bring the discussion to the center.

Paul: If a book has a clear liberal agenda and we assign it to a liberal, you risk the reviewer saying, “I agree with the argument; therefore, I like this book.” That the reviewer isn’t going to be able to engage with the book in and of itself.

The hardest reviewers to find are those who are intellectually honest and independent. In the current polarized environment, it’s particularly difficult to find people who are willing to let go of their agenda and assess a book on its merits. That’s what makes it a book review, not an Op-Ed.

Both the political and the literary worlds can be rather incestuous. How do you prevent a friend — or an enemy — of an author from being assigned to a review?

Paul: We have stricter rules regarding conflicts of interest than probably any other outlet.

First, we do a preliminary online search and go through our own archives. If you’ve reviewed an author for us before, you can’t review that person again. With small publishing houses, you can’t review someone if you’re in the same house, even if you don’t have the same editor or the same publicist. You can’t review someone who shares the same agent as you. If you’ve been on a panel with the author and it was antagonistic, we wouldn’t want you to review that person. If you have written a book blurb for the author or been blurbed by that person, you can’t review him or her.

All that said, we then ask the reviewer to disclose any possible conflicts of interest, and that often results in a back-and-forth.

What’s complicated is social media, because everyone is “friends” online. So we sometimes get into intricate discussions, like, “You follow her on Twitter, but have you ever direct messaged?” We want to get a sense of whether you actually know the author.

We also ask if you would feel free to criticize the book, if needed. The whole idea is that you want a reader to be able to disagree with a review but not to distrust it.

Do you trust potential reviewers to disclose their conflicts of interest honestly?

Gewen: The reason that writers won’t lie to us is they want to be able to review for us and to have their books reviewed by us. Lying achieves no purpose for them. I can think of only one case where there was this possibility, and even that was ambiguous.

How do you ensure that editors’ political opinions don’t influence which books are assigned?

Paul: There’s a range of political opinions and leanings among editors here. The Book Review has a long tradition of being a political Switzerland. We have critics on the right and the left, and we review books by authors on the right and the left. We hope that’s what makes us interesting to our readers.

Gregory Cowles: To say that we don’t have a political agenda is not to say that we don’t have political opinions. But the goal is to set aside political opinions when we’re judging books and to weigh them on their arguments — and then to ask who can engage interestingly with them.

Political books have been popular on the best-seller list for some time now. The Times’s lists are separate from The Book Review, but do they have any bearing on what books are reviewed?

Cowles: Not in making the assignments. I think the fact that more people are reading political books reflects that more are being published and that politics is a more active part of the culture. When there’s a political disruption, as there is now, it’s on everyone’s mind.

The decision still comes down to the quality of the book. There are any number of books on the list that are superficial or political screeds. We look at them and say there’s nothing here to engage with as a critic.

Gewen: If I get a book by a very prominent and prestigious best-selling author, I’ll pay attention to that, and most likely that book will get a review because of the author’s prominence and because our readers will expect us to weigh in on it. But we’re not being dictated to by the best-seller list.

Do you try to balance how many liberal- and conservative-leaning books are covered?

Gewen: I don’t take account of that. If it’s a worthy left-wing book, we’ll review it. If it’s a worthy right-wing book, we’ll review it.

Given that so many American politicians are white men, do you consider factors such as gender or race when choosing reviewers who may be able to bring a different perspective to a political book they’re assigned?

Cowles: We don’t have a formal policy for assigning a book about a white male politician to, say, a woman of color. It is very important to us to have a range of voices, experiences and backgrounds in The Book Review. We want to represent a broad swath of our audience and expose readers to many different voices, so we do pay attention to race, gender, class and generational diversity.

When we have meetings about who can review a book, we don’t just say, “Here is the person who should do it.” It’s “Here are the five or six people,” and it’s great when that list is as diverse as we hope The Book Review is as a whole.


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