The Journalist and the Murderer (Modern Library Nonfiction #97)

(This is the fourth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Taming of Chance.)

mlnf97One of the mistakes often made by those who immerse themselves in Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer is believing that MacDonald’s guilt or innocence is what matters most. But Malcolm is really exploring how journalistic opportunity and impetuous judgment can lead any figure to be roundly condemned in the court of public opinion. Malcolm’s book was written before the Internet blew apart much of the edifice separating advertising and editorial with native advertising and sponsored articles, but this ongoing ethical dilemma matters ever more in our age of social media and citizen journalism, especially when Spike Lee impulsively tweets the wrong address of George Zimmerman (and gets sued because of the resultant harassment) and The New York Post publishes a front page cover of two innocent men (also resulting in a lawsuit) because Reddit happened to believe they were responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Yet it is important to approach anything concerning the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case with caution. It has caused at least one documentary filmmaker to go slightly mad. It is an evidential involution that can ensnare even the most disciplined mind, a permanently gravid geyser gushing out books and arguments and arguments about books, with more holes within the relentlessly regenerating mass than the finest mound of Jarlsberg. But here are the underlying facts:

On February 17, 1970, Jeffrey MacDonald reported a stabbing to the military police. Four officers found MacDonald’s wife Colette, and their two children, Kimberley and Kristen, all dead in their respective bedrooms. MacDonald went to trial and was found guilty of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to three life sentences. Only two months before this conviction, MacDonald hired the journalist Joe McGinniss — the author of The Selling of a President 1968, then looking for a comeback — to write a book about the case, under the theory that any money generated by MacDonald’s percentage could be used to sprout a defense fund. MacDonald placed total trust in McGinniss, opening the locks to all his papers and letting him stay in his condominium. McGinniss’s book, Fatal Vision, was published in the spring of 1983. It was a bestseller and spawned a popular television miniseries, largely because MacDonald was portrayed as a narcissist and a sociopath, fitting the entertainment needs of a bloodthirsty public. MacDonald didn’t know the full extent of this depiction. Indeed, as he was sitting in jail, McGinniss refused to send him a galley or an advance copy. (“At no time was there ever any understanding that you would be given an advance look at the book six months prior to publication,” wrote McGinniss to MacDonald on February 16, 1983. “As Joe Wambuagh told you in 1975, with him you would not even see a copy before it was published. Same with me. Same with any principled and responsible author.” Malcolm copiously chronicles the “principled and responsible” conduct of McGinniss quite well, which includes speaking with MacDonald in misleading and ingratiating tones, often pretending to be a friend — anything to get MacDonald to talk.)


On 60 Minutes, roughly around the book’s publication, Mike Wallace revealed to MacDonald what McGinniss was up to:

Mike Wallace (narrating): Even government prosecutors couldn’t come up with a motive or an explanation of how a man like MacDonald could have committed so brutal a crime. But Joe McGinniss thinks he’s found the key. New evidence he discovered after the trial. Evidence he has never discussed with MacDonald. A hitherto unrevealed account by the doctor himself of his activities in the period just before the murders.

Joe McGinniss: In his own handwriting, in notes prepared for his own attorneys, he goes into great detail about his consumption of a drug called Eskatrol, which is no longer on the market. It was voluntarily withdrawn in 1980 because of dangerous side effects. Among the side effects of this drug are, when taken to excess by susceptible individuals, temporary psychosis, often manifested as a rage reaction. Here we have somebody under enormous pressure and he’s taking enough of this Eskatrol, enough amphetamines, so that by his own account, he’s lost 15 pounds in the three weeks leading up to the murders.

eskatrolnoteWallace: Now wait. According to the note which I’ve seen, three to five Eskatrol he has taken. We don’t know if he’s taken it over a period of several weeks or if he’s taken three to five Eskatrol a day or a week or a month.

McGinniss: We do know that if you take three to five Eskatrol over a month, you’re not going to lose 15 pounds in doing so.

Jeffrey MacDonald: I never stated that to anyone and I did not in fact lose fifteen pounds. I also wasn’t taking Eskatrol.

Wallace (reading MacDonald’s note): “We ate dinner together at 5:45 PM. It is possible I had one diet pill at this time. I do not remember and do not think I had one. But it is possible. I had lost 12 to 15 pounds in the prior three to four weeks in the process, using three to five capsules of Eskatrol Spansule. I was also…”

MacDonald: Three to five capsules for the three weeks.

Wallace: According to this.

MacDonald: Right.

Wallace: According to this.

MacDonald: And that’s a possibility.

Wallace: Then why would you put down here that…that there was even a possibility?

MacDonald: These are notes given to an attorney, who has told me to bare my soul as to any possibility so we could always be prepared. So I…

Wallace: Mhm. But you’ve already told me that you didn’t lose 15 pounds in the three weeks prior…

MacDonald: I don’t think that I did.

Wallace: It’s in your notes. “I had lost 12-15 lbs. in the prior 3-4 weeks, in the process using 3-5 capsules of Eskatrol Spansules.” That’s speed. And compazine. To counteract the excitability of speed. “I was losing weight because I was working out with a boxing team and the coach told me to lose weight.” — 60 Minutes

One of McGinniss’s exclusive contentions was that MacDonald had murdered his family because he was high on Eskatrol. Or, as he wrote in Fatal Vision:

It is also fact that if Jeffrey MacDonald were taking three to five Eskatrol Spansules daily, he would have been consuming 75 mg. of dextroamphetamine — more than enough to precipitate an amphetamine psychosis.

Note the phrasing. Even though McGinniss does not know for a fact whether or not MacDonald took three to five Eskatrol (and MacDonald himself is also uncertain: both MacDonald and McGinniss prevaricate enough to summon the justifiably hot and bothered mesh of Mike Wallace’s grilling), he establishes the possibility as factual — even though it is pure speculation. The prognostication becomes a varnished truth, one that wishes to prop up McGinniss’s melodramatic thesis.

* * *

Malcolm was sued for libel by Jeffrey Masson over her depiction of him in her book, In the Freud Archives. In The Journalist and the Murderer, she has called upon all journalists to feel “some compunction about the exploitative character of the journalist-subject relationship,” yet claims that her own separate lawsuit was not the driving force in the book’s afterword. Yet even Malcolm, a patient and painstaking practitioner, could not get every detail of MacDonald’s appearance on 60 Minutes right:

As Mike Wallace — who had received an advance copy of Fatal Vision without difficulty or a lecture — read out loud to MacDonald passages in which he was portrayed as a psychopathic killer, the camera recorded his look of shock and utter discomposure.

Wallace was reading MacDonald’s own notes to his attorney back to him, not McGinniss’s book. These were not McGinniss’s passages in which MacDonald was “portrayed as a psychopathic killer,” but passages from MacDonald’s own words that attempted to establish his Eskatrol use. Did Malcolm have a transcript of the 60 Minutes segment now readily available online in 1990? Or is it possible that MacDonald’s notes to his attorney had fused so perfectly with McGinnis’s book that the two became indistinguishable?

This raises important questions over whether any journalist can ever get the facts entirely right, no matter how fair-minded the intentions. It is one thing to be the hero of one’s own story, but it is quite another to know that, even if she believes herself to be morally or factually in the clear, the journalist is doomed to twist the truth to serve her purposes.

It obviously helps to be transparent about one’s bias. At one point in The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm is forthright enough to confess that she is struck by MacDonald’s physical grace as he breaks off pieces of tiny powdered sugar doughnuts. This is the kind of observational detail often inserted in lengthy celebrity profiles to “humanize” a Hollywood actor uttering the same calcified boilerplate rattled off to every roundtable junketeer. But if such a flourish is fluid enough to apply to MacDonald, we are left to wonder how Malcolm’s personal connection interferes with her purported journalistic objectivity. In the same paragraph, Malcolm neatly notes the casual abuse MacDonald received in his mailbox after McGinniss’s book was published — in particular a married couple who read Fatal Vision while on vacation who took the time to write a hateful letter while sunbathing at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel. This casual cruelty illustrates how the reader can be just as complicit as the opportunistic journo in perpetuating an incomplete or slanted portrait.

The important conundrum that Malcolm imparts in her short and magnificently complicated volume is why we bother to read or write journalism at all if we know the game is rigged. The thorny morality can extend to biography (Malcolm’s The Silent Woman is another excellent book which sets forth the inherent and surprisingly cyclical bias in writing about Sylvia Plath). And even when the seasoned journalist is aware of ethical discrepancies, the judgmental pangs will still crop up. In “A Girl of the Zeitgeist” (contained in the marvelous collection, Forty-One False Starts), Malcolm confessed her own disappointment in how Ingrid Sischy failed to live up to her preconceptions as a bold and modern woman. Malcolm’s tendentiousness may very well be as incorrigible as McGinnis’s, but is it more forgivable because she’s open about it?

* * *

It can be difficult for Janet Malcolm’s most arduous advocates to detect the fine grains of empathy carefully lining the crisp and meticulous forms of her svelte and careful arguments, which are almost always sanded against venal opportunists. Malcolm’s responsive opponents, which have recently included Esquire‘s Tom Junod, Errol Morris, and other middling men who are inexplicably intimidated by women who are smarter, have attempted to paint Malcolm as a hypocrite, an opportunist, and a self-loathing harpy of the first order. Junod wrote that “it’s clear to anyone who reads her work that very few journalists are animated by malice than Janet Malcolm” and described her work as “a self-hater whose work has managed to speak for the self-hatred” of journalism. Yet Junod cannot cite any examples of this self-hate and malice, save for the purported Henry Youngman-like sting of her one liners (Malcolm is not James Wolcott; she is considerably more thoughtful and interesting) and for pointing out, in Iphigenia in Forest Hills, how trials “offer unique opportunities for journalistic heartlessness,” failing to observe how Malcolm pointed out how words or evidence lifted out of context could be used to condemn or besmirch the innocent until proven guilty (and owning up to her own biases and her desire to interfere).

Malcolm is not as relentless as her generational peer Renata Adler, but she is just as refreshingly formidable. She is as thorough with her positions and almost as misunderstood. She has made many prominent enemies for her controversial positions — even fighting a ten year trial against Jeffrey Masson over the authenticity of his quotations (dismissed initially by a federal judge in California on the grounds that there was an absence of malice). Adler was ousted from The New Yorker, but Malcolm was not. In the last few years, both have rightfully found renewed attention for their years among a new generation.

One origin for the anti-Malcolm assault is John Taylor’s 1989 New York Magazine article, “Holier than Thou,” which is perhaps singularly responsible for making it mandatory for any mention of The Journalist and the Murderer to include its infamous opening line: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Taylor excoriated Malcolm for betraying McGinniss as a subject, dredged up the Masson claims, and claimed that Malcolm used Masson much as McGinniss had used MacDonald. It does not occur to Taylor that Malcolm herself may be thoroughly familiar with what went down and that the two lengthy articles which became The Journalist and the Murderer might indeed be an attempt to reckon with the events that caused the fracas:

Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” Flaubert said of his famous character. The characters of nonfiction, no less than those of fiction, derive from the writer’s most idiosyncratic desires and deepest anxieties; they are what the writer wishes he was and worries that he is. Masson, c’est moi.

Similarly, Evan Hughes had difficulty grappling with this idea, caviling over the “bizarre stance” of Malcolm not wanting to be “oppressed by the mountain of documents that formed in my office.” He falsely infers that Malcolm has claimed that “it is pointless to learn the facts to try to get to the bottom of a crime,” not parsing Malcolm’s clear distinction between evidence and the journalist’s ineluctable need to realize characters on the page. No matter how faithfully the journalist sticks with the facts, a journalistic subject becomes a character because the narrative exigencies demand it. Errol Morris can find Malcolm’s stance “disturbing and problematic” as much as he likes, but he is the one who violated the journalistic taboo of paying subjects for his 2008 film, Standard Operating Procedure, without full disclosure. One of Morris’s documentary subjects, Joyce McKinney, claimed that she was tricked into giving an interview for what became Tabloid, alleging that one of Morris’s co-producers broke into her home with a release form. Years before Morris proved triumphant in an appellate court, he tweeted:

The notion of something “unvarnished” attached to a personal account may have originated with Shakespeare:

And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnished tale deliver
Of my whole course of love. What drugs, what charms,
What conjuration and what mighty magic—
For such proceeding I am charged withal—
I won his daughter.
Othello, Act 1, Scene 3

Othello hoped that in telling “a round unvarnished tale,” he would be able to come clean with Brabantio over why he had eloped with the senator’s daughter Desdemona. He wishes to be straightforward. It’s an extremely honorable and heartfelt gesture that has us very much believing in Othello’s eloquence. Othello was very lucky not to be speaking with a journalist, who surely would have used his words against him.

Next Up: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood!


Can a $900 Handgun Change Your Life? Yes!

When you first buy an HK45, the Ferrari of handguns, two thoughts are likely to pass through your mind. The first is “Can I really kill people now in a reckless and irresponsible way?” And the second is “Wow, I can finally murder all the people who disagree with the pablum published at Slate and argue it was self-defense!”

At least those are the thoughts I had after Heckler & Koch slipped several Benjamins into my maximizer codpiece brief in a creepy hotel room several weeks ago and claimed that anything I wrote about this fine German defense manufacturing company — which also specializes in assault rifles! submachine guns! grenade launchers! and other assorted weapons that are fun for the whole family! — would be of the highest journalistic integrity.

I hadn’t planned to make this purchase; indeed, I had not purchased anything. I was bent over with fellow hack journalist Catherine Price while several greasy men from Madison Avenue were throwing dirty dollar bills onto our naked backs and swaying our spent forms with their privileged equipment beyond the Marquis de Sade’s imagination. I’d merely followed some malnourished J-school grads with mountains of unpayable student debt to the Heckler & Koch demonstration stand, where a fast-talking young man with a headset, a phony smile purchased by venal corporations, and an impressive set of handguns pointed at quavering heads was telling several promising writers to sell their souls to the lowest bidder or be blown to smithereens on the spot. I watched as he shot down an aspiring Glenn Greenwald type who believed in principles. I witnessed him puree twenty years of carefully cultivated journalistic tenets with a smoothly delivered threat.

There were regrettably no samples. I wouldn’t be able to fire a gun until I had signed an NDA with a team of attorneys hovering above me, watching me with the cold look of casual traducers trading the last of their morality for a small piece of the pie. I capitulated everything: waived class action, my right to privacy, my very soul. A dumb bitter man named Dan Kois stood next to the attorneys, insisting that signing the contract meant that I wouldn’t have to eat my ethical vegetables. Comrade David Haglund, an easily manipulated ex-Mormon who had sold out his PEN America principles for a pittance, ensured me that the chow was better on the other side of the line. Comrade Matthew Yglesias said, “Selling your soul? No worries. The remaining shell’s got electrolytes.”

The Longform people were right behind me. But I knew I could get there first. I’d taken out my credit card. The damage? $900.00 — payable back to me once my sponsored “fact-checked” article ran.

As I crossed the exhibition hall, feeling the burden of a moral code drift away from my body like a human trafficking victim shrieking her last cry of innocence, I began to question what I’d just done.

That’s when I heard a voice call out to me.

“Oh, grow up!” the voice cried in a vaguely Canadian accent. “Do you think you’ll get a paying job anywhere where you’ll be able to practice unimpeachable journalism?”

I turned to find Malcolm Gladwell waggling a finger at me, a huge smile on his face. This man had some connection to the Heckler & Koch booth and had apparently bribed Jacob Weisberg with just enough cash to get a review-sized space purporting to address his critics without actually addressing the criticism. And because skepticism and critical thinking were swiftly disappearing from the American psyche without anyone noticing, Gladwell was able to move a few more copies of his latest volume, David vs. Goliath.

Gladwell purported to just feel so passionately about the handguns, in much the same way that he had professed passion about tobacco years before. He had been paid by Heckler & Koch to shout enthusiastically at any sad bastard who had just sold himself down the river. The Germans knew that Gladwell’s presence would rub away all tears. Gladwell was the human Kleenex for those who extruded any remaining snot of doubt.

“I love my HK45,” continued Gladwell, enunciating every syllable, before launching into a soothing and simplistic presentation of how every dyslexic on the planet would grow up to become all-powerful mutants, conquering the humans with newly discovered powers that included the manipulation of energy, sonic scream, an ability to pass through solid matter, telekinesis, and the ability to project misleading messages on other people’s tablets and smartphones in exchange for tracking their every movement and text message. Everyone who signed on to the Heckler & Koch contract, overseen personally by Beelzebub, would also become dyslexic. Would lose the ability to read. But who needed to do that anyway after the soul was compromised?

It was a strong, if odd, endorsement. And as I walked away, Gladwell’s words ringing in my ears, my anxiety over the price of selling out (did I really value myself that low?) quickly morphed into something else: excitement. Perhaps I might destroy the earth in a vengeful frenzy with my fellow dyslexics, to pay the bastards back for ignoring my secret genius for so long. I had worked 10,000 hours, dammit. And what did I have to my name? A few articles published for no compensation on The Awl. But now that I had crossed the line, I would join my companions. We would write more incoherent listicles for BuzzFeed. We would flood Tumblr with more animated GIFs that nobody would care about in three weeks. We would write more dumb articles for Slate. We would watch our fingers type unwise and unedited words on screens until the very last American had capitulated the ability to shout into the streets, “Oh for fuck’s sake! Enough is enough!”


Steve Weinberg, Russell Carollo, and Christopher Szecheny — Scientology’s Sleazy Bitches

In today’s Washington Post, Howard Kurtz reports the alarming news that three “journalists” — Steve Weinberg, Russell Carollo, and Christopher Szecheny — were paid money by the Church of Scientology to examine the St. Petersburg Times‘s “conduct.” This ad hoc “investigation” was commissioned because the newspaper has devoted considerable resources to examining the ostensible religious organization. But the new study is highly suspect. Weinberg reveals in the article that the final results may be withheld from public dissemination, should the Church not find the report to its liking. And in Weinberg’s case, this condition is especially duplicitous — given that his last book was a volume on the brave journalist Ida Tarbell.

Let’s clarify why this is a dark day for American journalism. A journalist is someone who typically goes out of his way to remain as impartial as he can. If he investigates a story, he is very careful not to accept remuneration from any of the parties involved. He remains ideally a third party. He must, if he is to remain ethical, investigate all sides of the story and remain as transparent as possible.

Numerous newspapers have established codes of ethics, which can be readily perused online.

The New York Times maintains a very solid ethics policy on neutrality, stating:

Staff members and those on assignment for us may not accept anything that could be construed as a payment for favorable coverage or for avoiding unfavorable coverage. They may not accept gifts, tickets, discounts, reimbursements or other benefits from individuals or organizations covered (or likely to be covered) by their newsroom. Gifts should be returned with a polite explanation; perishable gifts may instead be given to charity, also with a note to the donor. In either case the objective of the note is, in all politeness, to discourage future gifts.

Similarly, the Los Angeles Times also maintains rigid standards about conflicts of interest:

Staff members may not enter into business or financial relationships with their sources. Similarly, staff members may not cover individuals or institutions with which they have a financial relationship.

The Associated Press Managing Editors also maintain a Statement of Ethical Principles, noting:

Financial investments by staff members or other outside business interests that could create the impression of a conflict of interest should be avoided.

Thus, by nearly every professional standard, Weinberg, Carollo, and Szecheny have failed. Even if they consider what they do to be “objective,” they have accepted payment from one of the key parties. They have entered into a business relationship with one of their sources. They have willfully thrown away their integrity for these numerous conflicts of interest, taking the Church of Scientology’s money to give it the report that it wants. And the lack of transparency on the Church’s part leads any reasonable outsider to conclude that the motives here are far from noble.

Carollo and Szechenyi explained to Kurtz, “Every entity has the right to receive fair treatment in the press.” And while fairness is certainly a laudable standard, this statement rings hollow when one considers the conditional nature of this pursuit. When Weinberg confesses, “I can certainly use the money these days,” he demonstrates unequivocally what his real motives are. And the whole exercise becomes a willful distortion of journalism, where news stories are sold to the highest bidder. The truly sad thing here is that Weinberg sold out his principles for a pittance — a mere $5,000.

Because of these disgraceful indiscretions, these three men have capitulated their right to be identified as journalists. They no longer have the right to be taken seriously by any major news organization. And if their bylines are to be found within newspapers again, then readers must reject these names as bona-fide upholders of the Fourth Estate.


David Pogue and the Gray Lady’s Double Standard

In a post on Saturday, the NYTPicker, a website devoted to “the goings-on inside the New York Times,” pointed to the recent firing of Mary Tripsas, who was let go after writing a positive column just after taking an all-expenses paid trip from 3M. The NYTPicker also highlighted Clark Hoyt’s recent column, in which Hoyt reported that the Times had “parted company” with Joshua Robinson after Robinson had “represented himself as as a Times reporter while asking airline magazines for free tickets to cities around the world for an independent project he was proposing with a photographer.”

But David Pogue’s ongoing ethical infractions were not addressed by Hoyt and, as the NYTPicker put it, “Pogue continues to keep his gig while traveling the country — courtesy of corporations who pay him to speak at retreats and confabs, identifying himself as a NYT columnist. It’s a double standard that NYT has yet to address.”

This prompted David Pogue to leave the following comment at the NYTPicker’s site:

I spoke 30 times in 2009.

One of them was for a corporation–ONE. It was Raytheon. And that was an engagement that had been individually approved by my editors.

(As part of the Times crackdown on this issue, ALL of my speaking engagements must be individually approved. It’s been this way since June.)

The remaining 29 were for educational and non-profit outfits. Examples:Florida Virtual Schools; eCollege; Cleveland Town Hall speaker series; FOSE (government training); Society for Technical Communication; CT Librarians’ Association; CUNY; Educomm; MBL (Woods Hole); Memorial Sloan Kettering; Syracuse University.

Ooooh, look at Pogue jetting around the country for big corporations!!

You just have no idea what you’re talking about.

Actually, the NYTPicker does have some idea about what it’s talking about.

Here’s the pertinent clause from the New York Times‘s ethical guidelines: “Staff members should be sensitive to the appearance of partiality when they address groups that might figure in their coverage, especially if the setting might suggest a close relationship to the sponsoring group.”

Alas, in the examples that Mr. Pogue kindly offered to the NYTPicker, the ostensible “journalist” proved quite careless in disclosing his partiality. Had Mr. Pogue bothered to investigate or research the entities he was speaking to before accepting the invitations and the honorariums, he might have discovered that there was decidedly more than one corporation here.

As its website proudly announces, eCollege is a division of Pearson PLC, a London education and media conglomerate that specializes in making educational software.

Ergo, a corporation.

FOSE is run by the 1105 Government Information Group, part of 1105 Media, Inc., whose California corporate record can be found here.

Ergo, a corporation.

The Society for Technical Communication is a for-profit New York corporation. Here’s a link to the bylaws.

Ergo, a corporation.

The Educomm conference is run by the Professional Media Group. You can search here for the limited liability company record from the Connecticut Commercial Recording Division:

While an LLC is slightly different from a corporation under Connecticut law, it’s safe to say that the Professional Media Group’s structure is far from nonprofit.

So that makes three for-profit corporations and an LLC in a pear tree. That squarely puts the corporations in the plural and confirms the NYTPicker’s allegations.

In a further gaffe, Mr. Pogue claimed that the NYTPicker’s author was “David.” But in an embarrassing series of developments last September, the New York Times issued a retraction for misidentifying David Blum as the man behind NYTPicker.

According to the NYTPicker, New York Times editors and spokesmen have refused to answer important questions about this double standard in journalistic ethics, whereby Mr. Pogue continues to breach the Gray Lady’s ethical standards without apparent penalty.

[UPDATE: David Pogue has left a few followup comments at the NYTPicker, which has prompted this followup post.]

Editorial Policy

In response to developments at the Federal Trade Commission, I have established an editorial policy, an addendum to a post that I put up in June 2008, to address any and all ethical concerns. While I applaud the FTC for cracking down on “journalists” who serve mostly as odious junketeers, I don’t believe that these guidelines are fair to other bloggers who are more driven by honest journalism, and who practice with clean hands and composure.

The new guidelines are a double standard, designed to give greater power to other media. I don’t see the FTC going after Leo Laporte for getting a free Palm Pre. And I certainly don’t see the FTC going after film critics who attend free press screenings. (A $10 value! Surely, Roger Ebert and Kenneth Turan are tools who can be corrupted!)

Despite the fact that my work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, I nevertheless enact the above editorial policy for my online writings. Because as annoying as stating the bleeding obvious can be sometimes, journalistic ethics are important.

NYTBR: Bill Keller Can Do No Wrong

Just when you think the New York Times Book Review couldn’t get any sleazier, editor Sam Tanenhaus has proven yet again that there isn’t an unctuous pool he won’t dive into. The latest disgrace is Ruth Conniff’s review of Bill Keller’s Tree Shaker. Bill Keller, of course, is the executive editor of the New York Times and Conniff’s review is perhaps the most egregious conflict of interest in the NYTBR‘s entire history. Conniff isn’t critical one whit about Tree Shaker. The review may as well have recycled the book’s press release. But Conniff (or perhaps the editors) have no problem invoking these boilerplate plaudits:

With its striking layout, bright graphics and photographs on almost every page, Keller’s biography of Mandela vibrates with the feeling of history come alive.

This book does not condescend to its young audience, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.

We learn that Keller, despite writing a children’s book, is “more a historian here than a biographer.” (Never mind that the book is a mere 128 pages.) We learn that he wrote “a thoughtful afterword.” The only thing missing in this review is a phone number for New York Times readers to confess their conversion from Christianity to the Church of Keller.

I’m still puzzled why Conniff didn’t declare Bill Keller “the greatest writer in the history of children’s literature” or “the most profound humanitarian since Gandhi.” Why didn’t Conniff demand that all literary people supplicate before Keller’s dais, declare Lord Bill the True Leader, and be prepared to sacrifice their babies to the volcano?

Tanenhaus doesn’t stop there. In addition to featuring a ten minute podcast interview with Keller on the Times website, he also offers the first chapter.

Of course, it’s just possible that Conniff really did love the book. But when one examines the first chapter, Keller’s writing deficiencies become self-evident. Grammarians will wince at the folksy use of “gotten” and the sloppy “past half a century.” A double “was now” has managed to escape the copy editor’s eye. We learn that Ahmed Kathrada is “a thoughtful man” because he “earned multiple college degrees while in prison.” We get awkward redundancies such as “Then we rode to their old cellblock, where Mandela posed for pictures in his cell…” (In his cell? No kidding?)

Beyond these flubs, there is nothing more here than dry generalized description that could have been easily cadged from the back of a travel brochure.

That such a book would be uncritically accepted and that such a review would be published in a section that purports to be a critical beacon are salient indicators that, when it comes to dealing with top brass, Sam Tanenhaus is nothing more than a literary lapdancer.

Ethical Transparency

In response to the NBCC’s ethics survey, Quill & Quire‘s Derek Weiler observes that Carlin Romano and company missed out on far more interesting questions like, “Is it ethical to review a book by an author who’s written negatively about you in the past?” But he also points to these reviewing guidelines publicly available to all Quill & Quire readers. I think that Quill & Quire has performed a valuable service here. Quill & Quire readers can see precisely how the publication operates, what is to be expected of its contributors, and can then take up specific charges with Weiler if there are any ethical transgressions. Not even a publication as allegedly august as The New York Times Book Review does this. I suppose that, depending on the editor, ethics are something that you make up as you go along.

But because Quill & Quire has set such a sterling example of transparency, I will be putting up an ethical guidelines page for this blog very soon, so that readers can get a sense of the ethical protocols that I personally adhere to when reporting on a story, conducting an interview, or writing a review. And I certainly hope that other newspapers and blogs will follow in the same spirit.

NBCC Ethics Survey

At long last, Carlin Romano has posted the results of the National Book Critics Circle ethics survey. If there’s one thing that most NBCC members can agree upon, it’s that 98.1% of them are indeed members of the organization. Where the six stragglers and the one “other” came from is difficult to say. But I suppose a few rotten apples or contrarians are likely to find their way into the fix.

The other major consensuses are these:

84.2% of the NBCC members who took this survey believe that a book editor should not assign a book to a friend of the author.

83% believe that opinion journals should adhere to the same ethical standards as newspaper book sections.

76.7% say it’s okay for a reviewer to repeatedly review books by the same author over the course of many years.

76.5% believe that it is unethical to review a book without reading it entirely.

76.3% believe that book review sections that are paid by companies for reviews should be identified in the same way that bloggers are.

73.4% aren’t sure if the ethical standards of the United States and England are significantly different.

72.1% see no problem with an editor assigning a book known to hold aesthetic, political, or literary views close to the author.

68.5% believe that anyone mentioned in a book’s acknowledgments page should be barred from reviewing the book.

68.5% believe it isn’t okay for an author to review another book if the author has served as a major source in another book that the book’s author has published.

66.5% believe it’s okay for a newspaper or magazine to review books by current or former staff members.

66% say that it’s okay for a book section to have a podcast with the author, while the book section carries a review.

64.9% believe that someone who has written a blurb should be prohibited from writing a lengthier review of the book.

Many of Romano’s questions seem to address, rather amusingly, some of the current practices of The New York Times Book Review. And judging from the results, it would appear that Sam Tanenhaus is upholding only half of the ethical bargain. I’ll have more to say about this in depth later. But for now, I direct you to Michael Orthofer’s commentary.

Literary “Journalists” and the Iceland Air Junket

I would never accept a publisher’s offer to fly to Iceland on their dime to ostensibly “report” upon the author Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Indeed, if I were on staff at a newspaper, crossing this line would lead either to disciplinary action or to being fired.

And yet this was precisely the seedy offer on the table a few months ago. A William Morrow publicist sent around an email, citing Ron Hogan and Shelf Awareness’s John Mutter as a few of the “journalists” on board this celebrity junket. I obtained a copy of the email from several sources. Here’s the boilerplate that was sent around to newspaper reporters, freelance writers, and bloggers:

William Morrow is working with Iceland Air to do an overseas trip with Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottir, who wrote the chilly, atmospheric mystery “Last Rituals,” set in her native country. 3-4 days, looks amazing.

We’ll start with a book signing/giveaway at the check-in gate at Iceland Air at BWI and then the media and the passengers on the “Literary Express” will board the plane and visit locations in Iceland that are featured in the book.

The dates are 28Nov – 02Dec and the package will be offered up to the general public as well.

We’re looking for placements in the following markets: Washington D.C., Baltimore, Boston and New York (in that order). We already have Ron Hogan and John Mutter as well as contacts from Library Journal and PW going, so we’re looking for some more mainstream media. Do you think this is something you could be assigned to write about in a daily newspaper or media outlet in one of the aforementioned markets?

hogan3.jpgPerhaps the publicist was looking for “more mainstream media” because most journalists have the integrity and the decency to recognize a thorny and clearly unethical scenario. But not Ron Hogan. Really, the only question concerning Ron Hogan isn’t whether or not he can be bought, but just what sum he can be purchased for. (In the case of Hogan, it was at least $1,223 — according to a recent Kayak search for the cheapest Iceland Air round trip flight to Reykjavik — and who knows how much for the “Literary Express” and hotel accommodations.)

Hogan, the “journalist” behind GalleyCat who seems to think that a lolcat photo is today’s idea of a Wildean riposte, has shifted his comparatively innocuous relationship with publishers of guzzling gratis drinks at parties to accepting free flights to Iceland. He appears to have no problem violating the basic trust between journalist and reader and, as he so enthusiastically reported in the past several days, he was indeed in Iceland. Like the other journalists, he was flown out on the dime of Iceland Air.

Did we get anything from Hogan that questioned or probed? No. This was the kind of unsavory “reporting” one sees from Harry Knowles or the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

There were posts like this, in which we learn about William Morrow’s great philanthropy in disseminating free copies of Last Rituals to all passengers on the daily flight to Reykjavik. Hogan boasts about driving a Prius at Hertz and swimming at an expensive spa. Even if one considers this territory to be fair game, why wasn’t Hogan transparent about these costs in his reports?

To be fair, Hogan isn’t the only guilty one. As PW‘s Karen Holt — not exactly an ethical rose garden herselfso happily reported, “the idea morphed into a four-day trip for six journalists, arranged and paid for by Iceland Air, in which the writers spent time time [sic] with Sigurdardottir visiting locations relevant to her book.” Passengers on the flight received “free books, cake and champagne.”

I sent several emails to William Morrow publicist Danielle Bartlett. She informed me that William Morrow did not pay for the trip and that I should contact Iceland Air, but she wouldn’t answer questions about whether she considered this gesture to cross the line of publicist-journalist relationships. Emails to Iceland Air were not returned. I have also emailed Iceland Air spokesperson Debbie Scott and asked a few questions. If I hear anything back, I will report my findings.

But one thing is clear. Whether you’re someone who writes for print or online, if you accept someone’s money and then proceed to write about something without questioning or examining it, preferring to report on how you were wined and dined, you have no business calling yourself a journalist. And yet “journalist” seems to be a noun that Karen Holt is quite attached to.

John Freeman — Ethical Reviewer

Here’s an ethical question for you — a query not rooted in malice, but in a curiosity and concern for journalistic integrity. If your partner is a literary agent representing Jonathan Safran Foer, Manil Suri, Edwidge Danticat, and Junot Díaz, do you recuse yourself from reviewing or interviewing their books?

John Freeman interviewed Jonathan Safran Foer in 2005. Personally, I see no problem with interviewing an author who is a friend or an associate, provided one holds one’s questions to the same probing journalistic standards. (A few friends and associates have been interviewed for The Bat Segundo Show, but I always inform them that I’m not going to offer them softball questions. And they know what they’re in for with me.)

Reviewing books, on the other hand, is a more clear-cut ethical scenario. I have dug around. Unless I am missing something, it appears that Freeman has avoided reviewing any of Nicole Aragi’s clients since 2004. So I must commend Freeman for maintaining an ethically honest reviewing practice.

[UPDATE: Before other parties blow this out of proportion, Freeman leaves this comment at Mark’s:

Hpp — to answer your question, sadly, yes, which is a shame because it means no more Colson Whitehead, Thuy Le The Diem, Edwidge Danticat, Viktor Pelevin, Jonathan Safran Foer, Junot Diaz. It also means I’ve had to recuse myself in voting at the NBCC sometimes. Occasionally, an English or overseas newspaper will ask me to interview one of Nicole’s clients — Jonathan Safran Foer, say — and have said go ahead after I explain the connection. But I don’t seek those assignments out.