Janet Maslin: Abdicating Her Critical Faculties One Review at a Time

Slushpile has dug up further evidence of Janet Maslin’s critical inadequacies, as evidenced by this review of John Leake’s Entering Hades. Apparently, the fact that Michael Connelly did not give the book a blurb is reason enough to quibble with it. In fact, I’m wondering why Maslin didn’t just throw the book in the fireplace and devote her 900 words to qualities that had nothing to do with the book. What of John Leake’s pronounced fro or the fact that he sits with his arms crossed, but doesn’t appear intense enough in his author photo? (For Christ’s sake, he wears sandals! Well, that’s two strikes against the book, I’m afraid.) This is the news that’s fit to print in the dailies these days. Reading the New York Times‘s daily book coverage makes me so disheartened that I’d rather watch Michiko and Maslin in a nude mud wrestling match. That’s hardly my first choice of perverse entertainment, mind you, but I dredge this conceptual horror from my unwholesome imagination in order to make a larger point about journalistic integrity.

New Disclaimer from Deborah Solomon

The Deborah Solomon interview, recently revealed to be more of an inept collage experiment in which the interviewer is a humorless and badgering solipsist rather than anything close to a respectable journalist, now carry this bold shibboleth:

“Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Deborah Solomon.”

And if that isn’t enough, Solomon, who appears not to be a fan of the Oxford comma, will also begin adopting the bold moniker “sprezzatura” to stave off any additional criticism that comes from the New York Press or the blogosphere.

Rest easy, America! The Times has rectified the Solomon disgrace with one single sentence! Clearly, standards have been corrected and we can count upon the Times to treat this middle-aged white woman with the same hard circumspection that was once meted out to a twentysomething African-American named Jayson Blair, who did more or less the same thing. Alas, Blair was shown the door before he could get in a recurrent disclaimer. A double standard? Well, they don’t call the Times the Gray Lady for nothing.

Deborah Solomon: Unethical Journalist?

A few weeks ago, I talked at length with Matt Elzweig over the phone for a New York Press story about Deborah Solomon. Elzweig had contacted me because I had written critically about her on these pages. Thankfully, Elzweig’s investigations sent him away from my pedantic barbs and into the heart of an interviewer who appears to be breaking the New York Times code of ethics. To add insult to injury, Solomon didn’t even bother to return Elzweig’s calls to clarify the charges.

NYT Learns That the Information Wants to Be Free — Five Years After Everybody Else

New York Post: “The New York Times is poised to stop charging readers for online access to its Op-Ed columnists and other content, The Post has learned. After much internal debate, Times executives – including publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. – made the decision to end the subscription-only TimesSelect service but have yet to make an official announcement, according to a source briefed on the matter.”

Now don’t you feel like a sucker for signing up for TimesSelect?

Central Arbiter, My Ass

Robert Brustein: “I realize the changes at the Times are part of its effort to keep financially afloat when the print media are failing to attract enough readers. And yet, despite its abject bow to cultural illiteracy, The New York Times continues to regard itself as the maker of theatrical standards. The New York Post recently reported an angry encounter between the playwright David Hare (whose The Vertical Hour was recently backhanded by the Times) and the paper’s managing director, Jill Abramson. Hare accused the Times (correctly in my opinion) of having little interest in theatre, and even less in plays. Ms. Abramson allegedly replied, “Listen, it is not our obligation to like or care about the theater. It is our obligation to arbitrate it. We are the central arbiter of taste and culture in the city of New York.”

Much as Sam Tanenhaus corrupted the idea of the New York Times Book Review as a “central arbiter of taste and culture” and litblogs have, to some degree, picked up the slack (although the recent “Fiction in Translation” issue was a welcome aberration), perhaps theatre blogs might do the same for New York. I must confess that I’m not entirely familiar with the Broadway blog scene (this will change soon), but Terry Teachout’s theatrical riffs at About Last Night, Broadway Abridged, Broadway and Me and Off, Off Blogway are some blogs I’ve encountered that come to mind. And, of course, here in my town, nobody can touch Michael Rice’s Cool as Hell Theatre, recently picked up by KQED, for in-depth theatrical coverage (116 podcasts!) of the Bay Area theatre scene.

Some newspapers seem to be going well out of their way to make their positions as arbiter…well, less central.

Sarah Lyall Summarized

LONDON, March 18 — Lionel Shriver has written a new novel, The Post-Birthday World. But you don’t need to know about that, even though the book is one of the best of the year. What really counts is that Ms. Shriver looks younger than her 49 years and is quite a piece of ass. We here at the New York Times wouldn’t say any of this things if Ms. Shriver were male (which we confess, we initially thought she was, Lionel being one of those gender-neutral names), but we’re more content to judge Ms. Shriver for her appearance than for her literary achievements. Never mind that she won the Whitbread Book of the Year.

Slight, wry, precise in bending over and with the air and appearance of someone who might be good in bed, Ms. Shriver makes no excuses for our tendency to ogle and makes none now. “Why are you getting out the measuring tape?” she said recently, as we tried to get her measurements in her apartment in South London. “It’s obviously a ploy, but I don’t think it’s an obligation for a profile. Have you even read my book?”

Well, no, we hadn’t.

What makes our maneuvers so interesting is that Shriver’s publicists thought that this would be a great idea. We tried to get her to pose naked for our photographer and she refused.

“But we’re with the New York Times!” we said.

“Yes, and I’m doing my best to humor you and put up with your inane questions.”

“Surely, they’re not that inane.”

“I paid my dues. I did not write a novel at 21 and it sells a million copies and everybody thinks I’m brilliant and I’m on TV.”

“Can we use that?”

“Only if you go away.”

Kurt Eichenwald: $2,000 for “Editorial Integrity”

Remember that Kurt Eichenwald essay from December? Eichenwald wrote a New York Times Magazine story investigating a 13-year-old boy who was sexually exploited through the Internet. But today’s New York Times Corrections page revealed a very interesting development:

The essay was intended to describe how Mr. Eichenwald persuaded Justin Berry, then 18, to talk about his situation. But Mr. Eichenwald did not disclose to his editors or readers that he had sent Mr. Berry a $2,000 check. Mr. Eichenwald said he was trying to maintain contact out of concern for a young man in danger, and did not consider himself to be acting as a journalist when he sent the check.

The Associated Press’s David Caruso reports that Eichenwald sent Berry the check in an effort to learn the boy’s true name and address. I think it’s important to note that Eichenwald’s piece yielded him the 2006 Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism, awarded for “preserving the editorial integrity of an important story while reaching out to assist his source.”

eichenwald.jpgBut if this story was an exercise in total candor and perspicacious judgment, why didn’t Eichenwald inform his editors at the Times? Were the judges at the University of Oregon aware of this check before they relayed the Payne? If the Payne Award is indeed one of the highest honors a journalist can receive, will the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication rescind the award in light of Eichenwald failing to report the $2,000 check?

The correction observed that “Times policy forbids paying the subjects of articles for information or interviews.” So aside from the Times policy, let’s examine why this issue is troubling. Here is a reporter investigating a boy who had amassed hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct lewd acts in front of strangers. If Eichenwald himself is paying money to Berry, does not this behavioral association (Berry accepting check from a stranger) color Berry’s answers? Can we count on total candor when an interview subject receives money? Eichenwald noted, “We were gambling $2,000 on the possibility of saving a kid’s life.” If “saving a kid’s life” was Eichenwald’s motivation, then does not a four-figure check color even this subjectivity?

In my review of William T. Vollmann’s Poor People, I criticized Vollmann for paying his interview subjects, contemplating whether Vollmann’s guilt had clouded his judgment. Whether this was a wrong move or not, one can at least commend Vollmann for revealing this practice to his readers. Even Nick Broomfield was candid enough to include former LAPD chief Daryl Gates accepting a cash payment on camera in his documentary, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam. Good subjective journalism, perhaps because it deals in partiality, demands complete transparency if one is expected to believe in the truth it presents.

Eichenwald may view his failure to disclose the check as innocent. But his lack of candor calls his “editorial integrity” of his story into question. Since the story was very much about Eichenwald’s efforts to save Berry, and since Eichenwald led us to believe that he was following New York Times standards, it would be lacking great integrity indeed if Eichenwald did not return his award to the University of Oregon.

Eichenwald has since moved on to a position as investigative reporter at Portfolio, Condé Nast’s forthcoming business magazine. If Eichenwald plans to investigate corporations, I’m thinking that Condé Nast Legal might want to be careful with Eichenwald still assigned to a beat. While Berry’s family may have had to return a mere $2,000, the Fortune 500 has whole armies of lawyers ready to descend upon 4 Times Square. And if Eichenwald manages to “forget” another detail, it may prove a costly resolution.

New Gray Lady Corrections Policy: No Free Will?

New York Times Corrections: “The article also referred incorrectly to how Mr. Fagles learned Latin and Greek. He did not teach himself while in college; he was taught in courses.”

Has it not occurred to our intrepid team of fact checkers that sometimes the profs are so soporific that one must teach one’s self a few things? Or does the student teach himself nothing?

I realize this is probably a question of semantics and perhaps this is just a case where the Times and I will have to disagree. But I suspect someone at the Times is feeling a bit walked on.

Dave Itzkoff: Firm Champion of White Male Speculative Fiction Authors Everybody Else Has Heard Of

It’s bad enough that Sam Tanenhaus feels that Dave Itzkoff’s science fiction column is only worth an appearance once every solstice. (His last column appeared on September 24, six weeks ago.) But it seems that Itzkoff is more interested in covering obvious authors rather than exploring the eclectic terrain of speculative fiction in any substantive way. (See, by contrast, Ron Charles’ seamless integration of genre titles into the Washington Post‘s Book World, which offer a common entry point for both speculative fiction fan and mainstream reader alike.)

In this week’s New York Times Book Review, Dave Itzkoff, once in another display of Caucasian boosterism, serves up this overview of Neil Gaiman, apparently discovering The Sandman more than a decade after everybody else.

When your resident science fiction columnist is only just discovering Neil Gaiman (and we can be sure that Itzkoff’s failure to reference American Gods, the critical and commercial hit that established that Gaiman was not just a comic book writer), that’s a sure sign that you have a genre illiterate on the payroll.

No Brownies for Dwight Garner Either!

In this week’s Inside the List, Dwight Garner remarks upon the Observer’s riff upon the NYTBR list and notes, “One sad and striking thing about this list of beautiful books is that only one, McEwan’s ‘Atonement,’ appeared on the Times best-seller list, in hardcover or soft.”

I sincerely hope this is simply an inept ironic statement on how literary works often don’t sell as well as bestsellers. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Garner has been having one too many drinks from the Tanenhaus Kooky Kool-Aid Kooler. The NYTBR contemporary fiction list was roundly mocked precisely because it was less about literary merit and more about extremely obvious literary titles that elitists, clearly out of touch with the habits of anyone under 50, would select. Indeed, why should sales have any bearing on literary merit at all? With this attitude, perhaps this explains why the NYTBR is often more of a hoary tabloid than an honorable publication.


Not Graphic Enough, Keller! And Besides Where Was This on Thursday?

New York Times Corrections: “A front-page article on Thursday about an announcement by President Bush that 14 high-profile terror suspects had been transferred from secret prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency to the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, incompletely described the interrogation technique of waterboarding, which intelligence officials say was used on one suspect. The technique involves strapping a prisoner to a board with his feet elevated above his head and placing a wet cloth down his throat or over his nose and mouth to create the sensation of drowning.”

Tanenhaus Will Travel Up a Kurtzian River Very Soon

Vanity Fair: “Not only are the people at the Times aware of their new readers’ likely lack of constancy, they’re paranoid about it. In some sense, it’s the central obsession at the Times, the driver of the place, this very un-Timesian concern with what people are thinking about it, as the paper increasingly becomes a hot topic in the national court of public opinion. And it’s a crazy court. Every politically and emotionally addled information consumer wants to convict the Timesof something.” (via Books Inq.)

Is an Online Bonanza In Store for the Gray Lady?

Martin Nisenholtz, the Times senior vice president for digital operations, has a hard-on you wouldn’t believe. Not only is the man gushing more rapidly than a newly hatched guppy (Internet revenue up, with 190,000 TimesSelect yearly subscribers and a good chunk of the income coming through the purchase of About.com), but it looks like Nisenholtz has offered a MySpace-like offering called MyTimes. Whether any of this translates into substantial literary coverage in the NYTBR is anybody’s guess. But this may just represent the beginnings of the inevitable fusion of online and print journalism.

The Gray Lady is Afraid of Bloggers

Well, this is quite interesting. The New York Times Corrections page is now hidden behind the TimesSelect paid subscriber wall. Is Bill Keller afraid that bloggers will point out the journalistic inaccuracy? Is this a response to the recent photo scandal? Whatever the case, it seems pretty irresponsible for the Times not to allow its readership to observe its accuracy. If the Times is truly all the news that’s fit to print, then it should publicly stand by this record.

Then again, on the literary side of news, Sam Sham and the NYTBR Pharaohs have been less than forthcoming about their mistakes.

Today in Investigative Journalism: A Widow Who Loves Her Micturating Dogs

New York Times: “No. 4417749 conducted hundreds of searches over a three-month period on topics ranging from ‘numb fingers’ to ’60 single men’ to ‘dog that urinates on everything.’…It did not take much investigating to follow that data trail to Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow who lives in Lilburn, Ga., frequently researches her friends’ medical ailments and loves her three dogs.”

Gray Lady Deathwatch

Editor and Publisher: “Early last week the Times said it will consolidate production at its newer plant in the College Point section of the city’s borough of Queens, eliminate 240 jobs through various severance and buyout packages, and convert its printing equipment from the use of 54-inch-wide newsprint rolls to 48-inch rolls. The web-width reduction will occasion a redesign suitable for pages that will slim from 13.5 inches wide to 12 inches, but remain 22 inches long. The addition of more pages is expected to compensate for more than half the loss of printable page space, according to Executive Editor Bill Keller.”

Two-Headed Baby? Better Send That Item Through Again, Boys

New York Times Corrections: “An article on Wednesday about the phrase “Collyers’ Mansion,” used to refer to a dangerously cluttered dwelling, misstated the authenticity of an artifact found in the Collyer brothers’ Harlem brownstone, the jam-packed building that spawned the term now often used by firefighters. Although some of the artifacts recovered, like musical instruments, were determined to be fakes, a two-headed baby in a jar of formaldehyde found in the house was actually real.”