Ethical Nightmares from Tanenhaus’s Dream Factory

Sam Tanenhaus apparently has no problem violating the New York Times’ Ethical Journalism Guidebook. So opines Ariana Huffington, who notes that assigning Kathryn Harrison, who had been slammed in two previous Dowd columns, to review Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary? is a violation of the Times‘ credo to avoid “the slightest whiff of favoritism” (Rule 134 in the EJG). Huffington suggests that hiring Harrison swings the favoritism in the opposite direction.

To play the devil’s advocate here, if we momentarily consider the Times to hold any stock outside of the laughing variety, Huffington may not be going far enough. Rule 141 in the EJG states:

Staff members who have a publisher or a movie contract, for example, must be exceedingly sensitive to any appearance of bias in covering other publishers or studios. Those with any doubts about a proposed arrangement should consult the standards editor or the deputy editorial page editor.

Granted, both Tanenhaus and Harrison can get out of this through a loophole. Tanenhaus himself does not have a publisher or a movie contract. But assigning Harrison to review Dowd was a clear case of fanning the flames of bias. This paragraph from Harrison’s review, for example, has very little to do with the book:

LIKE most people who work hard at seeming to be naturally funny, Maureen Dowd comes across as someone who very much wants to be liked, even though she has problematically joined forces with those women who are “sabotaging their chances in the bedroom” by having high-powered careers. “A friend of mine called nearly in tears the day she won a Pulitzer,” Dowd reports in a passage about men threatened by successful women. ” ‘Now,’ she moaned, ‘I’ll never get a date!’ ” Reading this, I can’t help wondering if Dowd is that self-same “friend.” After all, it’s rare that she resists naming her friends, most of whom have names worth dropping: “my witty friend Frank Bruni, the New York Times restaurant critic”; “my friend Leon Wieseltier”; “the current Cosmo editor, my friend Kate White”; “my late friend Art Cooper, the editor of GQ for 20 years”; “my pal Craig Bierko”; et al.

If the intention here is to settle a personal score or to ape a Dale Peck-style attack mode, why is this review even being published in the Times? If Dowd’s book is, in Harrison’s view, quite awful, then surely the text itself would provide enough examples. And surely there were any number of outlets who would have pushed Harrison further over the edge and provided a more legitimate medium for this competitive ruckus.

Without providing a source, Huffington claims that Dowd complained to Tanenhaus about the review-author matchup. Tanenhaus apparently suggested that if Dowd couldn’t handle criticism, then she shouldn’t write books.

Perhaps Tanenhaus’s intention in hiring Harrison was to demonstrate to NYTBR naysayers that the Times does indeed review books impartially while still abiding by the Gray Lady’s ethical mythos. Well, if this were the case, why hire someone quite prepared to sabotage Dowd, thus spawning a grand mess of journalistic ethics?

Unless of course the NYTBR is no longer about ethics, much less thoughtful reviewing. In which case, why indeed should fiction publishers hold credence in a weekly media outlet that prefers to blow its column inches on redundant sentences like “No mere page turner, this is a page devourer, generating the kind of suspense that is usually the province of the playwright or novelist.”

One Comment

  1. I’m just picturing Tanenhaus recieving a copy of the NYT Ethical Journalism Guidebook in the mail and furiously tearing it up, C. F. Kane-style.

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