Karen Holt: Who Needs Journalistic Ethics at PW?

In a sleazy and remarkably embarrassing post, Publishers Weekly‘s Karen Holt reveals that she not only composes author profiles with preconceived boilerplate language, but that she has no problems with influence peddling:

There was the time at BEA when I wanted to ask Margaret Atwood a few questions so she took my arm and steered me toward some chairs in the corner (“Margaret Atwood is touching me!”). There was my trip to Maine last summer to interview Richard Ford when he and his wife put me up for the night in their guest cottage (“I’m staying in Richard Ford’s guest house!”). There was the night I capped off an interview with Gay Talese by joining him for dinner at Elaine’s (A double shot of literary New York icons). (Emphasis added.)

To respond to such a stunning statement without raising my blood pressure too much, let me consider Holt’s perspective first. I understand Holt’s need to gush. Enthusiasm is often a commodity among jaded hack journalists. There have been many times when I’ve interviewed an author and I’ve silently pinched myself in disbelief that I’m having a conversation with someone whose work I admire. And I’ve also become acquaintances and friends with a few of the authors I’ve talked with.

Nevertheless, when a journalist conducts an author interview or writes a profile, a journalist has the duty to maintain some sense of independent authority, which will permit her to ask hard-hitting, challenging and thought-provoking questions. One must ask questions that nobody else asks. One must practice journalism. One must not be afraid to ask contrarian questions. To cling to predictable, pre-packaged terms like “bard of the working class,” as Holt does, is not journalism. Such a practice is not altogether different from recycling items from the press release. A journalist must enter a situation without any sense that one has been purchased and report back what was uncovered during that experience. And that means having your outlet pay for your car rental and your motel room during an overnight visit (or doing this on your own dime, if necessary; it’s tax deductible).

Each journalist, of course, has a different form of practice. For example, I never conduct any author interviews at a publisher’s office. I feel that any journalist who does this is ethically suspect, because this involves some kind of quid pro quo that goes well beyond the reasonable request of a review copy. There is also the sense with this set-up that the ground is not third party enough for journalist or publisher alike. (And besides, who needs soulless conference rooms when you talk in New York’s many cafes, bars, and restaurants?)

But there is an ethical ceiling that all good journalists are aware of. And I think it goes without saying that staying at the guest cottage of your subject’s house is highly suspect and deeply unethical.

Karen Holt has, with one simple sentence, revealed that Publishers Weekly has little concern for journalistic ethics. Her stay at Ford’s home is not unlike some of the egregious influence peddling that studios use to buy the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s votes for the Golden Globes. (In fact, the situation was so bad that the HFPA had to institute a tchotchke cap.)

This is certainly not something you’d do if you were expected to write an honest and ethically foolproof profile of your subject. Maybe it’s something you’d do if you wanted to write an uncritical puff piece describing Richard Russo’s jeans and warm smile. But it’s not something you do if you are a journalist.

Then again, consider Holt’s bio:

Karen Holt was a newspaper reporter for years before discovering the lunches were better in book publishing. In between lunches and cocktail parties, she works as a Deputy Editor for Publishers Weekly and Editorial Director of Publishersweekly.com

If Karen Holt is really more concerned with the “lunches and cocktail parties” function of her job, then perhaps she’d be the first to tell us that she’s neither a reporter nor a journalist, but rather an easily malleable mouthpiece concerned with lapping up any and all gifts or overnight stays that come with the job. That might give her a great fangirl rush, but it’s a great disgrace to the rest of us out here who do our damnedest to stay as honest as possible

(via Sarah)

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4 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this report. I’ve long thought the same thing. After reading it, I tried to make a list of book reviewers that adhere to the journalist ethics you admire – – ummmmmm. okay, I’m jaded as can be. There is you of course and…. There are many, really, there are. But it is valuable to point out what you just did. Are book reviewers turning into celebrity journalists? And is this what books are about? How are readers influenced? What role to authors play in this?
    Ford and others went along with Holt.
    Lyn LeJeune

  2. I second that. It’s always a wonder to me why PW covers some authors and houses above others. (Do they really need that many pages on Penguin and Knopf?) No wonder the smaller presses are struggling, they can’t buy Karen Holt lunch!

  3. um, i didn’t know PW qualified as “journalism.” i always read it as a trade publication: good for the headlines, but inextricably beholden to the industry is covers.

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