NBCC Rumormongers About Washington Post

Late Friday, the National Book Critics Circle demonstrated its commitment to accuracy by reporting a rumor that The Washington Post Book World was closing up shop. Instead of picking up the phone or talking directly with the appropriate people at the Washington Post or committing any elementary act of journalism, Eric Banks saw fit to create a wave of panic through the online world by suggesting that “a reliable source” was reporting that Marcus Brauchli was recommending to the board that Book World be eliminated. The unconfirmed rumor was likewise disseminated by Scott McLemee, who claimed that “a prominent young American historian” had told him the same thing.

By the way, a dancing leprechaun has been tapping me on my shoulder all afternoon about this. I know he doesn’t work at the Post, but trust me, he’s right about all this, even if he still can’t find his Lucky Charms.

All this, of course, was erroneous. Because nothing has been announced and nothing has been confirmed directly with the appropriate people. And Brauchli was then forced to email Jane Ciabattari to set the record straight. He informed Ciabattari, “We are absolutely committed to book reviews and coverage of literature, publishing and ideas in The Post. Our readership has a huge interest in these areas.”

And instead of Ciabattari, McLemee, and Banks offering an apology for reporting a false rumor, or even putting up a retraction so that readers would know that the news was phony, Ciabattari merely annotated her post with a doubting “Fingers crossed.” When, in fact, it has not been established by anyone that The Washington Post Book World will be closing up shop.

For what it’s worth, I have contacted individuals at the Washington Post in an effort to obtain correct information about what is going on. Rather than dealing with third-hand information or playing a game of telephone, I think it’s important for all “journalists” to stick with established facts. Should I learn anything hard and specific, I will certainly report it here. It’s worth pointing out that what Brauchli may have in mind is similar to what happened with the Los Angeles Times: folding the current material into the daily sections. But since I haven’t heard anything from anyone, all we have right now is speculation. I invite Mr. Brauchli to contact me directly, in an effort to confirm any short-term or long-term plans for what he has in store for his newspaper.

[UPDATE: Politico’s Michael Calderone is claiming that “[h]igh-level discussions about ending Book World have indeed taken place, according to a Post source with knowledge of the talks.”]

[UPDATE 2: Sources within The Washington Post indicate that some reorganization is now in effect and that all inquiries on this subject need to be directed to Marcus Brauchli.]

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9 Comments

  1. Ed, I’m confused by your reading of Marcus Brauchli’s evasive response to Critical Mass’s question. As I suggested here, Brauchli’s refusal to directly answer the question seems to amount to an implicit confirmation. I wonder how it is that you read the same quote and came to the opposite conclusion?

  2. In these days when corporations, their divisions and assets are always fine just up to the moment of the announcement of their demise, I’d believe the rumormongers over official spokespeople. Companies prop up dead divisions and assets, pretending they’re alive, just like in the movie “Weekend at Bernie Madoff’s,” until they announce they’re indeed corpses. (See: Circuit City, Lehman Bros., AIG, Bear Stearns, Linen ‘n Things, WaMu, etc. etc. Soon see: Borders Books & Music and many more.)

    The Post company may have to close Newsweek this year, or certainly morph it into something that will lose less money, so probably the survival of Book World section is not on their priority list.

  3. Levi: Because all we know is that reorganization is afoot and that could mean anything. The “collapse” of the Los Angeles Times Book Review standalone section has not meant the end of books coverage within the Los Angeles Times. (Far from it: much of the books coverage has been implemented into the daily section. But since people wish to view a standalone section as the only coverage that matters, the thoughtful coverage that remains in place at the Los Angeles Times has largely been ignored.)

    So what we have to ask ourselves here is why the NBCC wishes to suggest that the closing of Book World means an end to WaPo books coverage, when (1) nothing has been confirmed or denied, (2) Brauchli has suggested that books coverage will continue in some form, (3) Brauchli had a history at the Wall Street Journal of maintaining thoughtful daily book coverage (again, unseen because “book coverage” is perceived by some only when it is in a standalone section), and (4) nobody has thought to put questions to the source (I have, for what it’s worth, and I shall be making additional efforts to clarify Brauchli’s statements).

    I’m all for mobilizing the forces to keep book coverage in the WaPo, and should someone announce an end to books coverage, I will be among the first voices to lead any hue and cry. But to insinuate that Book World is closing with nothing more than hearsay and rumors is irresponsible. To suggest further that WaPo books coverage as a whole is dead, when we currently have nothing specific to work from, is to draw a conclusion from specious evidence. Not unlike drawing a false connection between Iraq and WMD.

  4. It’s a nuance issue. Basically, the way the NBCC put it, “Book World might die” = “ZOMG, the Post is killing books coverage!” But as Ed pointed out, Brauchli came to the Post from the WSJ, which never ever had a standalone books section, but has quite a bit of books coverage that is often underrated (last year they had Luc Sante’s awesome essay about his book collection and Junot Diaz’s piece on Grand Theft Auto; Jeffrey Trachtenberg is solid on publishing industry stuff and the reviews, while not plentiful, generally are of decent to good quality.) And I admit to being driven somewhat up the wall when people ask “oh, there’s still book coverage at the LA Times?” because – bias showing here – the people still left there are busting their asses to make do with the scant resources that remain.

    And, if Book World does indeed get the axe, that’s exactly what I think will happen at the Washington Post. And if losing a standalone section means saving editors’ jobs and keeping the freelance budget more or less the same, well, guess which option I’d choose.

  5. Aren’t these the same literary critics who disparage litbloggers because they’re not “professional”?

  6. Well, I must (respectfully of course) disagree that it is ever irresponsible to report well-founded rumors, as long as they are properly identified as rumors. One could say this is the essence of excellent journalism (Watergate, etc.).

    As for whether or not the Washington Post will continue book coverage, well, I’m sure they’ll do their best, but there is something special about a Sunday literary supplement, and I don’t think the newspaper industry should try to save itself by throwing away a format that has been pleasing people for over a hundred years. People like Sunday supplements. Publishers like them too, but they have no money to spend on ads. I say, where the hell’s our bailout money?

  7. Well, the new books editor at the San Francisco Chronicle just reassured readers that that stand along book section is here to stay.

    http://tinyurl.com/8kzkt9

  8. [...] though I have yet to hear back from Marcus Brauchli concerning the future of the Washington Post’s book coverage, and not a single journalist or NBCC board member has confirmed a specific decision, I believe that [...]

  9. Oy vey. Reporting a rumor as such is okay in my book. And Marcus Brauchli’s statement did not contradict that rumor in any way, which I find an ominous sign. Nobody is suggesting that the Washington Post will abandon books coverage altogether, only that the Sunday supplement may be folded into the paper.

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