Friday, February 14, 2003

From the subscription-only newsletter PublishersLunch:

This Sunday's NYTBR [New York Times Book Review] carries a letter from Susan McDougal regarding the controversial (and rather bizarre) review of her book THE WOMAN WHO WOULDN'T TALK by Beverly Lowry. McDougal's letter corrects one small error, asserting that Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas at the time of the investment in Whitewater; questions the oddly worded statement by Lowry that "Irrefutably they [the Clintons] and the McDougals trampled on some rights and bent some rules along the way"; and notes an error of omission in which Lowry recalled "our national confusion, as we tried to figure out whether or not we could trust a word she said" when McDougal was charged with embezzling money from one-time employers Nancy and Zubin Mehta, without noting that McDougal was exonerated by a jury that then expressed their displeasure that the case had been tried at all. The Mehta trial outcome is covered in the second-to-last portion of the book, though the review erroneously referred to an earlier topic as consuming "the final sections of the book."

Ironically enough, McDougal's letter was fact-checked by the newspaper before it ran. But many in the publishing community remain troubled at how a review like this ran in the first place, and why the newspaper hasn't been more forthcoming in its own voice in correcting the record.

Book Review editor Chip McGrath told us that the paper "Deliberately used her [McDougal's] letter (as opposed to several other, shorter ones)" to help rectify the situation, on top of the single correction that ran earlier. McGrath said, "As for the errors that did appear, yes, they were sloppy and should have been caught in the editing process; as soon as we became aware that we had erred--and it didn't take long for that to happen--we took steps to set the record straight."

As further explanation, McGrath noted, "The Book Review has a particular problem in that we use so many freelancers, not all of whom are trained journalists, and this puts an additional burden on our over-worked staff. I do think we've learned from this one." He also says, "Not that it excuses the mistakes, I would point out that this was a review sympathetic to McDougal and her book, not an attack."

The book, which currently appears on the NYT bestseller list, now has 55,000 copies in print after six printings.

(For some background on this story, go here and here.)

I don't know what the reviewer was doing, or the fact-checkers, but I don't think there was any malicious intent on the part of the Book Review's editors. I think the problem here is worse: The notion that the Clintons are simply depraved, as is anyone who hasn't denounced them, is simply so pervasive in our culture that statements utterly at odds with the facts are believed by well-educated, well-informed people so long as those statements cast the Clintons and those who have befriended them in a bad light.

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