Are 'The New York Times' Book Reviews Fair?
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
In a few minutes, we hear from you in Backtalk, we hear from our listeners about our stories that we did this week. And we'll hear from CNN's Soledad O'Brien, who will tell us about her new documentary about how one New Orleans community is trying to rise again five years after Katrina. That's later.
But first, for our Friday political chat, we thought we'd look into a study that takes on the interesting question of which political books are more likely to get the attention of influential decision makers. It's an article of faith that a review in The New York Times book review is key, perhaps even make or break for a political book. The Times is the largest remaining Sunday book section and one of the few remaining standalone newspaper book review sections in the country.
According to a recent study by a liberal media watchdog group, the Times has, quote, "an exceedingly narrow view of who's books deserve review and who is fit to discuss them," unquote. The group is Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, or FAIR. And they examined every politically-themed book critiqued by The Times review between January of 2009 and February of this year. The report said that 95 percent of the U.S. authors reviewed were white and 87 percent were male. The book reviewers were even less diverse.
So, what's that all about? We called Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. He was once the editor of The New York Times book review from and then he was appointed senior daily book reviewer for The New York Times handling those duties from 1969 to 2001. Now he's the editorial director for Delphinium Books. And he's with us now. Thank you for joining us to talk about this.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT (Editorial Director, Delphinium Books): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So what's the chicken and what's the egg here, in your view? Well, first, I think I'd want to ask you, were you surprised by these numbers?
Mr. LEHMANN-HAUPT: Well, I was, but I was I felt as if I was looking at a pond in which the fish were feeding way over in one corner and the conclusion was drawing, therefore there are only fish there. You have to go deep into the pond to see what's really going on.
And I should say that over the years and I began work at The Times in 1965, and retired in 2006 and still appear occasionally, as I did yesterday with an obituary, but I'm speaking from the past, The Times has very aggressively sought to be diverse in every respect culturally, ethnicity-wise, sex-wise, they don't like to use the word gender, and politically.
And they have promoted women. They've promoted multicultural, racial diversity and even to the point of a fault, as was pointed out in a review by Russell Baker of a book by Gerald Boyd recently about the Jayson Blair affair of some years ago.
MARTIN: I understand, which is his perspective on it, which is not universally shared. But given - but just tell me your overall perspective on this. You said you have to look deeper into the pond. What are you saying? Are you saying that there's more diversity of non-political books and that...
Mr. LEHMANN-HAUPT: Well, I think that The Times and I worked on the book review, I was an editor from '65 to '69 on the Sunday Book Review we never, and I know that the book review has never had a grid in which they said, are we representing enough diversity in terms of race, sex and political. The editor at the moment, Sam Tanenhaus, if anything, seeks to be surprising by linking right wing reviewers with left wing books and vice versa. That perhaps is conscious.
But that's always the aim is to find the most interesting books. They get, what, 50,000 books a year. They go through them. They are always conscious of the fact they were newspapers, so they respond to what seems politically important, what seems to be of interest to their readers. And that's how those choices are made. They're never made are we representing, you know, (unintelligible).
MARTIN: So diversity is not a consideration, is what you're saying.
Mr. LEHMANN-HAUPT: Diversity is not a consideration in the judgment of which books to review and who should review them.
MARTIN: What do you think about this whole question of the chicken and the egg here? Is it that people of color and women are not writing as many political books? That they have a harder time getting those books published? Or that the review is, the book review is simply isn't choosing those books? What do you think?
Mr. LEHMANN-HAUPT: Well, I think that, again, you have to go a little bit deeper. Publishing has become is going through a real crisis now. The most obvious thing is that the so-called midlist book, the book that isn't going to be a bestseller, isn't being published to the degree that it was, say, in the 1960s, where there was a conscious effort to represent diverse views, races and so forth.
I think it reflects what's being published. Does the book review - I don't know what's being published by smaller presses that might be publishing Latino writers, for example, African-American writers. But the major houses are simply doing less diverse books in every respect because they are aiming for the bestseller list.
MARTIN: And forgive me for being so short on time for this interesting topic, but the question of reviewers is interesting as well, because that is something that The Times does control. I just happen to be looking at The Post and The Times front pages today, there are five front page stories on The Washington Post. Four of them have bylines of women or people of color. There are seven front page stories of The New York Times today.
There is one female byline and I am wondering, you know, the whole question of who is chosen to review these books, do you think that that's something that bears scrutiny or not?
Mr. LEHMANN-HAUPT: Well, you know, I can state more from more greater experience having to do with the daily book review, where from the first daily book reviewer in the 1920s, I believe, John Chamberlain, there are now the two major daily book reviewers are women. And the senior reviewer on the daily staff is a woman. And that has been a very conscious attempt by The Times.
MARTIN: All right. We'll have to leave it there for now. Thank you for your insights. We do appreciate it.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt is a former editor of The New York Times book review, a former senior daily book reviewer for The Times. He continues to contribute to The Times, as he told us. He's now editorial director for Delphinium Books and he joined us from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much.
Mr. LEHMANN-HAUPT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.