All the Book Reviews Fit to Print




Books
are a relatively open avenue to dissent in the United States. Critical voices
of the left are rarely heard on TV or in the leading news magazines and
dominant newspapers, and never at the length (or with the repetitions)
necessary to overcome audience unfamiliarity and cognitive dissonance.
Left-of-center books, by contrast, are published frequently, and their length
allows their unfamiliar ideas to be spelled out in detail. The catch, of
course, is that most left books are issued by small publishers and have tiny
sales and small audiences, and the more radical the book’s themes the
smaller the audience is likely to be.


Left books are tolerated by
the establishment and right wing because their marginal existence poses a
minimal threat to the hegemony of the conservatively correct, while serving to
demonstrate the “openness” of society. This tolerance is in marked
contrast with the treatment of critical thoughts that occasionally surface in
the mainstream media, which are a matter of more serious concern and elicit
action from business, politicians, and the flak machines. After the New
York Times
removed Raymond Bonner from his reportorial post in Central
America in 1981, under pressure from the Reagan administration and organized
right wing, he published a very good book on El Salvador, Weakness and
Deceit
(1984), under a Times Books imprimatur. As a reporter Bonner had
reached a million readers, with repeated messages, and was under steady
attack. His book sales were very likely under a 20th of the news readership,
and in this less threatening mode he could be (and was) ignored.
 

Systemic
Bias in Book Reviews


One
reason why even the best of left books tend to have tiny audiences is that
left authors are not well known, as few of them have been on TV, for political
reasons, and mass audience book buying seems to be an almost Pavlovian
response to the number of TV appearances and press accounts, which is why
books by David Brinkley, Jim Lehrer, Tom Brokaw, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell,
or about Princess Diana or others on continuous display, start out with sales
in six figures. Brokaw’s NBC network kindly allowed him to explore the
themes of his new book, The Greatest Generation, both in a documentary
on “Dateline” and in a profile on the “NBC Nightly News,” after which
“his publisher went back to press for 100,000 more copies, bringing the
total in print to 1.48 million” (NYT, January 25, 1999).


Another factor is that left
books often have painful and upsetting themes that elite audiences don’t
like to confront. Stephen Steinberg’s Turning Back (1995) focuses on
the continued institutional power of racism and The Retreat From Racial
Justice in American Thought and Policy
(the book’s subtitle); Phyllis
Bennis’s Calling the Shots (1996) describes and assails U.S.
domination and manipulation of the United Nations; and Audrey and George
Kahin’s Subversion as Foreign Policy (1995) uses the word
“subversion” to refer to U.S. policy toward Indonesia. Many of the
saleable “serious” books tend to reassure, like Alan Wolfe’s One
Nation, After All
(1998), Gregg Easterbrook’s Moment on Earth
(1995), and Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism (1996), or they
describe abuses and threats by “proper” villains like enemy states,
communists, radicals, overzealous regulators, criminals, and unbelievers.
Important examples of the so-called proper villain genre are the various
assaults on Islam (Kanan Makiya’s Cruelty and Silence [1993], Judith
Miller’s God Has Ninety-Nine Names [1993]), or multiculturalism (Dinesh
D’Souza’s Illiberal Education [1991]), or government regulation (Philip K.
Howard’s Death of Common Sense [1996]), or foreign leftists (Tony
Judt’s Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 [1993]).


A third factor is that books
with reassuring themes and acceptable villains that feed into accepted biases,
and especially the biases of the dominant elites, will attract mainstream
publisher interest and a supportive corporate media. Publishers like such
books for both ideological reasons and anticipation of a receptive audience
and large sales. Mainstream media book review attention tends to reflect the
same elite pattern of preferences. For example, Susan Faludi showed
compellingly in Backlash (1991) the media’s consistent proclivity to
latch on to each study claiming damage to women and the family allegedly
resulting from feminist extremism and influence, no matter how implausible the
claims and unscientific the study. Refutations and analyses with findings
supportive of feminist positions have been systematically downplayed or
ignored altogether. As another example, Alan Friedman’s Spider’s Web
(1993), subtitled “The Secret History of How the White House Illegally Armed
Iraq,” was given short shrift in the mainstream media, possibly because
Friedman’s theme was inconvenient to an elite that pretends horror at the
thought of Iraq possessing “weapons of mass destruction.”


A fourth factor is the power
of major publishers, who put out many books and have large advertising
budgets. Their relationship to newspaper and magazine publishers and book
review editors is based on their economic importance, reciprocal interests,
and sometimes secondary economic links via conglomerate ownership and business
connections. Increasingly these publishers have linked up with other media
entities, as Random House did with Brokaw and NBC (and also with Peter
Jennings and ABC), and even with toy manufacturers (Mattel/HarperCollins) and
soft drink producers (Coca Cola/HarperCollins) for cross-promotional deals.
These large publishers, and their massive advertising, gravitate toward
how-to-do-it, cooking and travel books; works by and about celebrities; and
fiction blockbusters. They eschew serious and subtle institutional critiques.
Bertelsmann canceled a contract for a critical biography of Walt Disney
apparently based on the threat to a business relationship between Bantam, a
Bertelsmann subsidiary, and the Disney company. Such links may be symbiotic in
the same way as those of major news sources and media often are, and the
leverage and need to placate the partner may affect policy, obviously favoring
the big boys over small and left-of-center publications.


An underrated fifth factor is
that books with system-supportive themes regularly obtain financial support
from right-wing foundations, think tanks, affluent individuals, and
publishers, that are unavailable to leftists. Charles Murray got a $100,000
grant from Richard Mellon Scaife to help him work on his anti-welfare classic Losing
Ground
(1984); anti-feminist hatchet person Christina Hoff Sommers got at
least $164,000 from the right-wing Olin, Bradley and Carthage foundations in
the early 1990s, plus a reported six-figure advance from Simon & Schuster,
to write her Who Stole Feminism? (1994); Dinesh D’Souza got $150,000
from the Olin Foundation to write Illiberal Education, and support from
the corporate-funded American Enterprise Institute to work on his racist tome The
End of Racism
; and Claire Sterling was generously financed by the Readers
Digest
in working on the KGB-Bulgarian Connection to the 1981 shooting of
the pope.


This lavish funding reflects
the deliberate corporate and right wing effort to alter the intellectual
climate by underwriting the production and dissemination of proper thoughts,
and places like the American Enterprise Institute, Hoover Institution, and
Heritage Foundation have huge budgets—$18.6 million, $22.3 million, and
$25.9 million, respectively, in 1997—to provide rest, rehabilitation, and
writing time to the likes of Michael Novak, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ed Meese,
Julian Simon, Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedman, Christina Hoff Sommers, and
Dinesh D’Souza. These institutions also push the writings of these proper
thinkers with advertising and publicity, sponsored book tours, the
distribution of Op Ed columns, arranging TV and talk show appearances, and by
generous donations of their books to libraries and schools. The money spent
spurs sales.


Radicals, by contrast, have
tiny grants and advances, if any, and their publishers are usually small and
with limited resources for publicity. This results in a tiering of book
advertising and publicity, with left (and many other scholarly and
specialized) books advertised, if at all, in politically sympathetic or
specialized journals of small circulation. With rare exception, small and
radical publishers cannot afford to advertise in the New York Times or Newsweek.
(The typical book ad budget for small publishers like Beacon, South End Press,
and Routledge would not pay for a single half-page ad in the New York Times
Book Review
.)


This tiering, based in part
on the differential availability of financial backing, feeds into book review
policy. Where a book is made familiar to a large audience by publicity and
news coverage, as in the case of The Bell Curve, audience interest and
a desire to be current and useful virtually compels reviews. This reviewing
bias is reinforced by propaganda over time that produces a general interest
and receptivity.


This systemic element even
affects left-of-center publications, whose editors often feel the need to
review the well-promoted system-supportive books to meet reader interest and
display topicality, although usually giving them less friendly treatment than
the mainstream media. Even when a book like D’Souza’s End of Racism
is reviewed harshly, however, the author and publisher are served by the
attention, which is given at the cost of neglecting better books that the
system marginalizes. The Wall Street Journal, by contrast, is more
political—it consistently reviews the books that meet its right-wing
ideological standards, partly to push them, partly to alert readers to the
availability of these meritorious works.


As many powerful critical
works are of little interest to the publishing majors, and end up with small
and university presses, the policy of the Times and other media that
push them to the margins as a class, reinforces editorial and advertiser bias
toward reviewing conventional, conservative, and block- busting books. The Times,
for example, has occasional special segments on university press publications,
which it substitutes for treating them individually and with the weight that
each of them deserves. Small publishers with tiny ad budgets, like Verso,
Monthly Review, Common Courage, and Seven Stories are rarely given reviews
that reflect book quality or salience, and are commonly ignored altogether.
The Times also rarely if ever treats publications by Amnesty
International or other human rights groups as books, leaving them for
notice—if any—as “news.” Thus, extremely illuminating university press
books like Jan Black’s United States Penetration of Brazil
(University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977), Piero Gleijeses’s The Dominican
Crisis
(Johns Hopkins, 1978), and Lars Schoultz’s Human Rights and
United States Policy Toward Latin America
(Princeton, 1981), were ignored
by the Times, as were shattering human rights documents such as AI’s
Report on Torture
(1974), Disappearances: A Work Book (1981), and Guatemala:
Government by Political Murder
(1980).


Among the outstanding small
press volumes not reviewed were Reed Brody’s Contra Terror In Nicaragua
(South End, 1985), Saul Landau’s The Dangerous Doctrine (Institute
for Policy Studies, 1988), Peter Kornbluh’s Nicaragua: The Price of
Intervention
(IPS, 1987), Holly Sklar’s Washington’s War On
Nicaragua
(South End, 1988), Carlos Vilas’s Between Earthquakes and
Volcanoes
(Monthly Review, 1995), Duncan Green’s Silent Revolution
(Cassell 1995), and John Ross’s The Annexation of Mexico (Common
Courage, 1998). All of these put U.S. policy in Latin America in a highly
unfavorable light, so that their exclusion from book review purview served the
ongoing national foreign policy supported in the Times news and editorial
departments by shrinking and skewing the “public sphere.”


Book review editors are not
often chosen to rock the boat, and institutional constraints add to the
likelihood that they will accept and internalize the dominant biases and allow
reviews to reflect dominant market forces (manifested in part by the size of
ad budgets). They do have some discretion, however, and may within limits
depart from mainstream bias, countering it, magnifying it, or adding their own
(or their paper’s). Book review bias is therefore a complex mixture of the
larger systemic element and the local addition (or subtraction).


The local element in bias
will reflect the media institution’s “policy” on certain topics, and to
a degree the editor’s own preferences. In the case of the New York Times,
for example, the owners’ and management’s Cold War and anti-communist
biases, negative attitude toward the dissidents of the 1960s, and strong
support of Israel, has long affected every aspect of the paper’s treatment
of those subjects, as described in “All the News Fit to Print: The Cold
War” (Z, May 1998) and in Part II. On the other hand, the New York
Times Book Review
(NYTBR) editor during the 1980s and early 1990s,
Rebecca Sinkler, was a feminist, and this and other factors caused the NYTBR
to treat feminist and anti-feminist works with exceptional evenhandedness. It
is true that Roiphe’s The Morning After (1993) was accorded more
generous treatment than Faludi’s vastly superior Backlash, but by and
large Roiphe, Sommers, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, and Camille Paglia were
reviewed critically and were not given the elevated status they received in
say U.S. News and World Report or Newsweek. However, it is
evidence of the power of the right that the flak generated by a negative
review of Sommers’s Who Stole Feminism?, with strident accusations of
reviewer bias, was one of the most severe during Sinkler’s tenure as book
review editor. The critique that follows here, which is offered only as an
essay focusing on the New York Times, rests on principles that are
acknowledged by most book review editors. That is, they claim to do more than
merely evaluate potential best-sellers. They purport to manage a kind of
public service operation, in which books of genuine social and political
significance are given appropriate attention and evaluated fairly. In
consequence, we can test editorial performance and bias by examining how they
treated books of real salience to major public issues, or how they may have
inflated the merits of unworthy books serving a special interest or propaganda
role. We can also observe how adequately and fairly they handled books on a
given topic as between critical works and those conveying system-supportive or
conventional-apologetic messages. Admittedly, it will sometimes be hard to
separate out systemic and local editorial bias and the critique will often be
addressing the two working in tandem. It is also exceedingly difficult to
determine which books should have been reviewed on a given topic; subjective
judgments are inescapable and readers must decide for themselves whether the
judgments made here are well grounded.


The broad hypotheses to be
tested here are: first, that book review policy is related to overall
editorial and news policy, which will reflect both systemic and local biases.
Second, books with a seriously critical message from the left, which attack
the ends as well as the tactics of policies supported by the dominant
establishment, will tend to be ignored or treated with hostile bias. The
degree of hostility will depend in part on the extent of elite agreement on an
issue. Thus, when the elite is unified, left critiques will do less well than
when elite disagreement creates some space. Third, books that comport with
establishment positions, including those that support or attack them from the
right, will tend to be treated generously, even when of low intellectual
quality. Book review hostility and support will be displayed not merely in
choosing to review or ignore, but also in placement and size of review,
accompanying headings and photos, and of course the choice of reviewer and
nature of the review.


It should be recognized from
the start that the Times book review system is by no means wholly
closed and that left-of-center books and those harshly critical of U.S. policy
or U.S. allies are sometimes reviewed—even favorably, as in the cases of
George Kahin’s Intervention (1986), Bruce Franklin’s M.I.A. or
Mythmaking In America
(1992), Joan Dassin’s Torture in Brazil (1986),
John Simpson’s and Jana Bennet’s The Disappeared and the Mothers of the
Plaza
(1985), and even Edward Tivnan’s The Lobby (1987), which
criticizes one of the paper’s most sacred cows. However, such surprises and
deviations are rare, and are never featured heavily, as Murray and
Herrnstein’s Bell Curve or Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial (1984)
were, and being very infrequent, do not alter the fact that the general thrust
of the paper’s reviews conforms to expectations and that the hypotheses to
be tested here are well supported, as we shall see.


The New York Times
reviews books both in the daily and Sunday edition, and each has its own
person in charge. These book review editors have the considerable autonomy
normally accorded professionals. But the selection of book review editor is
itself a political act made by the top executives of the paper that
pre-defines the tendency of book review choices. Thus the selection of Richard
Bernstein—one of the pioneers in stoking the political correctness frenzy of
1991, author of the right wing favorite Dictatorship of Virtue:
Multiculturalism and the Battle for America’s Future
(1994), and a very
political reporter—as daily book review critic in April 1995, was a knowing
decision to impart a right wing slant to the daily reviews. The resultant
steady flow of reviews of politically congenial works was surely unsurprising.


Beyond this, the correlation
between editorial, news, and book review policy has often been conspicuous and
provides strong circumstantial evidence that the wall between the various
components of the paper is porous. For example, during the years when the
alleged Bulgarian-KGB assassination attempt against the Pope in 1981 was hot
news (1982-86), the Times editorialized in favor of the link, selected
its news accounts to support the claim, gave Claire Sterling—the leading
proponent of the plot—front page space as a news reporter to provide an
exceptionally misleading story about the case, and reviewed her book on the
plot, The Time of The Assassins (1983) in both the daily and Sunday
paper. Another book supporting the case, The Plot To Kill The Pope
(1983), by former CIA propaganda official Paul Henze, was also reviewed in the
NYTBR. When this writer (with Frank Brodhead) published a book critical
of the case, The Rise and Fall of the Bulgarian Connection (1986),
whose main themes have been vindicated by history, the paper ignored it. The
integration of Times editorial, news, and book review policy was
complete.


The Times regularly
latches on to favorites, like Sterling, and accords them generous treatment
across the wall. This applies, among others, to Cynthia Ozick, Gertrude
Himmelfarb, Richard Perle, Steven Emerson, Tony Judt, Sam Tanenhaus, Gerald
Posner, Alan Wolfe, and Maria Vargas Llosa. The political basis of the choice
of favorites (or unfavorites, like Lillian Hellman and Oliver Stone) is clear.
A recent Times reviewer of Vargas Llosa’s Making Waves observed that
the writer had “veered to the right” in the 1980s, which did not “endear
Vargas Llosa to his former comrades in letters.” The reviewer failed to
note, however, that the veering did endear the author to the New York Times,
which treated him to lavish attention in all phases of the paper’s
operations. From 1983 to the present the Times ran 11 articles under
Vargas Llosa’s byline, profiled or interviewed him 8 times, and reviewed 13
of his books, several in both the daily and Sunday paper. He was even given
space for a very long article assailing the Sandinistas (April 28, 1985), a
task for which his “veering to the right” fitted him admirably (while
ruling out other noted Latinos like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Eduardo Galeano).


The Times’ French
favorites are worthy of special note, because the bias displayed at all levels
in the paper’s dealing with France has been gross to the point of
caricature. Times editors and news reporters have long treated that
country snidely, France not being as amenable an ally as Thatcher’s and
Blair’s Britain, nor as willing to move to a neoliberal world (as a sample
of Times titles: Roger Cohen, “France Tells U.S., ‘I Oppose,
Therefore I Am’” [January 30, 1994]; Cohen, “France’s Allegiance To
Things French, Like Hypocrisy” [August 24, 1997]; Craig Whitney, “Liberte,
Egalite And Utter Gridlock” [December 10, 1995]; Cohen, “For France,
Sagging Self-Image and Esprit” [February 11, 1997]; Eugen Weber, “What’s
Ailing France Now?” [April 2, 1998]). Amusingly, each Times reporter
in France automatically gravitates to and interviews or writes glowing
accounts of the “new philosopher,” and self-promoting blowhard,
Bernard-Henri Levy, who made the momentous discovery of a Soviet Gulag and
western virtue in the 1970s (see Flora Lewis, July 21, 1977; Richard
Bernstein, April 2, 1987; Roger Cohen, December 13, 1992; Alan Riding, May 26,
1994, among others); and Levy’s books and documentaries have received
correspondingly generous treatment (five reviews, numerous positive mentions).
Earlier, the French cold
warrior Raymond Aron was treated with similar warmth and his books were duly
reviewed. A third worthy Frenchperson is Jean Francois Revel, author of Without
Marx Or Jesus
(1972), The Totalitarian Temptation (1977), How
Democracies Perish
(1983), Flight From Truth (1991), and Democracy
Against Itself
(1993). Revel’s only notable characteristics are that he
is passionately pro-U.S. and anti-left; his books are intellectually vacuous.
But he is a Times Frenchperson of choice, and all five of his books
have been accorded reviews. One of my favorite issues of the NYTBR—that
of December 9, 1984—had a flattering review of Revel’s How Democracies
Perish
by British Labour Party turncoat David Owen, with a photo and
supplementary flattering note by Richard Bernstein, who referred to Revel as
“unfashionably pro-American.” This issue of the NYTBR also had a
positive review by Aaron Wildavsky of Freedom With Justice, by Michael
Novak, the American Enterprise Institute’s religious philosopher, this also
accompanied by a photo of Novak along with a brief history of his traversal
from left to right by Robert Pear.


In contrast with these
worthies, the Times is less friendly to home folks like Herbert
Schiller and Noam Chomsky, and the unfriendliness extends to editorial and
news as well as books. Schiller, who is world renowned and perhaps the leading
U.S. media critic of the left, has never had a book reviewed in the Times
or an opinion column in the paper. His classic Mass Communication and
American Empire
(1969, updated in 1992), harshly critical of U.S. policy,
also differed from Revel’s work in mobilizing many little known facts and
advancing an original analysis. The themes of his book Culture, Inc.
(1989), were sharply at odds with the views of Richard Bernstein who dominates
and threatens culture. As in the case of Chomsky, Schiller provides a powerful
alternative perspective on the issues addressed, so that keeping both of them
from public view fits the same agenda as giving substantial space to a Revel.


Chomsky has had a number of
books reviewed in the Times over the past 30 years, but neither his
remarkable study of Middle East issues The Fateful Triangle (1983), nor
any of his four major political writings of the past decade (Necessary
Illusions, Year 501, Deterring Democracy
, and World Orders Old And New)
were reviewed. He has never had an Op Ed column in the paper (although in 1972
the editors ran some paragraphs of his testimony on the Vietnam war given
before a senate committee).


An underrated form of Times
book review bias, and one that also displays a porous Chinese wall, is that
accorded Times staff. Books by Gina Kolata, Michael Gordon, Henry Kamm,
David Shipler, David Binder, Barbara Crossette, Peter Passell, Sylvia Nasar,
Joseph Lelyveld, Judith Miller, and others are regularly reviewed, and while
some of these books may be worthy the overall pattern strongly suggests
preferential treatment. For example, on political correctness and the culture
wars, the Times reviewed favorably Richard Bernstein’s Dictatorship
of Virtue,
but ignored the important critical works by John Wilson (The
Myth of Political Correctness
[1995] and Herbert Schiller [Culture,
Inc.
]). Current reporter Michael Gordon’s and former reporter Bernard
Trainor’s book on the Persian Gulf war, The General’s War (1995)
was reviewed favorably in both the daily and Sunday papers; and Times
reporter Roger Cohen’s and Claudio Gatti’s biography of General H. Norman
Schwarzkopf, In the Eye of the Storm (1991), as well as Judith
Miller’s and Laurie Mylroie’s Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf
(1990) were also given positive reviews. But superior and critical books on
the war like Hamid Mowlana’s, George Gerbner’s and Herbert Schiller’s Triumph
of the Image
(1992), and Douglas Kellner’s The Persian Gulf TV War (1992),
were ignored.


On the Central American wars,
Times insiders Stephen Kinzer’s Blood of Brothers (1984) and
Shirley Christian’s Revolution in the Family (1985) were each given
two friendly reviews, and Clifford Krauss’s Inside Central America (1991)
was also reviewed, but seriously critical books were ignored: in addition to
those named earlier, the paper never reviewed Richard White’s The Morass
(1984), Edward Herman’s and Frank Brodhead’s Demonstration Elections
(1984), Michael McClintock’s two-volume The American Connection
(1985), and Michael Klare and Peter Kornbluh’s Low Intensity Warfare
(1988). Even Penny Lernoux’s moving and well documented Cry of the People
(1980) was unreviewed, although the paper did list it as an outstanding
work of non-fiction. Perhaps the book’s subtitle—“United States
Involvement in the Rise of Fascism, Torture, and Murder and the Persecution of
the Catholic Church in Latin America”—was more than the editors could
tolerate.


Of course the insiders’
books tend to fit the political biases of the editors, which makes it easier
to give them the preferences they received. In fact, the same reporters whose
books are reviewed by the Times also do a great deal of the reviewing
of other people’s books in the same field, so that the wall is breached and
a common perspective is realized by this route as well.
                                       
Z