Ethics & Public Policy Center

Oh Yeah? Says Who?

Published in Wall Street Journal, page W11 on January 14, 2005



The other day my colleague George Weigel, author of Witness to Hope, the best-selling biography of Pope John Paul II, came into my office to read an excerpt from an advance notice in The Kirkus Review of his new book, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America and Politics Without God, due out in April.

After a generally favorable preamble (“Weigel’s pithy polemic boldly assesses contemporary Europe”), the anonymous reviewer adds the following: “But Weigel sprinkles his own conservative Catholicism so readily throughout the text that readers who might have been persuaded by the contours of his argument may well dismiss him as a right-wing nut.”

Well, some readers anyway. The reviewer is probably not alone in holding this opinion of a distinguished author whose political views differ from his own, but it is hardly an impartial one. Why, then, is the reviewer allowed to hide his face in the cloak of anonymity?

The Kirkus Review is one of two trade magazines for publishers and booksellers that employ anonymous reviewers. The other, much larger, one is Publishers Weekly. Both have licensing agreements with Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, so that not only booksellers but also many ordinary book buyers will be guided by the opinions of, well, who exactly? A librarian in Dubuque? A schoolteacher in Detroit? A graduate student at Duquesne? Whoever else it may be, it is unlikely to be a world authority on the subject, as writers are paid about $50 per review.

As it happens, PW has just brought into its circle a new editor in chief, Sara Nelson, who claims to have plans for revitalizing the magazine. She might want to revisit this scandalous and long-lamented policy of anonymity, although it’s not hard to see why she might, in a Bartleby vein, prefer not to.

There are nearly 500 books a day published in America, or enough in a year to fill an average-size college library. No one could possibly read reviews of them all, let alone the books themselves. Even the team of Stakhanovite readers at Publishers Weekly can cover only about 10,000 books a year.

Faced with this annual tsunami of literature, we all must grasp at any bit of solid support that comes to hand. We have no choice but to seek advice. That’s one reason why Publishers Weekly and Kirkus cling to their policy of anonymity: It suggests a magisterial, objective, authoritative source, unsullied by personal biases.

Yet the opinions actually on offer in these magazines are every bit as quirky, perverse and prone to bias as they are in publications where the writers must take responsibility for what they say. And as the experience of Mr. Weigel and other “right-wing nuts” reminds us, the magazines’ politics tend to be predictably liberal.

Thus Sen. Robert Byrd’s dyspeptic election-year attack on President Bush was described as “a searing criticism, informed by Byrd’s knowledge of history, leavened with his vast experience and written with his legendary rhetorical flourish,” while P.J. O’Rourke’s latest was described in the same issue of PW as “irreverent, in-your-face and often offensive” and containing “slightly skewed reporting.”

Eric Alterman and others “exhaustively diagnose corporate-owned media,” and Lewis Lapham (“a modern-day Tom Paine”) writes “a compelling book” about “the complicity of the media in its support of the steady erosion of individual civil liberties in the name of national security.” But L. Brent Bozell’s attack on the liberal media, “Weapons of Mass Distortion,” offers a thesis that “nearly requires that he present a partial picture.”

Does that sound familiar? It makes me think of Dan Rather labeling as “partisans” those who called attention to his fraudulent report on President Bush’s National Guard service during the recent election campaign. As if he’s not a partisan himself.

What the mantle of journalistic “objectivity” was to Dan Rather that of anonymity is to the reviewers of PW and Kirkus. Both, too, are relics of what we may call the unitary culture — or, to put it another way, a time when politics was of little or no relevance, in nearly everyone’s eyes save those of the most committed Marxists, to reporting the news or assessing the worth of a book.

The same culture also once produced something called “the general reader” for whom gate-keepers like the Book of the Month Club or the Literary Guild used to cater. This week declining numbers of subscribers led to the announcement by the Book of the Month Club that it was discontinuing the panel of judges it appointed in 2001 as successors to the likes of Clifton Fadiman, whose guidance the general reader relied on for so many years during the club’s heyday.

In other words, the era of the unitary culture is over. And the pretense of some among the literary elites that they can behave as if it were not over by simply ignoring conservatives — or treating their views as if they were faults of writing, thinking or researching — should be treated like the now-established bias of CBS News.

It could be argued that the death knell of the unitary culture was sounded in 1974 when John Gross, then the editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London, ended the policy of anonymity that had been in place for the first 72 years of the paper’s existence.

“The case against anonymity is a relatively simple one,” wrote Mr. Gross at the time. “There are many occasions on which a reader is entitled to ask on what authority a judgment or opinion is being advanced. There are even occasions when the whole import of a review depends on knowing the identity of the reviewer. Above all, critics should be prepared to be held directly responsible for what they write….I feel that the principle of accountability comes first.”

This view was not universally applauded. When the subject had been mooted on an earlier occasion, no less a figure than T.S. Eliot had risen to the defense of anonymity. In writing anonymously for the TLS, he himself had learned, he said, “to moderate my dislikes and crochets, to write in a temperate and impartial way; I learnt that some things are permissible when they appear over one’s name, which become tasteless eccentricity or unseemly violence when unsigned.”

That’s just what the anonymous reviewers of today, brought up in the “culture wars” of the past 30 years, seem no longer to feel the need of learning. That’s why Sara Nelson at PW should take a leaf out of John Gross’s book and put a name next to the opinion.

—Mr. Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

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