THE BLOG

Why the New York Times Owes Maureen Dowd an Apology

As we've repeatedly seen, the New York Times is screwed up in more ways than one. Here is another log on the bonfire:

What was Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, thinking when he assigned Maureen Dowd's new book to Kathryn Harrison -- a writer who Dowd had previously slammed not in one, but two different columns?

Shouldn't bad blood be an automatic disqualifier when farming out a book -- even if it isn't by your paper's star columnist? This is Journalism 101. Has Tanenhaus not read his own paper's Ethical Journalism Guidebook?

"The Times has exceptional influence in such fields as theater, music, art, dance, publishing, fashion and the restaurant industry," reads the Guidebook. "We are constantly scrutinized for the slightest whiff of favoritism. Therefore staff members working in those areas have a special duty to guard against conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflict."

And shouldn't that cut both ways -- avoiding both "the slightest whiff of favoritism" and the overwhelming stench of score-settling?

Apparently not, because when Dowd complained to Tanenhaus about the curious choice of book reviewer, he suggested that if she didn't like criticism, she shouldn't write books, but acknowledged Harrison had admitted that she remembered having been mentioned in Dowd's columns. Even that, though, didn't raise any red flags. And no elementary Google search followed.

If it had, it would have revealed that in 1997, after Harrison hit the best-seller lists with "The Kiss," her memoir of her four-year sexual affair with her father, Dowd described Harrison's book as an example of a hot subgenre: "Creepy people talking about creepy people." In another column a few months later, Dowd included Harrison in a group of "vengeful" memoirists.

So can it really be a surprise that, given the chance, the "creepy" and "vengeful" Harrison pulled out her stiletto and carved up Dowd and Are Men Necessary??

"Like most people who work hard at seeming to be naturally funny," wrote Harrison, "Maureen Dowd comes across as someone who very much wants to be liked." She also asserted that Dowd's skill as a columnist "does not enable her to produce a book-length exploration of a topic as complex as the relations between the sexes." While screwing your father for four years gives you the perfect perspective from which to review a book on the relations between the sexes?

Talk about having an axe to grind. When it came to Dowd, Harrison turned into a regular Lizzie Borden. (Harrison is also the author of a novel titled Envy. Supply your own zinger.)

Obviously, Dowd shouldn't get special treatment from her own paper -- but shouldn't she, like any other author, be afforded protection from hostile reviewers? Payback is a bitch-slap.

So there is no question that Tanenhaus broke basic journalist rules. The question is why? Was he so interested in generating buzz for the Book Review that he decided to engineer a public thrashing of his paper's marquee columnist? For what other reason would Harrison's slice-and-dice job have been leaked to the New York tabloids days before the review hit the streets?

Tanenhaus' explanation is that the Book Review is available much earlier than the rest of the paper. But does he expect us to believe that gossip columnists regularly troll the New York Times Book Review for juicy items?

If buzz was Tanenhaus' goal –- and, much more than his predecessors, he seems to be choosing reviewers with an eye to creating buzz -- buzz is what he got. Interviewer after interviewer -- from Matt Lauer on the Today show to Bill Hammer on Fox -- has questioned the effect on Dowd (and her book sales) of having such a damning review in her own paper.

The December 4 issue of the New York Times Book Review includes among its "100 Notable Books of the Year" Are Men Necessary? But that hardly evens the score.

Note to Times Public Editor Barney Calame: this pre-ordained fragging deserves a full examination -- followed by an apology. You made the paper offer a mea culpa to Geraldo. You owe one to Maureen.