The heat is on for the New York Times to do an examination on how its reporters (or more accurately, book reviewer and free-lance writer) completely bought into the false story perpetuated by Margaret Jones/ Seltzer.
Some people are calling for the Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt to examine whether Jones’s book got extensive coverage since its editor, Sarah McGrath, was a daughter of Charles McGrath, the former editor of the Book Review.
“What the Times has not really done is deal effectively with the big ugly toad squatting on the center square of this story...The New York Times,” writes Hartfort Courant reporter Colin McEnroe.
"Seltzer's book got the kind of ride from the Times that authors dream of. A rave in a featured daily review by alpha critic Michiko Kakutani and then a truly gushy piece in the House and Home section. How did it get that kind of star-making treatment?
One has to think it has something to do with Seltzer's editor, Sarah McGrath, who worked for three years on this book without ever noticing that it was 100 percent hooey and who is the daughter of Times writer-at-large Charles McGrath. In identifying papa this way, the Times kind of covers up who he really is -- the editor emeritus of the Times Book Review. So, Mr. Hoyt, one thing I would like you to look into is how many times Mr. McGrath slouched into this or that office around the building and suggested that a little more than usual could be done for this book by one of Sarah's authors. "Never" would be a wonderful answer.”
I remember when I was an intern reporter at the Fremont Argus, way back in 1982. One of the veteran reporters was profiling a guy for a routine story. But he checked the guy’s credentials anyway, going as far as calling his college to confirm that he had graduated when he said he had.
I was impressed by that level of care and tried to emulate it whenever possible. You would be surprised by how often people distort the innocuous details of their lives.
That said, I don’t think it was Michiko Kakutani’s role to fact check the book. The feature reporter who wrote the piece for the Home section should have done some fact-checking. Unfortunately, she was a freelancer which meant she was trying to do the piece in a timely fashion so as to maintain a decent work to pay ratio. When you are not on staff, you can’t be expected to be as thorough as a regular reporter. And the Home section is not intended to be a bastion of hard-hitting journalism.That leaves the publisher, Riverhead. Acquiring editors are usually so pressed for time they don’t investigate prospective authors. They want to establish a good relationship, not an adversarial one. But clearly an interim step is needed with memoir. Why can’t the publisher ask a writer to provide documentation to back up key elements of a story? It can be submitted shortly after a manuscript is delivered.