Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Will the New York Times Investigate its Role in the Margaret Jones/Seltzer Flap?

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.


Anonymous said...

Who better than Times reporter Motoko Rich to spin this story?

Frankly, I wasn't at all surprised to see Charles "Chip" McGrath identified by Rich, disingenuously, as a Times "editor at large." Not only do Rich and McGrath sit next to each other at the Times, they are friends. Rich has frequently reported stories on McGrath's suggestion.

So did the Times break the story Monday night as a damage-control measure? Was another news organization beginning to work it, pursuing the McGrath family angle? You have to wonder... Apparently Sarah McGrath is on the kind of maternity leave from Riverhead which makes her completely unavailable for comment to reporters, except of course to the reporter who sits next to her father at work.

It really is who you know, I guess.

Frances said...

Mmmm, your comment about whether the Times was doing damage control is interesting. It is perfectly possible. I don't think the Times decided to review the book and profile Jones because of the relationship between Chip McGrath and his daughter. She edits dozens of books a year which the Times ignores. I think it is merely a matter of the media wanting to anoint someone as The NEXT Big Thing. That played a role in suspending critical thinking skill.s

Tracey said...

While the Times might have been a little more vigilant, I really think the focus should be on the book publisher not the newspaper that reviews the books. After all the recent cases of fraudulent books, basic credentials checks on authors should be mandatory. Publishers are defending themselves saying "it's not the way in book publishing" which appears to be their knee-jerk response to anything these days and just doesn't cut it anymore. I also found it strange that in the three years it took Sarah McGrath to edit the book, she never once met with its author. Surely that too should be standard procedure.

Frances said...

I completely agree that the publishing companies have to do a better job of vetting manuscripts. I suggest that authors turn in lots of corroborating information when they turn in their manuscript.

Part of it has to do with the slow pace of publishing. Everyone is overworked, apparently, yet it takes forever for books to come out. I still haven't figured it out.

Tracey said...

I don't buy the overworked argument. When you have worked in journalism you know how rapidly top-quality, thoroughly fact-checked writing can be turned around. Book publishers rather like the mystique of seeming to belong to another era. Methinks it's called the dark ages.