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January 14, 2005

"Stakhanovite"? When Did WSJ Become Red Channels?

by Ron Hogan

I've mentioned my Publishers Weekly reviewing intermittently here, so I guess I'm qualified to comment on the OpinionJournal piece attacking it and Kirkus for permissive attitudes towards anonymous anti-conservatism. Apparently James Bowman's conservative friend got a bad review from Kirkus, and it's evidence of a vast liberal conspiracy.

Bowman's first sneering shot is that your typical writer for these mags is "unlikely to be a world authority on the subject" because we come so cheap. (I'm looking at the NYT book page right now, and I'm willing to bet Bill Grimes isn't an expert on Sarajevo or war correspondence, no matter how much they're paying him.) But he's just getting started:

"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... [T]he 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."

Bowman's an extravagant redbaiter--in another passage, he calls the PW reviewers "Stakhanovite readers," which is actually wrong, since we're not getting rewarded for increasing productivity--but his McCarranite insistence that "the magazines' politics tend to be predictably liberal" doesn't necessarily hold water. Bowman points to a handful of instances in which liberals get good reviews and conservative are panned; what he doesn't tell you is that Nation reporter John Nichols' Dick Cheney biography was dubbed "an unsubtle, repetitive hammering" by the same self-described liberal PW critic who told readers that Dude, Where's My Country? proves "[Michael] Moore's arguments work best when delivered mostly straight, since he isn't always as funny as he seems to think he is." Granted, the same reviewer also once accused Dick Morris of "hysteria" and "logical gaps," but that's not because he's a conservative, it's because that book was written by an illogical hysteric.

The reviewer is, of course, me. I'm sure I've said nice things about conservatives who can write well in addition to objectively criticizing the flaws in books by liberals, but I can't think of any examples offhand, sorry. (In my defense, I can only admit that I'm as unscientific in my sampling as Bowman is in his.) What I can tell you from experience--what I probably already have told you at some point--is that I've seen PW editors bend over backwards to ensure that political opinions do not prevent individual reviewers from making a serious, objective evaluation of a given book's merits. In fact, I've probably become a better reviewer in that regard in the two years that I've written for them. What I can also tell you is that I've only ever seen this sort of accusation from conservatives; liberals who get bad reviews either seem to recognize that they might not be the greatest writers in the world or they keep their crybaby outbursts to themselves.

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