One-Minute Book Reviews

May 21, 2012

Ethics Go on Vacation in Nancy Pearl’s ‘Great Summer Reads’ for NPR

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:15 pm
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[Update, May 24: After this post appeared, NPR acknowledged Nancy Pearl's conflict of interest in a note that appears at the top of her post at http://bit.ly/NPRconf.]

A librarian doesn’t tell listeners about her financial ties to one of her “great summer reads”

By Janice Harayda

You expect some objectivity when you tune into a report on books by a regular commentator on NPR. You know that authors who appear on a broadcast are usually there to promote their work and gain financial benefits. But you assume that an experienced host or commentator will provide the professional distance needed to maintain credibility for the nationwide network of radio stations.

Think again. The latest meltdown of ethics at NPR involves the librarian Nancy Pearl, the author of Book Lust and a regular commentator for the network. In January Pearl drew fire from independent booksellers when she said she had signed a deal with Amazon to write the introductions and other material for about six novels a year in series called “Book Lust Rediscoveries.” She just made that situation worse.

Today Pearl released on the NPR website and on its “Morning Edition” a list of seven “great summer reads” from among the thousands of books that will appear this spring or summer. And – you guessed it – one of her favorites is the first book in the series from which she stands to make money under her Amazon deal. Equally disturbing is her failure to spell out her conflict of interest clearly. Pearl says coyly on the NPR site that A Gay and Melancholy Sound is “the first book brought back into print as part of the Book Lust Rediscoveries series.” She doesn’t mention her financial link to it.

This lack of disclosure betrays the trust of the millions of people who tune in to “Morning Edition” and other NPR shows. It may also violate Federal Trade Commission disclosure rules. The FTC rules say that bloggers or online endorsers must disclose “the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.” Pearl appears to have a “material connection” to Amazon (“the seller of the product” she endorsed) that she did not disclose. And it’s hard not to wonder if that isn’t exactly what the online retailer was hoping for when it signed her to a deal.

Pearl’s failure to tell the full story of her involvement with A Gay and Melancholy Sound seems also to flout NPR ethics codes. Those guidelines note that “partial truths can inflict great damage on our credibility, and stories delivered without the context to fully understand them are incomplete.” Pearl has told NPR listeners a partial truth about her “great summer reads,” and NPR should respond by amending its website and broadcasting a correction about her financial tie to a product she enthusiastically recommended. NPR can foster only cynicism about its work by asking people to believe that from among the thousands of books Pearl could have chosen, one her seven favorites is the one most likely to put money in her pocket.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former book editor the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 31, 2011

Judgment and Disclosure Lapses at the New York Times Book Review

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:58 pm
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By Janice Harayda

In October the sponsor of the National Book Awards did a favor for Oregon Public Broadcasting, an independently run member of NPR. The National Book Foundation allowed OPB to carry the live announcement of the 2011 finalists — and benefit from any related boost in ratings or traffic to its site — instead of a for-profit station.

So you might wonder why the New York Times Book Review assigned a review of the fiction winner, Salvage the Bones, to Parul Sehgal, the books editor of NPR.org. Wouldn’t that create the appearance of a conflict of interest by giving an NPR employee the opportunity to return a favor the National Book Foundation did for an NPR member? If so, shouldn’t the NYTBR have disclosed the link between the awards program and NPR?

You might think so. And there’s more. Before the awards ceremony, Sehgal praised Salvage the Bones on the NPR site. She called Jesmyn Ward’s tale of Hurricane Katrina one of five “splendid books” shortlisted for the fiction prize, admiring its “pitch-perfect collisions of character and fate that endow it with the scope and impact of classical tragedy.” After the novel won, she reaffirmed her high opinion of it on The Millions, where she wrote: “Salvage the Bones is every bit as good as they say it is.” So it’s no surprise that in the Jan. 1 New York Times Book Review, Sehgal again celebrates the book: “Salvage the Bones … is a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written.” After all, she’s told us twice before that she likes it.

What is a surprise is that the NYTBR assigned the review not just to a critic employed by NPR but to one who had made her views on the novel well known. Did the editors believe that no other critic could review the book as well? Sehgal is the most recent winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing and was certainly well qualified to review the novel. But so were many other critics, including a half dozen or more recipients of the same honor. Was the Times trying to stack the deck in favor of a good review?

Newspapers often reprint reviews that have appeared in other papers or on wire services such as the AP, just as many bloggers self-syndicate by allowing their reviews to appear on multiple sites. These practices are widely accepted in part because they typically involve no effort to rig the jury. An editor of a paper or site simply reprints what exists. It’s also common for critics to review new books by authors whose earlier work they have praised, and more than 3 in 4 critics see nothing wrong with the practice, according an NBCC ethics survey.

But it’s highly unusual for a major newspaper to permit a critic to review a new book that he or she has lavishly praised for a substantial national audience, and it may be unprecedented at the New York Times Book Review. In the case of Salvage the Bones, the results are confusing: Sehgal seems to imply on the NPR site that the book is “pitch-perfect.” But she says of its author in her Times review: “She never uses one metaphor when she can use three, and too many sentences grow waterlogged and buckle.” None of this is intended to slight Sehgal – whose ethics and professionalism are, to my knowledge, unquestioned – but it creates the suspicion that the Times hoped to ensure a favorable review choosing her.

All of this raises questions of fairness – to readers, to authors, and to publishers. Everyone benefits when books receive as many reviews as possible from open-minded critics, because each reviewer offers a unique perspective. The situation might be different if the posts that Sehgal wrote before her Times review had been straight news stories that contained no opinion and consisited of, say, an announcement of its shortlisting and plot summary. But words like “splendid,” “pitch-perfect” and “as good as they say” involve value judgments, not facts, and the NPR description of the novel is indistinguishable from a brief review even if not labeled as such.

It’s hard to believe that the Times would have allowed Sehgal to review Salvage the Bones if she had criticized the book as strongly as she praised it on the NPR and the Millions sites. Readers would have complained that the paper showed an unfair bias in assigning a review of the novel to a critic known to dislike the book. Why wasn’t it equally unfair of the Times to assign a review to a critic known to like it?

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

March 23, 2009

Prairie Home Companion’s ‘Pretty Good Joke Book’

Filed under: Humor — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:49 am
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A sequel to "Pretty Good Jokes."

“Hard to believe that he beat out a million other sperm.”
– From the Pretty Good Joke Book

On the Saturday children’s reviews on this site, I’ve said that joke books can make wonderful gifts for children, especially for 5-to-9-year-olds. But joke books can also be good gifts for adults.

One that might appeal to many families is the Pretty Good Joke Book (Highbridge, 2000), introduced by Garrison Keillor, which collects hundreds of the jokes told on the “Joke Show” segment of Prairie Home Companion and has had a variety of sequels and editions, including one on CD. All entries were wholesome enough for National Public Radio. (Even the “adults-only” and “totally tasteless” sections look like monuments to good taste next to the workof comedians like Denis Leary and Jim Norton.) The jokes fall into 30 categories, including bar, insult, lawyer, religion, musician, yo’mama and Iowa and Minnesota jokes. And though some trade on the sex-role or other stereotypes found on any drugstore greeting-card rack, it’s hard to fault those that anyone might have occasion to use, such as: “Hard to believe that he beat out a million other sperm.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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