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Willful Blindness: The Sequel

The many-hatted Roger Kimball, who runs Encounter Books when he’s not running the New Criterion and writing art criticism and trying to keep the universities honest and sailing boats and God knows what else, has made an extraordinary decision: Encounter Books will no longer send review copies of its work to the New York Times Book Review. He writes:

In the last month, Encounter has had two titles on the extended New York Times best-seller list: Climate Confusion: How Global Warming Hysteria Leads to Bad Science, Pandering Politicians and Misguided Policies that Hurt the Poor by Roy Spencer, and Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad, by Andrew C. McCarthy. But that list is the only place you will find these books mentioned in the pages of The New York Times….

Once upon a time, and not that long ago, it meant something if your book was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review. A Times review imparted a vital existential certification as well as a commercial boost. Is that still the case? Less and less, I believe. The Times in general has lost influence as the paper has receded into parochial, left-liberal boosterism and politically correct reportage. And where its news and comment have become increasingly politicized, its cultural coverage has become increasingly superficial and increasingly captive of establishment, i.e., left-liberal, pieties and “lifestyle” radicalism.

Sure, a positive review in the Times still helps sell books. But it’s quite clear that books from Encounter won’t be getting those reviews, so it is pointless for us to send copies of our books to the Times—worse than pointless, because by so doing we help to perpetuate the charade that the Book Review is anything like even-handed in its treatment of conservative books. There is also this fact: the real impetus in selling books has decisively shifted away from legacy outlets like The New York Times towards the pluralistic universe of talk radio and the “blogosphere.” That is why Encounter can see its books on the Times’s bestseller list without ever making it into the paper’s review columns.

There are a few things to note about Kimball’s decision. First, it will save his firm a few thousand dollars, which isn’t nothing, and given the importance of Encounter Books in the world of ideas, every nickel counts. Second, part of the problem here, which Kimball does not note, is the slow-motion financial wreck that is the New York Times, which has had a profound impact on the number of pages the Book Review is allowed to print every week — with a corresponding drop in the number of books reviewed.

Third, I hope Kimball’s missive will awaken those on the Right from the dream they had that Sam Tanenhaus’s appointment a few years ago to the editorship of the Book Review heralded a hopeful new day for conservative books. Tanenhaus wrote a terrific biography of Whittaker Chambers and is at work on the authorized biography of William F. Buckley, Jr. As an editor with an eye for interesting assignments and good journalism, he has revitalized the Times Book Review, which lay there like a dead fish in the decade before his appointment and is anything but these days. However, Tanenhaus is not himself a man of the Right. He’s a very good editor and a very good writer and was an inspired choice by the Times, but his own ideological predilections were apparent in a piece in the New Republic a year ago in which he used Bill Buckley’s skepticism about the Iraq War to declare the death of American conservatism with a bit of lip-smacking glee.

But what is astonishing, and indefensible, is that the Times, a newspaper in New York, failed to comment on Willful Blindness, an authoritative account of the first World Trade Center bombing and the terrorism trial that followed it — written by the lead prosecutor in the case. (An excerpt of this remarkable, layered, and beautifully written book appeared in the March issue of COMMENTARY, and can be read here.)

If memory serves, the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 took place in New York City. The trial also took place in New York City. The New York Times Book Review is published in…well, you get the idea.



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