Monday, October 5, 2015

New York Times definition of the week: "full-fledged investigation" = one Google search UPDATED

Brad DeLong has a very good overview of the ethical train wreck surrounding the New York Times review of Niall Ferguson’s Kissinger biography, but there's one aspect of the story that I think deserves more attention.

 Here's a quick recap (pay close attention to the dates).

Things started with the NYT assigning the review of conservative historian Ferguson's book to the remarkably like-minded Roberts, thus making a positive review quite a bit more likely.

Niall Ferguson’s ‘Kissinger. Volume I. 1923-1968: The Ideal­ist’

That would probably been enough to raise some eyebrows, but it turns out that the connection between Ferguson, Roberts and Kissinger went a bit deeper than that. The outcry prompted the paper to append this to the review:

Editors’ Note: October 2, 2015

After this review of the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s authorized biography of Henry Kissinger was published, editors learned that the reviewer, Andrew Roberts, had initially been approached by a publisher to write the biography himself; he says he turned the offer down for personal reasons, and Ferguson was eventually enlisted to undertake the task. In addition, Roberts and Ferguson were credited as co-authors of a chapter contributed to a book edited by Ferguson and first published in 1997 (Roberts describes their relationship as professional and friendly, but not close). Had editors been aware of these connections, they would have been disclosed in the review.

It was also the subject of a column by the New York Times public editor.

Conflicts and Kissinger: A Tale of Two Book Reviews

October 2, 2015

In the italic identification line appearing with his review of a new biography of Henry Kissinger, Andrew Roberts is described only as “the Lehrman Institute distinguished fellow at the New-York Historical Society.” And that is true.

But Mr. Roberts also seems to have what many reasonable people would consider a conflict of interest as a reviewer: He was Mr. Kissinger’s earlier choice to write his authorized biography, according to an interview with a United Kingdom newspaper, The Scotsman.

The Times Book Review editor, Pamela Paul, told me Thursday that she was unaware of this before the publication of a Gawker piece that makes much of that relationship and of Mr. Roberts’s acquaintance with the book’s author, Niall Ferguson.


She made the point that Book Review editors cannot realistically open full-fledged investigations into their reviewers’ backgrounds. If Mr. Roberts had told editors that he had turned down the chance to write the book himself, Ms. Paul said that it might not have disqualified him as the reviewer but that she would have had him acknowledge that information in the review.
There's a lot to discuss here, but let's just focus on the part about "full-fledged investigations." Exactly how much time would it have taken to uncover this particular issue? If I wanted to check for potential conflicts of interest between two public figures, my first thought would be to do a Google news search of both names. Obviously, search results are a moving target, but you can get a pretty good idea of what the results would have looked like by setting an appropriate date range.

When I tried this search, here was what I found in the fourth result:
Londoner's Diary: Niall Ferguson’s struggles with Kissinger’s life

    Monday 10 August 2015 15:30 BST

Ferguson, a professor at Harvard, was first mooted back in 2004 but only after Andrew Roberts backed out (and in doing so returned a £400,000 advance).

PS While most of us are familiar with Ferguson (see Andrew Gelman's comments below), Robert's record, though remarkably similar in style and substance, is less well-known. This will give you some idea why the New York Times decision to assign him the Ferguson/Kissinger review was so questionable.

From Wikipedia:
Although Roberts's 2006 work A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900 won critical acclaim from some sections of the media,[20][21] The Economist drew attention to some historical, geographical and typographical errors,[22] as well presenting a generally scathing review of the book. The news-magazine referred to the work as "a giant political pamphlet larded with its author's prejudices".[22]

One claim made by Roberts in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900 was that Harvard historian Caroline Elkins had committed "blood libels against Britain" in her Pulitzer prize-winning book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya.[23] Elkins was subsequently vindicated when files released by the National Archives showed that abuses were described as "distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia" by the Solicitor General of the time.[24] The Foreign Secretary William Hague subsequently announced compensation for the first round of victims with statements that the British government "recognises that Kenyans were subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment" and "sincerely regrets that these abuses took place" during the Kenya Emergency.[25][26]

Controversial journalist Johann Hari alleged that Roberts' writings defended the Amritsar massacre, the concentration camps for Afrikaners during the Anglo-Boer War and mass internments in Ireland. Hari also wrote that Roberts addressed the expatriate South African Springbok Club that flies the pre-1994 South African national flag and calls for "the re-establishment of civilised rule throughout the African continent".[27] Roberts responded by saying that he did not realise the Springbok Club was racist when he took on the speaking engagement.


  1. In this case, I must admit that the piece I find the most surprising is the reviewer not mentioning the link. The modern custom seems to be a work it into the piece as "an aside", possibly humorous, rather than to give a formal conflict of interest statement.

    I am curious why the reviewer in question did not do so on this occasion. In some ways it makes them more qualified to review, as there is always a trade-off in a reviewer between independence and familiarity.

  2. I bow to no one in my distaste for Niall Ferguson, but my guess on this one is that the difficulty is not in doing the google search but in thinking about doing the search in the first place.

    Consider a common scenario in life. You plan to meet some friends at your favorite restaurant at a specified time and date. It's a casual restaurant that never requires reservations. You get there and it's closed--they have a special function that night! Damn. If only you'd thought to call ahead. But you didn't think to call, so you didn't. Perhaps this is what happened here: the editors didn't think about conflict of interest. So the point is not that they need to do more thorough searches; rather, the question is whether such conflicts occur often enough to require such routine checking.

    1. Just to be clear, my issue is not with Roberts' failure to disclose or with the NYT's failure to investigate. I consider the conflict of interest here trivial. This is a right wing ideologue's review of a right wing ideologue's AUTHORIZED biography of Kissinger. I can't think of any personal relationship that would make the man fawn any harder.

      If the editor had said “it's a minor problem” or “it hardly ever comes up” or “we like to trust our reviewers,” I would be perfectly cool with it. All three are valid, reasonable arguments.

      But that's not what the editor said. She said she couldn't “realistically” do this. That's simply not true. It's a five minute process. She could do it for every review (or hand it off to an intern). I'm not saying that she should, but I am saying that, if she chooses not to, she should accurately describe it as a policy decision or a judgment call or just an oversight and not claim that it was out of her hands.

    2. Mark:

      I agree. I think it would've been better for the editor to just say, "We didn't think of checking for a conflict of interest." But maybe that wouldn't have sounded so good.

      Also, I wouldn't call Ferguson a right-wing ideologue. I think "conservative" is more accurate than "right-wing," and I think "hack" is more accurate than "ideologue." The difference is that I think Ferguson says what he wants people to hear--that's him being a hack. Yes, he has strong political convictions, but I think a lot of the things he say don't quite fit into the "ideologue" label. For example his remarks on Keynes: lots of conservatives think Keynes is overrated, but it took Ferguson to slur Keynes on the grounds of his being a poof, something I suspect Ferguson said because he thought it was cute and clever and because he thought his audience would appreciate it. In that particular case, Ferguson was wrong on both counts (unless we have a pretty low threshold for cute and clever), which just demonstrates the challenges of being a hack--you have to continually calibrate to all your audiences. If Ferguson were a mere ideologue, all would be simpler.

  3. Really, I do not have very much to say. The New York Times book review is supposed to be worth reading because of their expertise in choosing the right reviewer is to review the right books. I see no signs that there is any such expertise. Come to think of it, I cannot remember any time in the past when there was. I have been impressed at how often the New York review of books gets the right person to review the right book. I cannot remember thinking the same about the New York Times book review...

    Brad DeLong