September 10, 2013
Rachel Maddow tends bar at an MSNBC event. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Rachel Maddow tends bar at an MSNBC event. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Second of a two-part series on MSNBC host Rachel Maddow’s review of Andrew Bacevich’s book “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.

Not long after her discursive introduction to the review of Andrew Bacevich’s book “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country” in the New York Times Book Review, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow throws in a rather striking parenthetical: “(I should mention here that Bacevich blurbed my own book, ‘Drift.’)” Accurate: In 2012, the Maddow title “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power” hit the market, complete with this endorsement from Bacevich:

Here’s this conservative’s assessment of Rachel Maddow’s Drift: It’s scathingly funny, deeply insightful, and informed throughout by a deep and abiding sense of patriotism. Bravo, Rachel!”

Routine stuff, as blurbs go. But still, a blurb is a towering favor with business and financial implications: It helps the author sell her book. How does the New York Times Book Review justify such a conflict? Thoughtfully, as it turns out. Here’s Pamela Paul, the book review’s editor:

We always ask potential reviewers to disclose any possible conflict of interest (whether that means having attended the same dinner party or having appeared together on a panel) before making an assignment. We also do not allow a reviewer to take on a book by an author whose work he or she has previously reviewed for us. If there has been any previous interaction between author and reviewer, then, based on our own assessment of the situation (sometimes we judge the relationship too close or otherwise compromised), we ask if they think they can approach a book under consideration fairly. If they can, we stipulate that anything that could be perceived as a potential conflict is addressed forthrightly in the review. We are not trying to hide anything, and believe our reviewers when they say they are able to judge the work on its merits. This has long been the policy at the Book Review.

There are certainly times when a reviewer is unusually well-suited to take on a particular book, and we feel the resulting review will be of value and of interest to our readers, that as long as we are transparent about anything that could be perceived as a conflict, it is worth going forward. This was the case with Maddow on Bacevich.

Bolded text added to highlight the policy’s Achilles’ heel. People, even the smart and fastidious people reviewing books for the New York Times, are poor judges of their own incorruptibility. They just cannot do it, no matter what.

Consider, too, that Maddow has had Bacevich on her show as a guest. According to Nexis, the Boston University professor appeared on “The Rachel Maddow Show” in 2011 and 2010. Both times, Maddow plugged another of his books — “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.” Such appearances were discussed. Paul writes, “Maddow did let us know that he’d been on her show, but so many people go on all the TV talk/news/debate shows at this point; it didn’t strike us as necessarily grounds for conflict. In our judgment, the blurbing might be perceived as the more significant conflict and so chose to acknowledge that in the review. After taking all this into account, we believed she would be able to write an incisive review without pre-judgment. I thought she did an excellent job.”

When the Erik Wemple Blog inquired as to whether Maddow had had any concerns about her own objectivity, MSNBC spokeswoman Lauren Skowronski responded, “There was an explicit acknowledgement in the review that Bacevich had blurbed ‘Drift.’ And (obviously) NYT knew about the blurb before they asked Maddow to write the review.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.