Undisclosed conflict in a review of Jon Krakauer's book on Pat Tillman

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By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, November 15, 2009

A review in a major publication such as The Post can influence whether a new book sinks or soars. So when Post book editors assign a review, they look for writers who are knowledgeable and unbiased.

That impartiality is so important that The Post's contract with reviewers requires them to disclose even the "possibility" of "an appearance of a conflict of interest."

But the no-conflict clause was violated recently, prompting a well-established author to charge that partiality led to a negative review of his highly anticipated book.

Jon Krakauer's "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman" tells the well-known story of the pro football player who put his NFL career on hold after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, joined the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment and died fighting in Afghanistan. Krakauer focuses heavily on the military's original concealment that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire and suggests that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, now the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, was part of a coverup.

To review the book, The Post chose Andrew M. Exum, a fellow with the Center for a New American Security. He was familiar with Afghanistan, having twice served there as an Army officer. His review appeared in the Sept. 13 Outlook section, about a month after he got the assignment. It said Krakauer's book "falls flat." While not addressing McChrystal's role, Exum concluded that "otherwise competent commanders" had made a "series of disastrous and incomprehensibly stupid decisions" in failing to promptly reveal the true cause of Tillman's death.

What was not disclosed in the review was that Exum has a close relationship with McChrystal, whom he recently described in his blog as "one of the finest men I have ever known." In June and July, he served as an unpaid civilian adviser to McChrystal in Afghanistan. While the Post review noted that Exum had been a "civilian adviser" there this year, it didn't say he was advising the general.

Krakauer is angry. He told me that because Exum is "enthralled" with McChrystal, he wrote a "willfully deceptive" review that protected him.

Krakauer raised the issue with Book World editor Rachel Hartigan Shea, who investigated. Last Monday she e-mailed Krakauer that Exum had acknowledged serving as "an unpaid adviser to McChrystal over the summer. He should have disclosed this to us at the outset." In a correction published Wednesday, The Post said the review should have mentioned the connection.

But Exum said his role with McChrystal was so obvious that he assumed Post book editors were aware of it. He cited a July 31 Post front-page story in which he was identified as a member of the "assessment team" making military strategy recommendations to McChrystal. And in the weeks immediately before receiving the Post assignment, his advisory role had been noted in numerous mainstream media stories or broadcast interviews.

Indeed, he said he believed the heavy media exposure was precisely why The Post asked him to review the book. "It was all over the news that I had been in Afghanistan" advising McChrystal, he said.

Shea said she is somewhat sympathetic to Exum's explanation. But she said she told Exum that Post book editors assign reviews across a "broad range of subjects" and that they can't monitor the "ins and outs of every field."

The small Book World staff -- three full-time editors and one who works part-time -- selects from hundreds of titles each week and assigns about 900 book reviews annually. They rely mostly on freelance reviewers.


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