Updating readers on reviewed books
When a book on the history of gun ownership in America is published by a mainstream press, you can bet it's going to get some attention Â- especially if it suggests a contentious interpretation of the Second Amendment and reports that Americans have only relatively recently taken to firearms.Skip to next paragraph
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That's what happened with "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture," which hit stores in 2000 and has since drawn great praise and great criticism. At its high point, it won the Bancroft award, a prestigious history honor, in 2001. But it's been downhill since, with academics, journalists, and the public scrutinizing author Michael Bellesiles's sourcing, particularly with regard to probate records, and finding it sloppy. Emory University, the author's employer, announced in February that it is conducting a formal inquiry.
That's not a big surprise at a time when historians, dogged by issues of accuracy, are being held to higher standards. But some people are now taking that accountability a step further, asking what responsibility newspapers have to tell readers when doubts arise about the substance of a book they've reviewed.
Two weeks ago, a column on the Fox News website took issue with several newspapers and publications for not reporting subsequent charges against the book after they ran positive reviews.
"Some editors might say that, by now, their reviews of Bellesiles's book are old news Â- but of course, as the research for this piece demonstrates, they are readily available on the Internet or via other electronic research services. And one would think that book-review editors and publishers would feel an obligation to tell the public that it has been led astray, with their unwitting assistance," wrote Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee.
According to Mr. Reynolds's research, the publications that have told readers about the book's recently alleged errors include The New York Times (though not in its book-review section), The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Others, such as the Monitor (until now), the New York Review of Books, and the Atlantic Monthly, have not.
A number of readers Â- prompted in some cases by the Fox News column Â- have written to publications (including the Monitor) and questioned why they haven't retracted their reviews or at least alerted their audiences to the problems with the book.
Many publications don't have a great track record with following up on stories, and Tom Rosenstiel at the Project for Excellence in Journalism says that papers should at least be expected to report something about the debate over the book. But, he adds, "controversy doesn't equal debunking. The controversy has to sort itself out completely."
That's what Steve Wasserman, editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, is waiting for. "We at the Book Review haven't done anything yet because the charges against [Bellesiles] have yet to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. ... If it turns out he's manufactured all of this, I will reevaluate what, if anything, we should do."
A short article announcing Emory's formal inquiry did run in a news section in the Los Angeles Times in February.
Part of the debate is over what reviewers and editors are expected to know about a book when they are reviewing it. History books, for example, often create controversy, and their theories are later picked apart by scholars. That's how it should work, says Mr. Rosenstiel, who argues book reviews shouldn't be expected to do the work of academics, but are there to point out books that are notable.
Historians who review for mainstream publications say they couldn't check all the facts even if they wanted to, as it would be too time-consuming. These scholars also say they operate under a code that the work they are looking at is not distorted or manufactured, notes Gerard DeGroot, chairman of the Modern History Department at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, who reviewed the Bellesiles book for the Monitor. Book publishers also rely on authors to check their own facts. Mr. Wasserman has worked at a number of publishing houses and says, "Fact checking, alas, is spotty at best."
In the case of the Bellesiles book, his publisher, Knopf, said in a statement that the book had been reviewed by several prominent historians, and also by Emory, before its release. Factual mistakes have been corrected for subsequent editions, according to Knopf, which adds that the majority of issues raised have been ones of interpretation.
Bellesiles has also spent time defending the book, creating a website and writing for historical publications such as the Organization of American Historians, and The William and Mary Quarterly Â- pointing out that fewer than five paragraphs in a 444-page book deal with the disputed probate materials. He was unavailable for comment for this column.
Despite such efforts, fact-checking issues still weigh on Karen Sandstrom, the Plain Dealer's book review editor. She wrote a column in December about the controversy and the gap between what a book says and a critic's ability to confirm its conclusions. "Part of our job ... is being consumer advocates, and we are not doing that if we are passing along bad information," she says.
She points to cases in which books were investigated and didn't check out. She is encouraging her reviewers to at least make one fact-checking phone call for nonfiction books. In her column she wrote, "We can't re-report a 300-page book, but we can ask a question or two, which might alert us to bigger problems."