Letter to the NY Times ombudsman


Posted to www.marxmail.org on January 24, 2004


Dear Daniel Okrent,


Although writing to you about unfairness in the NY Times is a lot like pressing the "close door" button in an elevator that is not connected to anything but acts as a kind of placebo for impatient passengers, I am moved to write something in light of three recent reviews in your august publication.


On January 4th, Samantha Powers ripped Noam Chomsky's "Hegemony or Survival" as a "raging" and "meandering" book with faulty footnotes. One wonders if Ms. Powers was the best choice for this assignment, since she is a long-standing ideological opponent of his point-of-view as illustrated by the inclusion of her article in "The Fight Is for Democracy: Winning the War of Ideas in America and the World" along with Paul Berman and Kenan Makiya. One wonders if the NY Times would assign Tariq Ali to review a book by Paul Berman or Kenan Makiya, if you gather my drift.


Speaking of Tariq Ali, his latest book on Iraq, as well as a batch of other books critical of US foreign policy, is trashed in tomorrow's NY Times. I guess this amounts to killing 6 birds with one stone. Reviewer Serge Schmemann, an editor of your subsidiary the International Herald Tribune, writes:


"Though I have lived abroad for many years and regard myself as hardened to anti-Americanism, I confess I was taken aback to have my country depicted, page after page, book after book, as a dangerous empire in its last throes, as a failure of democracy, as militaristic, violent, hegemonic, evil, callous, arrogant, imperial and cruel."


Did you recruit Schmemann because A.M. Rosenthal is no longer employed by the NY Times? I can't imagine a more hostile reviewer. He comes across as a mixture of the dotty Major Gowen on the old Fawlty Towers show and Norman Podhoretz. Oh well, I presume the choice wasn't accidental. It wasn't like the Book Review editor was looking through his rolodex and had to make up his mind between Schmemann and Naomi Klein. Right?


And in today's NY Times, there's a review of Bruce Cumings's new book on North Korea that reviewer Stephen Kotkin regards as "served up with liberal doses of anti-American-imperialism castor oil and North Korean sugar tablets." It is difficult to imagine anybody wanting to fork over $24.95 for such a book, which is obviously the NY Times's intention. It would probably be asking too much to find a reviewer who has not written countless articles and books from a conventional Sovietologist standpoint. With a review ending with the gratuitous observation that "The end of Communism is a protracted process," one is left with the feeling of a lily being gilded. Or more aptly, poison ivy being soaked in an arsenic solution.


Here is my suggestion to you, although I feel rather like a child writing Santa Claus asking for a gift. Why not designate one day a month for impartial reviews of books critical of US foreign policy, like the last Sunday? Saturday is reserved for challenging crossword puzzles and reviews of crummy direct-to-video movies, so there is a precedent for this. If you need the names of qualified leftists or even reviewers who do not salivate like Pavlov's dogs when they see a book with a title like "Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq," please do not hesitate to get in touch.