Article — From the August 2000 issue

A Court of No Appeal

How one obscure sentence upset the New York Times

In January of this year [2000], Simon & Schuster published my book Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker. I had been at The New Yorker since 1963–with an absence of about fourteen months, during which I was Bosley Crowther’s successor as the film critic of the New York Times. Although I had written for other publications, I thought I knew the magazine pretty well. The New Yorker, I wrote, is dead. I did not expect everyone to agree or to welcome my account of what happened to the magazine. Perhaps not surprisingly, the colleagues whom I had loved and admired through the years tended to share my views. Those of whom I thought less highly, and whom I portrayed less admiringly, did not.

Throughout the book, I referred to matters in the outside world, politics, travels, issues, assignments taken and not taken, discussions with William Shawn, the great editor, who, over a period of more than thirty years, naturally grew old, declined, and lost control of his magazine. A young editor whom I met in January said he thought I had treated The New Yorker as though it were the proverbial canary in a mine shaft. Its death meant something about the capacity of any living creative enterprise to survive within the culture. The thought had not crossed my mind. It has crossed my mind now.

On November 11, 1999, when my book was still in galleys, Charles McGrath, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, wrote to Simon & Schuster. McGrath had for many years been an editor at The New Yorker. I had described his tenure there in less than admiring terms. I had also raised questions about what seemed to me an inherent conflict of interest in his having assigned to himself, when he became editor of the Book Review, the review of another book in which he figured. “The other day,” McGrath now wrote, “I received the galleys of Renata Adler’s forthcoming book. As is my custom, I read through it prior to assigning [it] for review.” He described as a “complete fabrication” an account of a lunch at which he had speculated to his cousin Laura (“who is not my cousin but, rather, my cousin-in-law”) that he was, at that very moment, being designated successor to the editorship of the magazine. The lunch had, in fact, been described to me by several people. My account of it was harmless; it certainly had no legal implications. (McGrath’s letter had ended with “cc” to an attorney.) But I had also written that “no one, at least no writer in his right mind, [wants] to antagonize the Book Review.” I thought, What the hell. I wasn’t at the lunch. I had written, several times, about my distrust of journalism that relies, in quite this way, on “sources.” So I replaced the passage with an account of a conversation in which McGrath spoke directly to me. I framed his letter, and hung it on my wall, as a little distillation of what I thought an editor of a major publication ought never to do.

The New York Times subsequently published no fewer than eight, arguably nine, pieces about my book. The first four (on January 12, January 16, February 6, and February 13, 2000) appeared in four sections: Arts, the Sunday Magazine, Sunday Letters, and the Sunday Book Review. They were unfriendly but, apart from their sheer quantity, not particularly striking. The Arts piece, by Dinitia Smith, did mention McGrath’s letter in approving terms (“The material” to which he objected, Smith wrote, “was removed”) but added that McGrath said “he had decided to distance himself from reviews about the current New Yorker books.” What form that distancing would take, Smith did not say.

The next four pieces (April 3, April 5, April 6, and April 9, 2000) were dispersed among four more sections (Business/Financial, Editorial, Op Ed, and the Week in Review), treated as serious news, in other words, from Monday through Sunday of an entire week. It might have been, even as an episode of institutional carpet bombing, almost flattering. It seemed unlikely that the Times had ever devoted four, let alone eight, polemical pieces to a single book before. There is perhaps an explanation and a story here for both sets of pieces. Let me begin with the second set.

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 10
is a graduate of the Yale Law School and the author of seven books. A new collection, Politics, will be published in the spring.

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

  • Dan Agin

    This article needs to be read by every honest journalist (especially every honest journalist working fot the New York Times. Kudos to Renata Adler. When an institutiion devoted to truth begins to corrupt the truth to serve itself, we are all in trouble. In this case, the NYT corrupted the truth for its own ends.

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2014

The End of Retirement

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Octopus and Its Grandchildren

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Francis and the Nuns

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Return of the Strongman

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content