Who Gets to Review and Be Reviewed?

Authors, book critics drawn from narrow pool

by Steve Rendall and Zachary Tomanelli for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
Book discussions that depend so heavily on white male authors, reviewers and commentators do more than deny a full voice in the discussion to women and people of color; they also deprive all readers and viewers of exposure to the variety of experiences and sensibilities that women and people of color would bring to the discussion.

When it comes to political books, the New York Times Book Review and the C-SPAN book show After Words share an exceedingly narrow view of whose books deserve review—and who is fit to discuss them. A FAIR study found that these important media venues for discussion of newly published books were overwhelmingly dominated by white and male authors, reviewers and interviewers.

FAIR’s study examined every episode of After Words from March 2008 to January 2010, and the reviews of politically themed books in the New York Times Book Review from January 2009 to February 2010. In total, the study counted 100 episodes of After Words and 100 reviews in the Times. In each case, the author(s) and reviewer/interviewer were classified by ethnicity and gender. (Because some books had co-authors and some reviews encompassed multiple books, there were 120 authors of 111 books in the Times reviews studied.)


Ethnicity in New York Times Book Review and C-SPAN's After WordsIn terms of ethnicity, the authors and reviewers featured by both outlets were strikingly homogeneous. In the Times, 95 percent of the U.S. authors of political books were non-Latino whites, a group that makes up 65 percent of the U.S. population. The non-white U.S. authors included three African-Americans, one Asian-American (Bush legal counsel John Yoo) and one Iranian-American. Of the 12 non-U.S. authors in the Times (10 percent of the total), 10 were white British, one was Israeli and one—Tariq Ali—was Pakistani-British.

The reviewer roster at the Times was even less ethnically diverse. Just 4 percent of U.S. reviewers of political books were people of color—two African-Americans, one Indian-American and one Arab-American. Eight percent of the Times’ political reviewers were from outside the U.S., all of them either white Europeans (British, Irish and French) or Israeli.

After Words was only slightly more ethnically diverse. Whites accounted for 93 percent of the U.S. authors; among the non-white authors, all but one were black. The study found nine international authors on After Words, coming from a range of countries, including Uruguay, Kenya and India.

After Words’ interviewers were the most diverse group the study counted. Ninety-nine of the 100 were American; of these, 14 were people of color. Eleven of the American interviewers were African-American. The remaining non-white interviewers included one Arab-American, one Indian-American and one Iranian-American. The study counted one international interviewer—Moisés Naím, the editor of Foreign Policy.

The study did not find a single U.S. Latino or Native American author or reviewer in either the Times or on After Words during the periods studied.


Gender in NYT Book Review and After WordsThe numbers on gender were likewise unbalanced, with men the dominant presence in both outlets. In the Times Book Review, women made up just 13 percent of the authors of political books and 12 percent of the reviewers. After Words fared somewhat better, with women constituting 24 percent of the authors and 31 percent of the interviewers.

Among 231 reviewers and authors combined, the Times included just two women of color: PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill and history professor Bettye Collier-Thomas, both African-American authors. The Times published no women of color as political book reviewers. After Words featured women of color 11 times among the authors and interviewers on the show, accounting for 5 percent of the show’s roster; Ifill appeared twice, once as an author and once as an interviewer. (Women of color are roughly 16 percent of the U.S. population.)


The study also looked at the subject matter of the books reviewed. In both cases, books about international policy were the most prevalent, accounting for 36 percent of both the Times and After Words lists. The second and third most frequent topics on the Times list were economics (22 percent) and partisan/electoral politics (19 percent). (Books could be counted in more than one subject category.) On C-SPAN, books on history (27 percent) and military/espionage topics (19 percent) rounded out the top three.

Books pertaining to environmental issues were notably limited, accounting for 5 percent of the Times list and just 2 percent of C-SPAN’s. One of After Words’ two books on environmental themes was written by climate change denialist Christopher Horner (1/11/09).

The study looked specifically at the subjects of books authored or reviewed by women and people of color. On C-SPAN, more than three-quarters of the books with non-white (U.S. and international) authors—77 percent—centered on ethnic issues. For instance, Peniel Joseph (1/23/10), a Haitian-American Tufts University history professor, discussed his book Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. Likewise, of the 15 people of color who were invited to host After Words, nine (60 percent) did so for books about ethnic issues.

In the Times, similarly, four of the six non-white authors represented wrote books on ethnic issues—for instance, William Julius Wilson’s More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (3/8/09). About two-thirds of the non-white reviewers discussed books with ethnic topics.

Women authors and reviewers were somewhat less focused on women or women’s issues. On C-SPAN, 10 of the show’s 24 female authors spoke about such books, like Cokie Roberts (5/18/08) and her book Ladies of Liberty. Of the 31 female interviewers on After Words, 11 of them spoke to authors of books about women.

In the Times, 27 percent of female authors wrote books about women, such as Sally Denton’s The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas, a biography of the pioneering female politician (1/10/10). Of the 12 female reviewers in the Times, two of them reviewed books dealing with women.

Political Ideology

Authors and reviewers/interviewers were not classified by left/right ideology, as such categories may be quite subjective, particularly with authors and critics who may not have taken public stances on a variety of political topics. However, looking at individuals on the Times and C-SPAN rosters whose ideological classification might elicit little debate, it appears that both outlets were able to achieve some measure of ideological diversity.

For instance, the Times featured left-leaning authors like Tariq Ali and Juan Cole, centrists like Leslie Gelb and Gregg Easterbrook, and conservatives like Richard Brookhiser and Norman Podhoretz. Like-wise, Times reviewers spanned the ideological spectrum, including Patrick Cockburn and Paul Hockenos on the left, Roger Cohen and Matt Bai in the center and Ross Douthat and Christopher Caldwell on the right.

After Words’ authors included left-leaning Tom Hayden and Matt Taibbi, centrists Cokie Roberts and Brian Michael Jenkins, and conservatives George Will and Andrew McCarthy. Among its interviewers were leftists Bernie Sanders and Robert Dreyfuss, centrists David Broder and David Ignatius, and conservatives Frank Gaffney and Peggy Noonan.

Ideological diversity is vitally important, but book discussions that depend so heavily on white male authors, reviewers and commentators do more than deny a full voice in the discussion to women and people of color, who together represent well more than half the population; they also deprive all readers and viewers of exposure to the variety of experiences and sensibilities that women and people of color would bring to the discussion.

There is as great a variety of views among women and people of color as there is among white men; Peggy Noonan no more represents all women than John Yoo does all Asian-Americans. This is not a reason to neglect gender and ethnic diversity, however; it’s a reason to include enough female and non-white voices that they can enjoy the same ideological diversity the New York Times Book Review and C-SPAN’s After Words seem to provide when it comes to white males.

Research assistance by Daniel de Corral.

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This story was published on August 12, 2010.