Letter published in Columbia Journalism Review, Mar. 1991

Unreliable Review?

CJR's editors should have considered the Review's own advice before assigning David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times to review Unreliable Sources: A Guide To Detecting Bias In News Media, by FAIR associates Martin A. Lee and Norman Solomon (CJR, January/February).

In "The Unruly World of Book Reviews" (CJR March/April 1990), Steve Weinberg explored ethical standards that ought to apply to the selection of book reviewers. By choosing Shaw to review Unreliable Sources, you failed to measure up to the standards offered in that article -- for example, "the book editor's obligation to question a prospective reviewer about potential conflicts of interest." The article cites New York Times Book Review editor Rebecca Sinkler, who asks potential reviewers, "Is there any reason the author would object to you?"

Did CJR ask this question of Shaw? Ironically, according to Weinberg's article, Shaw's newspaper has ethical guidelines which assert: "If you receive for review a book by a friend or enemy, please notify the Book Review immediately."

Last year, Shaw became embroiled in a heated controversy with FAIR regarding his L.A. Times series which claimed that news coverage of abortion had a pervasive prochoice bias. FAIR challenged his methodology and accuracy, including manipulation of statistics. While debating Shaw as FAIR's executive director on southern California talk radio, I listed what FAIR viewed as mistakes in his series; he retracted one of them. Although Shaw mentioned his analysis of abortion coverage in the CJR review, he tellingly neglected to mention his debate with FAIR.

Shaw's treatment of Unreliable Sources was a predictable, ax-grinding attack by an ideologue of the political center. (Shaw holds to the centrist myth that only rightists and leftists can be biased or blinded by ideology, not centrists.) Encumbered by centrist blinders, Shaw failed to seriously examine the documentation in Lee and Solomon's book.

Shaw derides the authors of Unreliable Sources for emphasizing political and economic factors in their analysis of news distortion. The main journalistic bias, Shaw says, is bias "in favor of a good story, a juicy, controversial story that will land them on page one." But he offers no explanation as to why so many juicy stories -- like Oliver North being banned from Costa Rica after a Costa Rican congressional investigation disclosed North's links to cocaine traffickers -- rarely crack the national TV networks or the newspaper of record.

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