The Times grinds Its ax

We don't typically spend too much time looking at mainstream movie or book reviews, but I thought the cover of the New York Times Sunday Book Review was worth looking at. For one, it's written by Bill Keller, executive editor of The Times. For another, the Review has this curious note from "the editors":

Through the years, The New York Times's coverage of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican has received sharp criticism from practicing Catholics -- including the past eight years that Bill Keller has been the paper’s executive editor. Yet Keller, who wrote this week’s cover review of "Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy," by John Julius Norwich, was raised within the fold.

"My parents took their faith very seriously -- especially my mother, who had the fervor of a convert (from Episcopalian)," Keller recalled in an e-mail. "My brothers and I had nuns and priests as our teachers through high school, and I look back on that education with real gratitude. I'm now what my friend Dan Barry calls a 'collapsed Catholic' -- beyond lapsed -- but you never really extricate yourself from your upbringing."

I love that "Yet" in the first paragraph. Why "yet"? I mean, the next paragraph explains that he's "beyond lapsed" to "collapsed." If being raised in the faith is supposed to mean something about how the coverage can't be unfair, what is collapsing from it supposed to mean?

And then we read the first paragraph of the review:

John Julius Norwich makes a point of saying in the introduction to his history of the popes that he is “no scholar” and that he is “an agnostic Protestant.” The first point means that while he will be scrupulous with his copious research, he feels no obligation to unearth new revelations or concoct revisionist theories. The second means that he has “no ax to grind.” In short, his only agenda is to tell us the story.

Since when does being "an agnostic Protestant" mean that ipso facto one wouldn't have an ax to grind against the Roman Catholic Church or the papacy? But also, how does this relate to the editors note? Are we to presume that Keller does have an ax to grind since he's a "collapsed" Catholic? I know he's acted contrary to the faith in which he was raised (he and his wife aborted a son, for instance). Is that playing a role in The Times' coverage of the Catholic Church? And then, there's this famous Keller column -- "Is the Pope Catholic?"

Here's the thing: This review is not up to snuff. Many folks across the Catholic spectrum are talking about problems with the review and its uncritical look at the book in question. For instance, the book author gives quite a bit of time to a fictional incident of a female pope -- a full chapter. Keller gives another couple hundred words in his short review over to discussion of this fictional character.

The review is stunningly uncritical. I actually laughed out loud at Keller's kicker -- simply a quote from the book:

"It is now well over half a century since progressive Catholics have longed to see their church bring itself into the modern age," he writes. "With the accession of every succeeding pontiff they have raised their hopes that some progress might be made on the leading issues of the day -- on homosexuality, on contraception, on the ordination of women priests. And each time they have been disappointed."

Wow. It's almost like the author has the same lack of an ax to grind as The Times, doesn't it? Brilliant reviewer choice there, editors.

Raymond A. Schroth at America (the Catholic weekly) writes that he's a huge fan of The New York Times. And I think he's telling the truth because he even has kind words to say about Maureen Dowd.

He praises the newspaper for its tough coverage of the church. And then he asks "By what standards of journalism excellence, of book-review ethics, of scholarly common sense, did the New York Times Book Review editor select Bill Keller to review John Julius Norwich’s Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy?":

From my experience as book review editor of Commonweal in the 1970s, my several reviews on religious topics for the Times Book Review (under Harvey Shapiro), and 30 years writing for the National Catholic Reporter and other publications, I recall that the reviewer should be well informed on the book’s topic, preferably should have published on it already and, at least in some way, have a perspective that enables him to know more than the author. He should also be reasonably free of bias--or confess that bias in a way that lets him keep his credibility.

Since Keller has claimed the mantle of "collapsed Catholic" (albeit failing to explain why or whether he has been secretly studying church history), the review suffers, Schroth writes. Then he notes that Keller must not know many modern Catholics since he thinks they're ignorant of the mixed bag history of the papacy. He lists a few good books of recent vintage on the topic and names several reviewers who would do a much better review than Keller. Finally:

Why Keller was chosen remains a mystery. Maybe he volunteered and, who says no to the top editor? Maybe the book editor thought it would be fun? And if you consider an uninterrupted list of Papal sins fun, it’s fun. Meanwhile Keller has not hurt the church. He’s hurt the Times.

Note the way other reviewers handled the book. Eamon Duffy (Irish Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Cambridge) in the Times U.K.:

The Popes is an entertaining book which tells some good stories and embraces a large historical sweep. But its overall effect is curiously trivializing. The papacy depicted here is in the end unintelligible.

John Cornwell, controversial author of "Hitler's Pope" is even critical in Financial Times:

Norwich tells us that because he is an “agnostic Protestant” he brings “objectivity” to his subject. That’s like Tony Benn penning an “objective” history of the Tory party. And he has steered, he goes on, “well clear of theology”, which sounds like military history with no mention of a war. His interest is political and cultural, he maintains. Hence he fails to address the overarching significance of ecclesiology – the theological study of the spiritual role of “Vicar of Christ” as the ultimate foundation of Catholic unity and authority.

And Michael Pye, a general historian but one who has spent his career in journalism, has a lengthy review. From The Scotsman:

As entertainment, as a book of cues to find out more, The Popes is sharp, fun and wonderfully energetic through its many, many pages. The history, though, is in the archives still.

Keller does not come off well by comparison. So again, why was he chosen for this review? It was a rather odd unforced error. This cover story for the Book Review could have been brilliant. Instead it was rather embarrassing and only served to give easy fodder to Catholic critics of The Times.

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