Lack of Diversity at the NYTBR?

Media watchdog FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) has published a report titled “Who Gets to Review and Be Reviewed?” that concludes:

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.

Examining every episode of After Words from March 2008 to January 2010 and every review of politically themed books in the Times Book Review from January 2009 to February 2010, researchers Steve Rendall and Zachary Tomanelli uncovered some interesting, and rather damning, figures.

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 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.

And, on gender…

The 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.

After concluding that both the program and the paper are ideologically diverse in their political book reviews, the report says:

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.

Studies like these can be eye-openers for media organizations, laying out in black-and-white tough-to-deny figures the biases and leanings that may exist even if we don’t realize they’re there. It was certainly sobering for me to read that just four percent of U.S. reviewers in the Book Review looking at political books were people of color.

However, it is difficult to condemn either organization when the report does not delve into their motives, constraints, or reasoning. Nowhere does it ask them why their pages or airtime are made up this way.

And, equally important, there is little attempt by FAIR to quantify, in a similar way as they have with these two case studies, the diversity of the publishing world from which both the Times Book Review and After Words draw their material and ideas. It is difficult to say that either is not considering a diverse enough group of authors when we don’t know how diverse the pool of published political authors is. For all we know, your bookstore’s political section could be more whitewashed than the Times’s review pages. The newspaper may be, in fact, addressing the problem directly. Or it may not. The problem with this mostly interesting and enlightening report is that, while it astutely points out the importance of diverse perspectives, we’re still left unsure of whose fault it is that we’re not getting them. The publishers or the reviewers.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.