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"Dueling" book reviews raise eyebrows

From "Senator No" to Senator N&O 

"Dueling" book reviews raise eyebrows

The News & Observer has provided lots of publicity for Jesse Helms' paean to himself, Here's Where I Stand. And as Jesse slowly begins his exit stage right, The N&O is there to mark every movement--from "Helms' bold voice fades" to "Helms offers new take on segregation" to "Conservatives gather to pay tribute."

One or two of these stories have pointed out the hypocrisy of Helms' view of himself in his new memoir and history's view of Helms. But some of the coverage is itself starting to look like Helms' memoir--kinder, gentler and oddly fuzzy about the facts. I see signs of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' well-known stages of grief, as only the mainstream media can experience them. It starts by fudging, if not denying, the reality of Helms' race-baiting, homophobic record. It will end, I predict, a week after his death, with acceptance of Helms' role as North Carolina's greatest statesman--polarizing, perhaps, but a strong and principled conservative. And oh, that constituent service! Let us pray. One could view all of this coverage as a delightful mix and match in the marketplace of ideas. Rob Christensen bounced around like an Indian rubber ball, in one story describing Helms as "mellower and statesmanlike" in his memoir then in the next forcefully pointing out that "some see a disconnect between Helms' memoir and his role as a leading North Carolina critic of the Civil Rights movement." OK, so maybe not so forcefully. But columnist Barry Saunders--never one to pull his punches--sweetly pointed out that perhaps the kinder, gentler Jesse was starting to make deals as he moved ever closer to meeting his maker. OK, so maybe not so sweetly. But the coverage of the "old conservative lion" stopped being quite such a fuzzy delight on Sept. 11. That was the day that The N&O ran not one but two book reviews on Helms' memoir. It made the book review section look like a mutant version of Doctor Dolittle's pushme-pullyou: "Debating Jesse: Does Sen. Helms' memoir whitewash his past ... Or remind readers of his powerful principles?"

The first review was commissioned from prominent North Carolina historian Timothy B. Tyson. It was simultaneously elucidating and blistering--doing everything a book review should do. Tyson carefully read the book. Then he critiqued the book, using the historical record to show where Helms dissembled. Lied. The other review was a reprint--a badly written piece of far-right-wing cant from The American Spectator magazine's editor, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. Originally titled "Our Jesse" in the Spectator, it simultaneously fawned over Helms, then buzzed off like an angry yellow jacket as it lit off after liberals. Then it lovingly returned to its bit of Southern-fried Jesse.

Here's the problem. Newspapers don't run competing book reviews. I can't say it's never happened, but I've never seen it. Nobody I've talked to has seen it. And J. Peder Zane, the N&O book editor, says it's never happened in the eight years he's been the book editor. He does keep repeating, somewhat like a mantra, that "it was a paperwide decision." Exactly which particular "paperwide" made this decision isn't clear, but I'd lay odds that Zane's fingerprints aren't on this one. If it had been his decision, he would have at the very least run an intelligent conservative voice--not Tyrrell's ill-informed rant.

N&O Executive Editor Melanie Sill wouldn't say exactly who made the decision either but said, "I would say we had conversations." Paperwide. She called the newspaper's decision to run competing book reviews "a fresh approach."

"We're not a newspaper that stands still," Sill says. "You're going to be seeing a lot of more of this in The N&O."

Uh, oh. Please. No.

Tyson, who had worked long and hard on the review, didn't think the decision was fresh at all. He thought that The N&O hung him out to dry. He'd heard from Zane that there was much discussion about his review. That it was being held for a week while the paper decided what to do. Then he opened his Sunday N&O the next week and saw the unpleasant results of the discussion.

"I see it as an unprincipled change in a paper's policy for one book that won't be applied to other books, and the only explanation is Helms' fame, power and popularity," Tyson says. Tyson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, authored the acclaimed Blood Done Sign My Name, an account of a racist murder in 1970 that set off riots in his hometown of Oxford. At the moment, he's a visiting professor of American Christianity and Southern Culture at Duke University. He knows of what he writeth.

"It tends to marginalize the work that I had done," Tyson says. "The piece that I wrote is grounded in 20 years of work in North Carolina history." Tyson had spent hours at UNC's Southern Historical Collection, comparing Helms' record to what the senator said, and came to a firm conclusion: "It's a fundamentally dishonest book," he said.

That dishonesty is only exacerbated by The N&O's decision to run poisonous puffery next to substance. Some people say this. Some people say that. Let the reader decide. And as David Perry of the University of North Carolina Press, who edited two of Tyson's prior books, pointed out, Tyrrell's piece wasn't even a book review. "It was an attack on 'liberal' reviewers he assumed would only write about Helms out of spite." Putting Tyrrell's piece next to Tyson's, he said, "basically invited" readers to ignore the content of Tyson's review.

This kind of "balance" isn't fairness. It's pandering. This kind of editorial judgment is of a piece with what C-SPAN pulled last March when Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt was scheduled to be on Book TV. For "balance," C-SPAN producers told her, they would cover a lecture of the discredited yet frighteningly popular Holocaust denier David Irving, who had unsuccessfully sued Lipstadt for libel. C-SPAN solemnly and repeatedly invoked "fairness" and "balance," an increasingly disturbing mantra. Lipstadt refused to appear; to do so would have simultaneously promoted, in columnist Richard Cohen's words, Irving's "stew of misrepresentations, falsifications and outright quackery."

It wasn't always this way at The N&O--this anxious undercurrent, threatening to become a riptide, wanting to make sure the right wing doesn't accuse it of being too liberal. What's sad about this effort is it's destined to fail. It's looking for love in all the wrong places. And it's not about good, solid journalism--it's about trying to toe a shifting imaginary line that keeps moving underneath nervous editorial feet.

The N&O had a proud legacy. Longtime editor Claude Sitton coined the term "Senator No" because of Helms' opposition to everything progressive, from the extension of the Voting Rights Act to busing and arms control. Helms had this to say about Sitton in 1984, the year after Sitton won a Pulitzer for his years of writing on civil rights: "I would have to say that the most intellectually irresponsible editor I've ever known is Claude Sitton of the Raleigh News & Observer. He doesn't make a stab at being fair--to Ronald Reagan or to anybody who is conservative. If that's the kind of toxin (tocsin) he's going to sound, he's going to continue to poison the atmosphere."

Sitton retired from the "Nuisance & Disturber" in 1990. He's no longer there to poison the atmosphere. A pity. He was a fearless reporter, and became a fearless editor. He had strong principles. He hated segregation. He took stands. Like the spirit of Brown itself, that legacy seems gone with the wind.

As a reader, I don't always have my mind made up. I do on this one. To borrow from Lyndon B. Johnson: I may not know much, but I know chicken shit from chicken salad.

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